Keeping it together

It was the arrival and popularization of paper-based daily planners that marked the beginning of the rapidly developing movement to centralize all the key activities of our lives – to rationalize, integrate, track, and control them. Packaged in various sizes and bindings, these began by combining our address books, to-do lists, calendars, and notes.

As time went on, sections could be added for project planning and tracking, organizing business cards, and on occasion other specialty purposes promoted by various and sundry consultants. As a rule, the latter began to take on a largely unwelcome portion of our time, further burdening rather than lightening our loads, becoming themselves a cumbersome, confusing daily responsibility.

Generally, the ones that survive to this day are those that most effectively focus on the actual core organizational aids we require to maintain clarity and control with the minimum of time and fuss. Indeed, in an age of amazingly efficient and intuitively fluid electronic devices, intelligently designed and effectively focused daily planners remain the preferred choice of many highly efficient managers.

My first one was a large size, using full-sized stationary. Being able to take notes in it easily took priority over being able to fit it in a pocket. Partially as a result, it offered plenty of room for project-planning/tracking and notes sections, as well as enabling me to organize separate projects in their own sections.

It was by my side wherever I went. It was a combination data-base, information resource, and journal. It was at hand whenever and wherever ideas came to mind, enabling me to jot down tasks or mind-map new plans. It was a great asset, and I used it for years. It saved me immeasurable time, not to mention affording me incalculable clarity in my daily work.

Over time, I would take calendar pages from previous years and archive them in a standard notebook binder I kept in my home office. Notes for the memories.

But then the computer revolution began making inroads into every corner of our lives, including this one. This revolution brought with it a terrific array of wonderful innovations, but the key ones of interest to us here are those that combine concentration and integration of information with its synchronized distribution across various platforms.

Also worth noting, the information these devices could gather, organize, and present to us became much more comprehensive and flexible. This is what will bring us to the main purpose of this site.

And we’ll begin discussing why, next. See you then!

What I was listening to while writing this post: The brilliant and vibrantly creative Brad Mehldau’s “The Art of the Trio, Volume One.” The Art of the Trio, Vol. 1 - Brad Mehldau

Keeping track

When I first began my military career, it was common among us to use a single hardcover green notebook to record all notes, taskings, background information, and the like from meetings for later reference when organizing one’s personal responsibilities in the undertaking at hand. This was helpful enough, and served a very useful role as a sort of professional journal, as events moved on from one endeavor to another, guiding and informing our specifically defined individual roles in each one.

But when I later was assigned my first staff position, this approach proved distinctly insufficient to the decidedly different nature of the job. Now, my work wasn’t an end product in and of itself, directed at one separate project after another. It was the development and coordination of multiple projects of varying purpose and scope performed by others of widely ranging assignments and organizational relationships to me.

This was some while ago, well before, certainly, the current age of sophisticated and highly specialized computerized organizers – even before the general advent of paper-based daily planners. The typical tools available were desktop calendar pads, the sort where you tore off the page for the month just gone by to reveal the next one, maybe with a small task list down one side (I was once was advised to save the torn off months, rather than just toss them, in order to have a reference archive of sorts; seemed at the time like a brilliant idea, almost out-of-the-box). A sort of luxury, ordinarily marketed to senior executives or those who wanted to be seen as such, were daily or weekly agenda books with sections in the back containing unit-conversion data, area codes, and information about various cities around the country or the world. That, for most of us, was the state of the art available.

But it nevertheless clearly wasn’t good enough to help me stay on top of my current job. So I wound up getting a stenographer’s notepad and consolidating on it all of my taskings from all of my various projects. Back at my desk after every meeting or other development, I would go through my notes and simply list on the steno pad any to-do items, any responsibilities at all that could be expressed as discrete action items.

I found that attempting to organize these into themes, projects, and administrative categories resulted in hairsplitting classification conundrums that just became more-or-less pointless ends in themselves, sidelining the actual process – even running the risk of over-organizing with the result that items got lost in perfectly classified but forgotten corners – so I just listed them as I uncovered them. The result was a complete, albeit unorganized, list of everything I had to do.

Even in this original raw state, the comprehensive to-do list had many benefits. First, it centralized all of my action items – things I had to do. No more sorting through various piles of notes or scanning my green notebook trying to pick out what I ought to be working on.

Second, it forced me to regularly review the full scope of my activities. At the beginning of the day, or whenever I had a block or even just a moment of time available, I would quickly scan the entire to-do list. This served to refresh my awareness of the overall status of my project portfolio, to prioritize according to time-sensitivity and availability, and to select the right action item for immediate prosecution. Sometimes this would simply be the first one down the list that could be done at that time, but it always represented meaningful forward movement rather than dithering about what to do, or even procrastination arising from not having an actionable sense of where to start. The invariable result was that an item was struck off the list, which was then scanned for the next one.

Third, the process of assembling these tasks into a centralized list and scanning them regularly for execution served the very important function of leaving me continually assured that I had captured them all – there was nothing I had failed to note, or that I was forgetting to do; they all were systematically identified and culled out of meeting and other event notes, then regularly scanned for execution. This offered a very valuable reserve of clarity and focus while working, unencumbered by anxiety that something important was being missed.

Interestingly, even at this stage, I used to receive appreciative comments about the organization I was bringing to the position. All because of a completely simple and unsystematic, but centralized and comprehensive to-do list.

Eventually, I began to put items on it that referred me to the filing cabinet for named folders built for specific projects. Other staffers who were in technical fields tended to have professionally designed – even structurally complex – folders for organizing their projects. But I was a generalist, and mine weren’t especially sophisticated; each was in a simple manila folder, which opened to notes loosely placed on the right, and a project to-do list paper-clipped on the left. The main to-do list would contain particularly sensitive action items in this or that project folder, and include a direct cue to pull and update the particular project folder while performing the task.

This ran the previously noted risk of decentralizing, and thus losing track of and failing to execute, particular tasks. I managed, however, to keep it sufficiently unsophisticated to avoid over-organizing to the point that items became lost in too-artfully classified pigeon-holes, or that the organizing process itself ate up time better used for execution.

It was many years later that those dedicated daily planners came along, just in time for my next major staff assignment. We’ll look at that next.

But as we continue, note that we’re going to find that the heart of any organizer system ultimately resolves to the level of straightforward tasks; keeping track of their presence, their priority, and their execution – and, as noted, availing ourselves of the composure and clarity afforded by the confidence that this has been and is being done (please click here for a review of the best book written so far on this still under-appreciated topic).

And, since this is, after all, a review site primarily directed at literature, music, and others of the arts, as well as of the devices we use to appreciate these, we’re going to ultimately see how the one can integrate with the other.

What I was listening too while writing this post: Innovative jazz pianist Bill Evans’s fascinating “Conversations with Myself”   Conversations

Artifacts and attitudes

There is a distinctly unproductive – sometimes, even, dangerous – tendency to promote the view that we are all the same around the world. We are assumed to have the same hopes, instincts, aspirations, fears, capabilities, potentials. We are all, it is argued, prompted to action by the same concerns, responsive to the same incentives, alerted to the same insights by the same social and environmental cues.

Indeed, in many ways it can be argued that the United States is proof of this. It is composed, after all, of immigrants from every physical and cultural corner of the world. If we in the States can, after a fashion at least, communicate and get along, why can’t we all internationally?

But as discussed in another post on the Managing Leadership Blog, artifacts produced by one culture are not necessarily easily comprehended – or even used – in another. Often, the very proclivity to perceive a problem, not to mention a solution, is a societal characteristic unique to the producing culture – an artifact itself. At least as often, as depicted in the referenced post, the hidden nature of the artifact – its conception, production, maintenance – are themselves cultural artifacts that are so bound up with the physical one that they cannot be separated – even distinguished – from it.

Such an artifact cannot be used sustainably without the culturally unique attitudes that conceived and produced it, and that thus enable its producers to use and maintain it. Their meaning and value degrade as their distance increases culturally from their origin.

There are exceptions, of course – at least apparently. Many movies and television series do very well outside their cultural homes (although even then the way they are perceived can be surprisingly different than expected). Many consumables, from cell phones to household products – even cars – do the same.

But many don’t. Neither the artifacts (products) or attitudes about them (assumptions about their use, maintenance, and marketing) survive travel beyond their home borders. This is an important theme in management development in today’s international economy.

But it also points to a fascinating and revealing way to appreciate our cultures and ourselves, by thinking about how we use our artifacts – and how we use those not native to our own societies.

We will be looking in these pages, certainly, at artifacts in and of themselves. We often will review them simply as they are. Inevitably, however, we will also look at the meanings of the ways we regard and use them; at how and why our artifacts and our attitudes relate to each other.

Please do join in.

Evaluating artifacts

Initially frustrated by the periodic desire to write about books that don’t warrant reviews on the Managing Leadership Blog, the idea for the current site began to take form. As time went by, the scope took at once a more comprehensive and more coherent shape, and the decision was made to go ahead.

So, here it is: Managing Meanings.

Following is a brief overview of what I have in mind:

General offerings:

  • Commentary on topics as they occur to me – not necessarily reviews of specific things
  • Straight reviews of books, music, other expressions of culture and art, and also of the devices by means of which we approach these, such as those that fall in the categories listed below
  • Essays on what the reviewed items say about us and our culture
  • Reviews that take the form of such essays

Reading device reviews

  • In depth
  • Periodic comparisons

Music device (principally portable or computer-related) reviews

  • Players
  • Speakers
  • Earphones
  • In depth and periodic comparisons

Cell phones

  • Features
  • Applications
  • In depth and periodic comparisons

That will probably turn out to not be a comprehensive list, but it is enough to get going.

So, we will be looking at these as products in and of themselves. But bearing in mind that they are, after all, not just stand-alone items, but cultural artifacts – we will also stop now and then to look at what the wider meanings might be that they carry for themselves, our society, and us.

Please be sure to offer your own ideas, or to tell me – now, and as time goes on – where you think I’m going wrong.