"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life .
—Henry David Thoreau
I've always loved Thoreau. But, if not an outright misanthrope, he was certainly not what you would call a "team player." Instead of working to change the culture he was so uncomfortable living in and opposed to (as his essay on non-violent Civil Disobedience would later influence Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to do) he escaped into the woods. His influence on the world was through his writing, not his actions.
Just as Thoreau desired to "live deliberately," Muzio counsels us to work overtly. And, instead of documenting the ills of the culture we work in (otherwise known as complaining), he teaches us to use overt purpose and action to change it. To understand Muzio, you can take the Thoreau quote above and change it to "I did not wish to undertake what was not work, time is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary." And it is never necessary.
Muzio describes six specific types of overtness, beginning his section on overt purpose by asking "What are you trying to do? It's amazing how difficult it can be to answer that question in a meaningful way ... We often overlook this question because we mistakenly assume that the answer is self-evident. It rarely is."
Now, without further digression, here is Ed Muzio.
Literally, my doorbell is dead. It's one of those battery operated wireless ones. I think it got some water in it, and it doesn't work. Plus, my front door is fifteen feet behind a locked gate, so there's no way to knock. Conventional wisdom says, if you drop by my house unannounced, you're not getting in. It's been this way for over a year and it has yet to be a problem.
I should perhaps be embarrassed by this, but I recently realized why it really doesn't matter, while giving a friend a ride across town. When my car stopped in front of our destination—a relative's house—my friend stepped out of the car, thanked me, and immediately initiated a cell phone call. As she was putting her phone away, the front door cracked open and she strolled in, carefree user of the new-age doorbell.
That's why nobody has yet complained about mine: nobody uses it anyway! Figuratively as well, the doorbell is dead. And its death has bigger implications to our daily lives than many of us care to consider.
There's a reason we call this the information age, and it's not because we're all so much smarter. It's because we all have access to so much information, at our fingertips, all the time. I can track my package, check the status of my flight, and monitor my stock portfolio or my company's financial status, all in a second, all with a click. I'm more informed than anyone in my position in history has ever been. And yet, being so informed has not made my life easier. If anything, I think I'm probably busier than a counterpart in my position would have been 20 years ago.
For one thing, I'm constantly doing things like checking the status of my packages and my flights! That didn't used to be an option, but now that it is, it seems foolish not to avail myself of it. Why in the world would I choose to be uninformed, when it's so easy to rectify my ignorance by learning exactly which city my all-important box is traversing at the moment?
Worse yet, everyone now has the expectation of immediacy. At times it feels like I'm fielding client questions and queries day and night, all of whom expect an instant answer. I pride myself on customer service, but it can be a challenge! If you supplement "client" with "customer," "manager," or "stockholder," I've probably described your job too.
And it's not just business contacts. Some loved ones have also come to expect an instantaneous reply when they call. I vividly recall a time when I returned calls to friends and family after I got home for the evening, or if it was a particularly long day, the following evening. Now, the calls come into my cell phone at all hours. If I don't respond within a few hours, I end up on the receiving end of a concerned and vaguely annoyed follow-up call: "didn't you get my message? I thought you would call me back over lunch."
The problem is, my capacity for handling information has not expanded commensurately with the information explosion. I still have only two hands, only two ears, only two eyes, and only one brain. I may read a few hundred more emails per day than I used to, but I don't read them a few hundred times faster. And my decision-making capacities still have limits as to how much information they can incorporate. For better or worse, I'm still just human.
And you, my friend, are in the same boat as I am. Admit it! You haven't grown four extra hands or two extra brains either. That's why it's crucial for all of us to walk around with a well rehearsed script of what's we're trying to do, what I call a Verbalized Summary Objective Statement, or VSO. The VSO is a script that you play to others, and to yourself, as a reminder of what you're working on. It's also a filter that helps you turn on—or turn off—your most important sources of information. And, it's a statement of your output that you can use at the end of the day to check that you're making progress. If you are, you can feel satisfaction. If you're not, you can make an adjustment. Either of those options is preferable to just going home exhausted, vaguely wondering when you started working so hard, and why you can't seem to stop.
Tomorrow morning, when you first get to your desk and before you start doing anything, see if you can articulate your purpose for the day, or maybe the week, in about 90 seconds. Try writing it down, or better yet, say it to yourself a few times until you've memorized it. Then, use your little infomercial as your blueprint for the day. Whenever you're about to engage with information -- either a source of it, or a request for it -- first check the contents of your VSO, and see how that source or request aligns with what you really want to be doing. In other words, pay attention to where you invest your mental and physical effort.
Probably, like me, you'll find that not all of what is clamoring for your attention is in line with your own priorities. Although saying "no" is never easy, it is much easier when you have a burning "yes" to focus upon instead. Now that you know where you're trying to head, you can begin to make the difficult decisions about what not to do. From here, the rest is up to you.
Actually, I do have one more suggestion. As you go through the day sorting through information, take a moment to check your calendar. If your evening plans include a visit to my house, be sure to take my cell phone number with you.
2010 Ed Muzio, author of Make Work Great
Published by the McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Edward G. Muzio, CEO of Group Harmonics, is the author of the award winning books Make Work Great: Supercharge Your Team, Reinvent the Culture, and Gain Influence—One Person at a Time and Four Secrets to Liking Your Work: You May Not Need to Quit to Get the Job You Want. An expert in workplace improvement and its relationship to individual enjoyment, Muzio has been featured on Fox Business Network, CBS, and other national media, and he has been cited in many publications including the New York Post, the Austin American Statesman, and Spirit magazine. He lives in Albuquerque, NM.