In Pursuit of Awesome: The Perils of a Reactionary Workflow

I got an amazing response to my In Pursuit of Awesome post, here and on Geek Feminism. It’s inspired me to write a series of posts where I explore some of the tips I wrote about and related topics in more depth.

After The Rain
Credit: flickr / kimili

I ran into my manager from IBM the other week. He gave me some really good advice:

If you say yes to everything, you allow other people to determine your priorities.

This is something to bear in mind as you approach capacity and have to start saying “no”.

Someone I mentor and an organization I work with had that issue lately. Her “friend” manipulated her into running a project. It was stressful for a number of reasons:

  1. She felt manipulated, and guilty that she had ended up in this situation. In the same situation as she was in, I would have ended up in the same position. It was hardly her fault, and the only person who should have been feeling guilty was her “friend” (of course, he wasn’t).
  2. The other people involved in the project were not treating her well. The woman she reported to was disgustingly rude to her and in general was not respectful of her time – turning up late to meetings because she was “so busy”, etc. When saying yes means saying no to other things, and the people you’ve said yes to don’t seem to appreciate that, it’s frustrating. And not a good situation to be in. Saying yes to this did not only affect my mentee, it also affected what we said yes to as an organization because many of our resources were invested in it. As a result, their disrespect of her, also seemed like a disrespect to all the people we are supposed to serve. At the end, they didn’t even say thank-you. I was – and still am – furious.
  3. The project did not align with the priorities of our organization. My mentee was with me when my former manager dispensed this advice, and it struck a chord with us because it was apparent that in manipulating her into taking on this project, her “friend” had determined her priorities – and the priorities of our organization.

All this meant that when things were rough, my mentee didn’t have a story to tell herself as to why it was worthwhile. Instead, she had feelings of guilt and betrayal about getting involved in the first place. Eventually, she was so upset, after her supervisor was really horrible to her (essentially berating her for not being psychic) that she was on the phone to me at 1 in the morning a couple of days before the preparation ended and the three day event began. It was then that we talked about the base case: that she had fulfilled her commitment, and the commitment of our organization and she wasn’t going to allow this supervisor to speak to her that way. She could walk away.

She made that clear, and I was really proud of her for standing up to these people. I want to give you a happy ending – but there wasn’t one. There was a truce. The outright rudeness stopped, but my mentee still wasn’t appreciated, and wasn’t treated with the respect she deserved for the tremendous amount of effort she put in. In the end she learned some tough lessons – she won’t work with that organization again. I hope she’ll also be more wary of this “friend”.

I think we both learned about the worse case result of allowing other people to determine our priorities. I have personally been tremendously lucky in terms of the opportunities that have presented themselves to me, and the experiences I’ve had. I’ve allowed other people to determine my priorities, but it’s worked out very well for me. However, this came just as I’m thinking about having to be more selective in what I say yes to, and this experience reinforced that message.

The perils of a reactionary workflow have long been clear to me – being reactive means jittering from task to task. I’m not a manager. I’m a programmer, and sometimes a writer – for those things, focus is crucial. I avoid a reactionary workflow like the plague. For example, I tell people I’m terrible at email. This has been the case since I realized that being responsive to email was causing a reactionary work-flow and, er, stopped responding to it. For quite some time, I only checked email once a week. However, a couple of days ago I finally got to the backlog of *cough* several months *cough* and realized that actually I wasn’t that bad at it. The important stuff had been dealt with – mostly I was filing and deleting. To me, being good at email means spending the least possible time on it. By setting expectations really low, people are happy when I respond at all and people who know me make an effort to communicate by other means. Result, I spend probably about 15 minutes a day on email, with the majority of that being on my iPhone (so in non-productive time).

However, making an effort to avoid a reactionary workflow with respect to email, that’s all for nothing if I say yes to everything and don’t determine my own priorities.

The first thing is to know what my priorities are. What’s important to me?

  1. Finish grad school. Seriously, I need this to end.
  2. Working towards mastery as a software artist. Maybe I will eventually end up in another area, but I love working in tech. I love to feel like I’m creating things that make people’s day’s a little brighter, or easier.
  3. Giving back, in a way that maximizes my impact on things important to me: the community in places where I live, and women in CS and Engineering as my wider community.

I don’t have a balanced life. I don’t think I want to. But there are things that are important to me that all need to have some time: my priorities above, my health (the gym!), and my friends, family and significant other.

My top priority right now is 1. I don’t know that I’m doing a good job of making it number 1, but in my head it’s the most important thing. 2 months – and I can be free.

3, giving back, is the most interesting area from this perspective. Opportunities – implicit or explicit – are everywhere. Which ones will I take? How can I make the biggest impact? There’s talk about an Awesome Foundation here in KW, and that would be amazing. But do I want to repeat myself? I’m wary of seeming to come in with a “Y’all aren’t awesome enough, and Imma gonna show you how it’s done” attitude – this is not at all how I feel, I’m falling in love with my new home. Furthering the interests of women in CS and Engineering – can I make that part of my work? Should I? Is that my 20% project or an additional thing I take on?

Another of my mentees jitters from one idea to another. So we’re working on something at the moment – new ideas go on an “ideas list”. She’s committed to just writing them down for a while, rather than immediately acting on them.

Perhaps that’s advice I could take myself. Spend some time exploring the ways in which I can give back and take a little time to think, reflect, and pick those that are most impactful and most interesting.

How about you? Do you know what your priorities are? Are you saying “yes” to the things that best fit with them?

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