About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Brace of Business Books

So much for this not being a particularly personal blog; somehow, it seems all the weird quirks of my personality are leaking out in what I read. Today, you get to see yet another of my strange habits: my weakness for self-help/ "how to" books. Once upon a time, when I was young and (more) foolish, I really did believe that each one I checked out of the library or picked up at the corner bookstore was Really It -- this was The One that was finally going to help me lose weight, make more friends, succeed professionally, you name it. (Several years ago, Jennifer Niesslein poked some less-than-completely gentle fun at the self-help industry that promotes these attitudes in her book Practically Perfect in Every Way: My Misadventures Through the World of Self-Help and Back -- which I found pretty amusing, at least until I got fed up with the author's recurring comments about how her own life really is the next best thing to perfect that I opted not to finish it.)

Anyway, those optimistic-bordering-on-delusional days are long past now, but I do still enjoy a good self-helper now and then -- mostly as cultural artifacts, to see how the authors define problems or conflicts, who they seem to be targeting, and what they're proposing in terms of solutions. Soo ... without further ado, I bring you:

#13 - Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen. OK, yet another true confession: I'm a big sucker for these "how to manage your time, your work, and your life" advice books. I love, love, love me some lists, calendars, and spreadsheets. I get a rush from my Saturday morning housecleaning blitz. I start my workday with a cup of coffee in one hand and a to-do list in the other, and probably end it with a revised, color-coded, prioritized to-do list and an empty but still unwashed cup. (Yes, my friends & family remind me often that there's a word for people like this.)

But no matter how many time-management/ organization books and articles I read, I can't seem to help myself; a new one crosses my path, and before I know it, I'm a few chapters in. This one was a good start, if you're looking for some basic advice on how to manage your time and work, but certainly not the comprehensive life-changing system it purports to be, and of limited use for folks whose work leans heavily toward complex, long-term projects. Allen's main thesis seems to be that if you gather everything that's currently on your radar screen -- projects, paperwork, reading material, stuff to file -- and process it using his decision tree, you'll gain control over your work and reduce your stress level. The decision tree looks something like this:

Is it actionable?

> No -- well, then, do one of the following:

-->Trash it

-->File it for reference

-->Put it in your maybe/ someday tickler file, for possible future action

> Yes -- in that case, will it take less than 2 minutes?

-->If yes, just do it.

--> If no, do one of the following:

---->Delegate it

---->Defer it, for action at some later time

Not rocket science, but the basic premise makes some sense. Allen also offers a few isolated tips that did seem like they'd be broadly applicable. These include using your calendar only for meetings and tasks that really need to be completed on a certain day, rather than for writing and rewriting the same list of things you'd like to do over and over each day when they don't all get done; keeping separate lists of calls you need to make and items on which you're waiting for a response or action from someone else (the former so you can crank through them all when you're near a phone; the latter so you don't lose track of things you've farmed out elsewhere); and keeping your list of action items separate from your reference/ stuff to read file and your maybe/ someday file. I also appreciate that his system can be pretty low-tech; you can use a computer- or PDA-based list and calendar system if you want, but it works just as well with pencil and paper.

IMO, the major shortcoming of Allen's approach is that it doesn't address how one juggles multiple, constantly changing priorities (a hallmark of every place I've ever worked), and doesn't really offer much for the person whose work mostly involves getting assigned lots of complex projects which are defined only in broad terms, and having to figure out the details on their own. To be fair, he does concede the latter point to some extent: there are many project-management guidebooks and software packages out there, most of which are far too technical to be of use to the majority of people who use them, and this book isn't intended to be one. In most middle- to upper-level management positions, however, even after you've weeded out everything that isn't an action item (because it's waiting for someone else's response, reference materials, done and gone in 2 minutes, or relegated to the tickler file) -- you're still left with a long and largely undifferentiated list of actions, and Allen doesn't offer much in the way of how to prioritize these or whether and how to plan the intermediate steps of a longer project (e.g., implement document imaging system) beyond the first "next action" on your list (e.g., search the internet for vendors and prices).

In summary, the book may be useful to someone who's either new to the workforce (or to the white-collar, office-based workforce) or who's totally clueless about time and workflow management, but doesn't really offer much for folks at a higher level and/or who do a lot of project work. 2 out of 5 bookmarks.

#14 - One Person/ Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success, by Marci Alboher. Here's another one that would probably be shelved somewhere in the same ball park as the above, based on LoC or DD classification (disclaimer: I am not a librarian), but with a different focus. Specifically, if you have a passion in life that isn't what you do to earn a living, and have mused about finding a way to better integrate the 2, this book is a decent place to start. However, it's short on concrete advice, and what it does offer is probably only realistic for a privileged few. The thesis consists mostly of anecdotes of a variety of people working in what Alboher calls slash careers: a psychotherapist/ violin maker, computer programmer/ theater director, teacher/ male model, lawyer/ minister, and so on. She uses their experiences, coupled with some fairly vague take-home points, to suggest that almost anyone with a passion that's not their day job can create a "slash life" for themselves if they're flexible, determined, and have a touch of entreprenurial spirit.

Certainly an interesting idea, and I can certainly see that if you've been starting to burn out on your 9-to-5, and wishing you could somehow be as excited about your job as you are about your [painting/ dancing/ horseback riding/ insert your hobby here], this book might be the spark you need to start thinking about whether and how that might be possible. And some of the advice did seem fairly broadly applicable; for example, the suggestion that almost everyone can teach, speak, or write about their passion, especially if you start small and for little or no pay; and the illustrations of how several different people kept a hand in a primary job to pay the bills while they got a second off the ground. That said, my own "will it play in Peoria?" test for business/ cultural advice like this is, will it fly for the working class? Alboher, herself an attorney/ writer/ speaker, doesn't really address this point, but I think the answer is no. Granted, she does offer several examples where half of someone's slash is a blue-collar profession: a longshoreman/ filmmaker, police officer/ landscaper, and so on. However, the vast majority of her examples are folks with at least one career that's both lucrative and offers a lot of opportunity for private practice/ self-employment -- law, computer programming, medicine, and so on. And frankly, the few blue collar slashes she includes are not a representative sample of the jobs available to folks without college degrees; they're concentrated in the few remaining bastions of strong unions, overwhelmingly male, and offer/ require extremely flexible schedules. Trust me, as the sister of two firefighter/ housepainter/ bartenders, one of whom can also add / lawyer to that list (yes, you read that correctly), I get how a cop's or firefighter's schedule is very conducive to picking up a second or third job ... but I also don't think it'd work for someone who stocks the shelves at Wal-Mart or cleans bathrooms in the local Econo-Lodge. Heck, I've got a master's degree, and it wouldn't work for me ... my field is pretty much 9-to-5, year-round, and especially if you need health insurance or other benefits, part-time options are pretty darned slim.

All right, that's a bit of a tangent. Bottom line, One Person/ Multiple Careers is a conversation starter, even if that conversation may initially be with yourself. If you're fortunate enough that you either aren't financially dependent on a single full-time job (or more), or work in a field that's not always Mon-Fri 9-5, it's worth considering ... though this book alone won't tell you much about how to get there if you do decide that's what you want. 2 out of 5 bookmarks.

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