Kerrying On

The Perfect Inheritance

In September of 1951, when I headed to grade school for the very first time, my mother made an important decision. Since I was now old enough to travel the bogs, trails, and back alleys of Bellingham, Washington (all in an effort to learn the three Rs of elementary school), I was certainly old enough to learn what my mother called “The three Ws of 25th Street.” Which happened to be: work, work, and work.

My mom was a big believer in teaching her boys how to sing for their supper. Unlike many parents who were satisfied once they had taught their kids how to make their beds, my mother wanted me to master a more arduous, less prissy task. In her view, it was high time I learned how to clean the toilet.

Transforming our toilet from a repugnant bathroom fixture into a shining porcelain trophy, wasn’t going to be easy. Not if it was done properly. And you can bet your can of Bon Ami that Mom was going to have it done properly. After all, our toilet was the one household accessary that separated our family from a hillbilly life. We may have lived in a tiny house perched on the edge of a swamp, but by golly when nature called, we would sit on a throne fit for royalty—that is, if I learned how to clean it properly.

My journey into the world of the custodial arts began with a lesson on germ theory, complete with hand-drawn pictures of bacteria and the role they play in causing pandemics. After delivering the microbiology lecture, Mother (always ahead of her time) implemented what social scientists now refer to as “deliberate practice.” She divided the toilet-cleaning job into separate tasks, set clear standards for each one, demonstrated the first task, and then had me copy her movements. After I attempted each component, Mom eyeballed my work from several angles until she found something wrong, at which point she showed me the proper remediation technique and had me replicate what she had just done.

It took me a long time to clean our toilet that day. At first, I thought Mom was unreasonably picky, but I soon learned that there was more to the story—much more. Later that Saturday morning, when three of Mom’s colleagues from work showed up with a deck of cards in hand, Mom immediately ushered them to the bathroom and told them to take a close look at the toilet I had just cleaned—which I might point out was now shining gloriously. You didn’t HAVE to wear sun glasses to stare directly at my sparkling masterpiece, but it helped.

Learning that a mere kindergartener had produced the lustrous toilet now on display in the Patterson’s bathroom jolted Mom’s friends into some sort of genetically triggered admiration response. They couldn’t say enough good about me and my work. The praise that they gushed was the kind that is normally reserved for cakes adorned with fondant kittens chasing pastel butterflies. It certainly wasn’t the reaction you’d expect from three ladies peering into a toilet. But peer they did. Then came a long chorus of oohs and aahs.

This was the reaction my mother was seeking. Lydia had a son who was sure to be a rocket scientist, Elenore was raising a surgeon, Marge’s daughter was a shoo-in at the Seattle Symphony, and Mom—not to be outdone—had a son who . . . well, she wasn’t sure what I would achieve; nevertheless, the glow radiating from our bathroom suggested that I was headed for some sort of acclaim. And now her friends knew it as well.

Finally, as the foursome settled into their card game, Lydia offered the ultimate accolade: “Did any of you get a glimpse of the toilet’s chrome-plated handle?” she asked. “You can see your reflection in the chrome-plated handle!”

Why someone wanted to look at a toilet and see her own reflection staring back at her was beyond me, but even my five-your-old brain understood that doing a repugnant job, and doing it well, garnered a great deal of admiration from the 25th Street crowd.

I was reminded of this incident last week when I met with a group of sixteen-year-old Sunday school students to share tips for succeeding in their summer jobs. At least, that’s the topic our Sunday school president had assigned me to cover, but none of the youth actually had a summer job. They were taking summer lessons—a lot of sports and music lessons. Plus, they would be enjoying extended family vacations. Some were going to Europe.

Granted, participating in these particular summer activities would certainly be beneficial, but they left no time for tasks such as flipping burgers, tending toddlers, or mowing lawns. And unlike my friends and I at the age of sixteen, none of the kids would be picking strawberries, raspberries, and beans—in the blazing sun—and getting paid by the pound.

This is not to suggest that you can’t develop respectable work habits without doing filthy, painful, and strenuous jobs. Surely, practicing the violin for hours every day teaches how short-term sacrifice can lead to long-term gains. Lifting weights while being spurred on by a personal trainer teaches what it feels like to work until it hurts. Receiving detailed instruction from a piano teacher reveals the importance of meticulously practicing techniques. Putting in long hours, pushing yourself, staying focused, mastering methods—all help create a strong work ethic. Right? Then again, I can’t help but think that when it comes to developing healthy work habits—dirt should be involved in some way. I just can’t shake the idea.

In truth, I actually don’t know what to think. It’s not as if we want our progeny to end up in a career that requires a lifetime of back-breaking, filthy work. We encourage the next generation to study hard so that one day they’ll be able to wear cashmere sweaters to “the office” where they’ll sit in sumptuous leather chairs and make important decisions. Nevertheless, I still see the value of teenagers performing jobs that involve muck, sweat, and at least a few disgusting components—executed at a rate that demands an all-out-effort.

At this point you might argue that I’m just an old codger clinging to old ways. Could be. But then I’m reminded of my daughter Rebecca who, at a very young age, learned (from me) the same toilet-cleaning techniques I had learned from my mother. Only in Rebecca’s case, as she practiced scrubbing and polishing, I explained that I wasn’t paying her a cent for the job. Instead, I was giving her the best reward possible: I was imbuing her with an unflagging commitment to working hard. There’s no inheritance greater than that. Nothing you can bequeath your children can serve them better than the willingness and ability to tackle tough jobs. How you go about passing on such a work ethic doesn’t really matter. It just matters that you do.

I fear that all this hard-labor talk sounds suspiciously old-fashioned, but it seems to have served my children well. For example, the other day as our family cleaned a friend’s cabin we had borrowed for a three-day weekend, I caught a glimpse of Rebecca as she feverishly and meticulously cleaned a toilet. It brought a smile to my face. I know it brought a smile because I could see my reflection in the chrome-plated handle.

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Getting Things Done QA

When Your Boss Suffers From Short-term Memory Loss

Dear Justin,

Short of writing down every word, how do you communicate with a boss who repeatedly gives input or instruction “on the fly,” but then later cannot recall what he approved or instructed? Often this input comes up rapidly or in response to other issues.

Dealing with Short-Term Memory Lapses

Dear Dealing,

I’m not sure you’ll be able to prevent these situations from happening. As you said, they often come up rapidly or in response to other situations. So, I suggest turning “on the fly” discussions into catalysts for something more solid, rather than let them remain isolated conversations on some topic. Let me explain.

Documentation Is Underrated

Given our current technologies, it’s never been easier to document something on the fly, in the moment. But I sense that many people feel documenting is too “formal,” or that it might be a little overbearing to demand it of others or demand it of an interaction. I invite you to challenge this idea. Try to see quick documentation as the gold standard that keeps tasks and instructions from falling through the cracks. We often rely too heavily on our minds to remember details, and research shows our minds are terrible at short-term recall. If you want great execution and more clarity, become a documentation pro!

The Key Habit in the Moment

Next time you run into one of these moments with your boss, here is what I’d like you do. Quickly record your understanding of what needs to happen. Then, when you get back to your office, email your boss what you’ve captured. Ask them to take a minute to confirm whether they see it as you do. If they don’t, they can clarify. If they do, you can proceed. Either way, you’ve done two things: 1) you’ve gotten clear on what to do, and 2) you now have an email record to stir your boss’s memory if there is a concern in the future.

Help Them Help You Help Them

During your next one-on-one, let your manager know of your new plans and the positive natural consequences that should follow because of your new plans. Help them see how this new habit will ensure you both have clarity around assignments, experience fewer surprises, and have an easier time getting on the same page. “I know it might take you an extra thirty seconds to review my email, but I think we’ll save a lot of time in the long run. We’ll have fewer unneeded meetings, and we’ll spend less time on work you may not want us working on.”

In my experience, about ninety percent of communication problems result from misunderstandings. People rarely have bad intentions or deliberately try to deceive others. Discipline yourself to capture ideas and tasks in the moment, and clarify with the decision-maker who should do what by when.

Best of Luck,

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Getting Things Done QA

How to Handle Inbox Craziness

Dear David,

I’ve heard of people who get their inbox to zero. That seems crazy to me. I can’t imagine that ever being a reality for me. I have a huge backlog of over 500 emails and each day I get at least 50-100 new ones. How can having zero emails be realistic in this age of digital, fast-paced communication?

Overloaded with Input

Dear Overloaded,

Do you empty your garbage or physical mailbox at home? Why? Is doing so crazy? No, you empty those buckets so they don’t back up and become a burden or problem.

What’s the difference between your garbage can or mailbox and email? Volume—and the capacity of your computer to store an almost infinite amount of volume. If your physical mailbox was as big as a swimming pool, you’d be prone to keep a swimming-pool’s volume of mail in there. If your garbage bin was equally as big, you might let an equally large amount of garbage pile up before you did anything about it. And that’s the challenge: your email inbox can hold more mail than several swimming pools combined!

Perhaps the garbage bin analogy doesn’t work because stuff that goes in the garbage bin has already been clarified as “garbage.” Hence, there’s no sorting to do (unless you recycle glass, aluminum, paper, plastic, etc.). So, let’s stick with the mailbox analogy. On any given day, you might receive in your mailbox bills to pay, an invitation to a wedding, a book you ordered, a brochure about the upcoming symphony season, some junk mail, and a handful of other communications. After receiving your mail, I presume you then sort it and determine what actions you’ll take next—pay a bill, RSVP, buy tickets, mark your calendar, or throw away and disregard junk.

Your email inbox works like your physical mailbox and contains a similar variety of inputs—inputs you need to discard, organize for later reference, respond to, and so forth.

With this in mind, there are three (or four) things you can do to transcend your dilemma:

  • Decide whether or not you should be receiving the emails that you do. If not, get them off the list. Ask yourself: Does this communication relate to my job? Is the information useful? Mark senders as spam if necessary. Unsubscribe. Create rules in your email app to sort and discard messages based on sender or subject and so forth. This will reduce the number of unimportant but attention-sapping inputs you might be receiving.
  • Clarify what each email message means to you and organize them. Delete messages that no longer need your attention, create folders based on next actions or context, and file messages accordingly. Set aside blocks of time where you respond to and organize email messages rather than reacting to each as they arrive. Turn off notifications so you aren’t constantly interrupted. Again, this is where making use of the features of your email tool can go a long way. Not sure how to leverage the features of your email app? Perhaps that’s your next action: Watch a YouTube video on how to create email folders and rules and sort incoming messages.
  • Stop avoiding steps 1 and 2 above. Complete step 1 today and then consistently apply step 2. It may sound time-consuming to effectively set up your email app and tedious to think about and organize each message so deliberately, but it’s in better thinking about your work that you can more efficiently complete it. Are you so busy hacking away at email that you can’t dedicate a couple hours to improving your process—which could save you several hours a week? If you allow yourself to become so preoccupied with driving that you forgo stopping for gas, well, you’re bound to stall and get stuck.
  • If you’re not willing to do the above, it might be time to forget about email and find a cave in which to meditate on the meaning of life.

Your volume of email is an issue because each message contains potentially relevant information. Until you come to grips with this and organize each message appropriately, you will be at the mercy of your inbox instead of appreciating and leveraging the opportunities contained therein. Getting your inbox to zero isn’t crazy. What’s crazy is the method that most people employ in managing email. Think about your problem rather than of it and clarify the next steps you must take to solve it. The steps I’ve outlined above should help you tackle your email problem.

All the best,

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