Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Economy of Squirrels


As I was walking through an old neighborhood taking photos over my lunch hour today, I was struck by the silence that exists in a residential area during the work day. The only sound that broke the crisp fall air was the scurrying of squirrels through fallen leaves, moving acorns collected from oaks that towered over our heads. The furry little guys went about their work feverishly. From a distance, their economy was astounding. They seemed to be getting a lot done, racing the cold months ahead.

Their efficiency was particularly relevant today. As I opened my Facebook Inbox this morning, I was greeted by a wonderful, unsolicited and completely flattering compliment. Although I won't divulge the author or exact details of the message, its content gave me a little extra spring on this beautiful autumn day. As someone who might sometimes be accused of compliment-seeking behavior, this unexpected message was a pleasant surprise, but also one that caught me unprepared for its delivery.

My friend's compliment centered on my time management skills, an area where I feel like a colossal failure on most days. So, I started to think.....and think....and think. In fact, most of the subliminal river that has run through my afternoon and evening has rambled downstream toward answering one question: Why do I appear to be managing my time in such a way that I can pack work, family, friends, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, photography and a variety of other personal interests into this 24-hour package we call a day?

I might be better off just answering simply: "I just do." There is a danger in overanalyzing a system that seems to be working (at least to outside observers). It's like a pitching coach tinkering with the delivery of a 20-game winner. But tinkering and analyzing is something innate in my nature. I never leave well enough alone, and this won't be an exception. There's a value in questioning the why and how -- the method to our madness.

So, back to the original question -- is there a secret recipe for my time management? This question is hard to answer, because most of my days don't feel very efficient. But there are a few things that I can identify:
  • I don't participate in idle activity. If I'm not asleep, I'm doing something that is engaging my brain or my body, more often the former, but frequently both. Idleness, a more negative term for rest, is my antithesis. If I had to choose one word to describe my personality, it would be restless. When you have a near hatred for doing nothing, you tend to do something.

  • I do multiple things at once. On the rare occasion when I'm paying attention to TV, I'll also have a book or newspaper in my hands and a chat window or two open on my laptop. In my mind, one of the greatest advatages of communicating through social media is the opportunity for multiple, simultaneous conversation streams. Gaps in one conversation are no longer unproductive. Using 30 seconds here and 40 seconds there that might otherwise be underutilized can lead to having larger chunks of available time later in the day.

  • My son has reached an age where he's growing more independent each day. At a certain age, kids transform from black holes that demand all your attention into little people who can live on their own for hours at a time. While we still spend and enjoy a great deal of time together, we are certainly past the days of the 24/7 time demands.

  • My iPhone is quite simply the best tool I've ever had at my disposal. Whether it's a quick check of Facebook while I wait for a work meeting to start, deleting a few extraneous emails while standing in line at the grocery store, or posting a quick Tweet while walking across the quad on my way to lunch, the iPhone has turned each of those past moments of waiting and waste into micro-factories of productive time. I easily save an hour each day by having all my electronic connections with me 24 hours a day.
Is mine the perfect system? By no means. In fact, I found it equal parts humorous and disconcerting when a recent study showed that multitaskers are remarkably bad at multitasking. I have started to feel the truth of that in my own life, and have scaled back some of my ambitions and activities accordingly. I do a lot of things. I'm not sure how many of them I do well. Nor am I confident that much of what I do is aimed in the right direction, satisfying immediate or future goals.

Hopefully, my efforts can mimic the squirrels. Those acorns are either used for winter food, or end up becoming a new stand of towering oaks that feed future squirrel generations. Either way, the system works, right? One can only hope.

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