More thoughts by Tim Brown
When I was fourteen I got a job as a terrible waiter, at a pizza place near my house.
Saturdays were the best. Before early shifts I ate two fresh, warm Sicilian slices from the big brick oven. I'd spend the day helping to make dough, chop vegetables, and fold boxes. Late shifts began in the lazy afternoon hours. I had time to get the dining room ready, and I even learned a few things in the kitchen while we waited for customers.
One Saturday afternoon, two old ladies came in and asked for tea. They were my first customers that day, but I was ready. I poured water into two glass mugs and microwaved them. Put a Lipton tea bag on each saucer. Brought out the tea, milk, and sugar. Having tea at a pizza place is pretty weird, but we were officially a "ristorante". So.
A few minutes later, from the kitchen, I heard the old ladies calling for me.
"Waiter! This tea tastes like poison."
I didn't know what to say. What was it supposed to taste like? I didn't have much experience. So I apologized and consulted my boss, Nick.
Nick was a football player in college. He moved around the kitchen like a bowling ball. He could put his arm in the oven to move stuff around, and he washed his hands with scalding water. When he cooked, he looked like bombs had hit him and failed to do any damage.
"They said the tea tastes like poison," I said, not an hour after I had dropped a crate of portobello mushrooms in the back room and made Nick furious.
He smelled the tea. I mentally retraced my steps and wished I had thought to do so before talking to Nick. I did everything the way he'd shown me. The tea bags were new. The milk was fresh. The water was from a pitcher we kept at the coffee station.
"Did you rinse out the pitcher?" he asked.
"It was full already." I said.
"That was vinegar." he said. "You served them straight vinegar."
The rest is a blur. I think Nick and I laughed about it. Of course I gave the old ladies new tea, with water, and we didn't charge them.
I guess there's a lesson in there about being prepared, not making assumptions. Verifying the quality and condition of materials before starting a project. But every so often I just laugh out loud at those poor old ladies I poisoned.
Sometimes it’s difficult to get things done, and no book or software or advice or alarm or sticky note or anything can make it easier. Even when you have a system in place for remembering things at the right time, in the right place. Even when you eat and sleep right, have enough energy, love the work you’re doing, and look forward to the outcome. Even when everyone is rooting for you.
For me, there are two reasons for that difficulty: curiosity and laziness.
Curiosity distracts me from doing things I have promised myself and others that I would do. On the other hand, succumbing to curiosity almost always energizes me and makes me happy; it is often the spark I need to get other things done, and occasionally produces life-changing results. The constant evaluation of each pursuit’s potential worth and cost is maddening, and at the same time invigorating.
Laziness is hitting the snooze button — an active unwillingness to overcome inertia and throw myself into the mental battle of curiosity and promises. But it’s also a kind of self-deception, a tide of my own making that ebbs and flows while things I care about — goals, trust — lay scattered on the shore, ready to be lifted and lost. Overcoming laziness can feel like moving the moon.
So I kiss my wife, hug my children, joke with my family and friends. I listen to music and stories. I read and exercise. I remind myself why I care. I think about people whose lives are much harder than mine, I imagine what real difficulty is like, and I try to withstand the inevitable oppressive guilt that comes with empathy. Then I try to get things done.
On some special days that live in the lore of my family, friends, and notebooks, it all works out. I move the moon, curiosity and promises align, and a life-changing spark stirs a fire inside me that warms every single aspect of my life. The real difficulty of getting things done is that I want every day to be one of those days, and the only thing in the way is me.
“Do the thing I’m excited to do, or do what needs to get done? Answer: get excited about what needs to get done.”
I wrote that a few weeks ago, and I thought I’d write a few more words about how I change gears mentally to focus on something that requires my attention.
Several years ago, when I worked at Vassar College, I was having lunch with a guy from IT — Phil. He was telling me about some tedious database queries he was working on. Phil was looking forward to getting the job done so he could move on to something else. It didn’t seem like he was having much fun.
Earlier that day, I happened to overhear a colleague in the communications department describe the project she was working on: a feat of content strategy that involved getting faculty bio information into one editable place and publishing the same bio to many different Vassar sites. It was going to make maintenance easier, keep bios consistent across sites, and allow faculty members to edit their own bio content. But to pull it off, she needed IT to run some database queries.
So I told Phil why he was doing those database queries. Turns out he got the assignment from his boss, who hadn’t explained the reasoning behind the task. Phil’s face lit up. He thought the project was awesome, and felt proud to be a part of it. Our five-minute chat totally changed how he felt about doing his work.
I think about that whenever my work feels like a chore. Sometimes all you need is to remember that your efforts are part of something bigger, and that getting your job done matters to someone.
Before the sun came up on Saturday, I was at my table with a mug of coffee, notebooks open, and laptop at arm’s length. Earlier in the week, my pocket guide was published. My talk was evolving steadily. I was mostly caught up on day-to-day work. So, it was time to figure out what to work on next. I wrote down every exciting project that was on my mind, and soon had a list of a dozen or so potential goals.
“Now what?” I thought.
Said good morning to Eileen and the girls. Drove my truck to the dealership to have it serviced. In the waiting area at the car dealership, I grouped my goals by their underlying purpose and labeled the groups: concepts, practice, tools, teaching. Seemed like a nice mix of stuff. Two of my 13 goals were not in groups, so I stopped paying attention to them. If they’re important, they’ll come up again.
Looked at my calendar — three commitments in the next few months. Those will require preparation and interrupt my work and home routines, so I should plan on getting less done overall. On a piece of paper, I listed May, June, and July, with some space in between. Jotted down my commitments in their approximate time slots. Added tasks related to those commitments. Finished the complimentary dealership coffee (hurk).
Next to my timeline of months and tasks, I listed some of the goals. Seeing them next to the timeline helps me figure out whether its realistic to get them done in that span of time, given my other commitments. I chose to pursue only five goals, representing three of my four purposeful groups. Can’t do everything.
Drove back home. Listened to Back to Work while I did some yard work. Spent the day with my family.
Up early again on Sunday with that familiar what-should-I-work-on feeling, except now I have answers. I’ve already thought about what’s exciting, whether different projects have a purpose, and what my available time looks like. I stick to the goals I chose yesterday. If I see something on Twitter that I want to read or research, or someone emails me with a new opportunity, I measure the value of that new thing against the value of sticking to my goals; If now’s not the time for the new thing, I think about it the next time I’m setting goals.
Here are the dates of Tim Brown's future thoughts
- Sunday, 26 May
- Thursday, 6 June
- Saturday, 6 July
- Tuesday, 6 August
- Friday, 6 September
- Sunday, 6 October
- Wednesday, 6 November
- Friday, 6 December