Thursday, February 02, 2006

Happy New Year 4703! ... It's only a matter of time


The Chinese New Year has begun and (I've learned) this very big celebration continues in China (and the Chinese diaspora worldwide) all week (at least). (We're trying to learn more about Chinese culture, of course, because we are adopting a little girl from China.) There's a lot of preparation and hope for the new year: wishes and spiritual traditions intended to increase prosperity, fortune, etc. A lot of what I've learned about so far seems to be about improving the future through pleasing the gods and encouraging good fortune, rather than, as in Western tradition, making plans and resolutions. Well, hackneyed as the observation is, New Year's resolutions for many are easily sloughed off or abandoned. Maybe we might as well leave the new year to God or fate.

My resolutions? Same deal: already kind of wilting. I keep my resolutions in my PDA (Palm, Handheld, "Palm pilot," as you wish ...) and have gotten to the point where I don't even write new ones. Around the first of the year, when I think of it, I just go back and read the ones I wrote four years ago.

Exercise? It's in there. Organize? Yes. Write. Yes. It all comes down to time management. If I managed my time, I'd already be doing all of these things.


I have a problem with time management. I have as long as I can remember. When I was in elementary school, for example, I was usually one of the last ones in the lunch room, still slowly eating. Despite the clever behavioral strategies of my elders -- like allowing me to take my time every day, but calling me "pokey" -- the problem was somehow not rectified in this early stage.

Over the years, a number a useful structures have helped me cope with the problem. Things like ringing bells to tell you when to leave class and be in another one. Deadlines like "if you don't hand this in by 10a.m. on Tuesday, your work will be marked 'F'". Buses leaving if you're not there on time, and so forth. It all makes me a little nervous, but it's brilliant stuff!

In the jobs I have had over the years, either time management wasn't a big hindrance, or it was imposed on me by structures like those mentioned above. For example, when I taught elementary school, there were those handy bells again. Not to mention the kids most of whom, shockingly, weren't terribly interested in staying an extra 15 minutes if I wanted to cover some more really great material. Of course once the bells stopped ringing, and I had to start planning lessons, marking papers, etc., etc., etc., the problem would eagerly devour my free time. Then I would get totally anxious from stress. (Till my wife convinced me to go on something for the anxiety. Now I still putz. I just don't care that I'm putzing. OK, I do care. I'll be right there. Let me just finish this paragraph.)

Now that I am a stay-at-home dad and househusband: time management: forget about it. Yes, my son's needs have always been as loud and compelling as those bells, I assure you. But the erraticism in between ... well, I need a new manager. My "Personal Digital Assistant" (PDA, Palm, etc.) is trying really hard and sometimes helps, but the human factor is always looming. It's not as much GIGO (garbage in, garbage out -- as is the problem with most technology) but GIIGIO (good intentions in, gross indifference out). I've tried the "Terminator" theme alarm, but apparently need an even more stern manager. ("Ahh-nold" himself, of course, is taken. Lucky you, California.)


My wife, by contrast, is quite efficient most of the time. She probably could be all the the time; I think my atrocious abilities in this area have (a) provided poor role modeling and (b) engendered a sense of entitlement (you putz, I putz).

At work her efficiency has served her well. Nevertheless, like in many bureaucracies -- corporate or civil -- she must justify her time to the administrators and the consultants. Recently, she had a "position evaluation". It is distinct from the "performance evaluation", about how the employee is doing in her or his position.

The position evaluation consists of considering the responsibilities of the position and whether the salary is appropriate. In my wife's case, it involved writing a report on her own position. Now, of course, this is fabulously useful input. Any employee would be more than happy to conclude that actually the organization is wasting money on her or his position. I'm quite sure reports often read, "My job has gotten much easier recently. The more I analyze it, much of what I do is of considerably less value to the organization than I originally thought. The pay for this position should be cut by 20%. Moreover, much of what I do is completely unnecessary, so I strongly urge you to cut my position to part-time, allowing you to pro-rate my benefits. This will rightly save our great institution even more greatly needed money." Happens all the time I'm sure.

Oh I'm sure that, once in a while, someone writes something about their work getting more challenging and cumbersome, being worth a higher salary. Pretty rare, I'm sure.

Now, I suppose it wouldn't matter much, common scruples notwithstanding, if everyone worked conscientiously to their full potential. However, I think everyone knows -- or has heard -- of at least one person who is not quite that diligent.


One such person sticks out in my mind. I wouldn't mind volunteering to write his report for him. Some of the highlights would be:

I am responsible for procedural knowledge in my area, but since (though I have had this position for 15 years) I still know little about the area, I have delegated any work requiring detailed background knowledge to my office manager and staff. Occasionally I make "important" procedure changes, to maintain control of my staff, but due to my incredible and unexpected ignorance in my field, these changes usually have to be adapted by others, or redone. Almost none of them are necessary in the first place. To fill in my time, I often do tasks like make extensive copies of my own paperwork, and other tasks that could be done by clerical staff at a fraction of my pay rate.

The way I have shifted and manipulated my workload allows me to get a lot of personal stuff done right here at work. For example, I enjoy keeping up on current events, so I frequently read the newspaper in my office. Whether I have been quite consciously playing the system or in total denial about my near worthlessness as a manager in this organization is not something I care to discuss. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that I've been fleecing the organization for all I possibly can. Please release me, effective immediately, without severance pay. Relocate the funds used to pay my salary to those people who are actually doing my job, and hire a clerical worker or two to make those copies. As penance, I plan to move to a developing country where I shall work in a mine for less than a dollar per day. Neither you, nor — more importantly — the employees who have had to suffer under my regime of incompetence and shirking will ever have to lay eyes on my menacing visage ever again.

Thank you for your time.


Having discussed my wife's position evaluation recently, I was reminded of when I taught school and had to participate in a time study. The administration was trying to leave teachers' preparation time at status quo or even cut it, while teachers wanted to increase preparation time, claiming workload had increased (due to the raising of standards, change and frequent additions to the curriculum). So they decided to confront the matter objectively: the time study, a study of logs, filled out by the teachers, listing what they did all day for a week, how long it takes them, etc.

I don't remember exactly what happened. Probably teachers wrote really candid journals like this:

3:10pm - returned to classroom after goading Toby for the 50th time so he wouldn't miss the bus. Corrected 4 writing papers.
3:15 - Rushed to staff meeting. Listened to principal go on and on about naive new programs designed to make administrators feel more useful for solving complicated problems.
3:35 - Listened to principal pretend that administration will want and use our input on new programs.
3:45 - Listened to teachers complain about new programs, knowing full well input will be ignored. Listened to teachers veer off the subject 8 times.
4:10 - Heard principal say we'll likely need another meeting to discuss programs in more depth. Listened to principal go over important procedural information, taking 3 times as long as necessary.
4:30 - Began to daydream.
4:40 - Saw a few people quietly leave meeting, mumbling something about being late for a meeting.
4:45 - Meeting ends. Walked to classroom intent on organizing Thursday's science lesson.
4:47 - Saw colleague. Stopped to complain about meeting.
5:09 - Began complaining about principal
5:18 - Began complaining about central administration.
5:25 - Walked into classroom. Filled out this "time study" log.
5:40 - Looked at clock. Felt wave of discouragement. Decided to pack up and go home.
8:30pm - Began correcting 5th writing paper.
. . .

Maybe, after studying the log, everyone had a really honest discussion about the synergistic problems in time management on all sides. A bold new program was implemented that really worked, and everyone was more efficient and happier.

Or maybe everyone wrote what they wanted the administration to read, a political wrangle ensued, a compromise was reached: an extremely complicated and confusing new program which people will complain about in hallways until the next time study is done.

One or the other.


So if any of you want to volunteer to supervise my work here at home, great. We could start by evaluating my position, rating my performance, and then doing a time study. I can't afford to compensate you to supervise me personally, except very occasionally. Since I am an adult, and not your 14 year old son, I will, of course, require prior notice, so that I can make sure to be doing my best work when you arrive.

What? You're too busy writing some kind of self-assesement for your bosses and their consultants.

That's OK. A better idea! To save money, I could just do my own assessment and time study, and implement a bold, new plan -- all using my "Palm Pilot."

Thanks to the Chinese lunar calendar the new year has just begun! Look out 4703!

Ahhhh! Changes are afoot!

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