Sunday, January 17, 2010

Telflon's Law of the Conservation of Doing

So, I totally get the idea of not placing artificial limits on ourselves and that our default sense of our own limitations tends to be artificial. Growth is simply the process of transforming what we can't do into what we can do. If we peer far enough down the sequences of growth steps, eventually one of them will always look impossible. Yet, if take each one as it comes, voila!

I'm a great advocate of being able to do anything you set your mind to, but "a man's got to know his limitations."

Conservation of Stuff
You've probably heard the law of conservation of matter, i.e., matter can be neither created nor destroyed. As big as it is, the universe is still finite. Essentially, it's a zero-sum game.

There's also Kaufman's Law of the Conservation of Hair. Once a man reaches adulthood, hair can neither be created nor destroyed. It simply moves from place to place.

I'd like to introduce you to Teflon's Law of the Conservation of Doing. Being part of this finite universe, we operate finitely. Each time we decide to do one thing, whether we're aware of it or not, we actively decide not to do another thing. We can become more efficient and effective at doing, but in the end, it's still a zero sum game.

Simply, Teflon's Law of the Conservation of Doing is:

Everything we do requires that we not do something else.
Why is the Conservation of Doing important? Well, first of all, whether or not you're aware of it and whether or not you believe in it, it seems to be in effect. You never ever make a decision to do something that doesn't have an impact on other things you're doing.

Second of all, not recognizing the first of all has it's own consequences. If you continue to make decisions to do things not realizing that your choices affect what you're already doing, everything you do slowly degrades in quality. People who do this often end up in a general malaise where nothing feels right, nothing is going well, and they can't quite put their finger on what it is.

Third, the impact of violating conservation of doing may not always be immediately apparent if you're surrounded by others who pick up the slack. However, once you either burn-out or exhaust the capacity of the slack-picker-uppers, the consequences of ignoring Conservation of Doing can result in an explosion rather than a slow degradation.

Doing Anything vs. Doing Everything
I've been called everything from eternal optimist to patron saint of lost causes and it's always been tricky as there are many times in my life when I've been able to accomplish things that everyone said were impossible, and, there have been many times where, well... they were right.

What's the difference? I've realized that one of the fundamental differences for me has been the difference between doing anything and doing everything.

When I find myself in an impossible situation where I'm surrounded by people who are smart, talented and motivated, it seems that the impossible always becomes possible.

However, when I'm surrounded by people who are doubtful or pessimistic (people with a wait-and-see attitude), well, it never works. My first response is to believe that I can get them there, but the net is that I end up trying to fill all the gaps myself, i.e., trying to do everything. In the end, it typically fails.

Confusing Philosophy with Practice
A common thread I've uncovered among people who tend not to do what they say they're going to do is a philosophical bent that completely ignores conservation of doing. For example, I know lots of people who wax poetic about the infinite capacity of love and how the more they love, the more love they have. I think this is a beautiful notion akin to the mythical perpetual motion machine. Beautiful, but, well, stupid.

Folks who subscribe to this belief tend to fall in and out of relationships on a regular basis. Or they tend to have many dissatisfied customers. Infinite love tends not to last very long. Why? Because each of us has only so much time to spend with others each day, and, while the quality of our love may be wonderful, quantity sometimes matters.

This can be explained in terms of food:
Let's say that you depend on me for food and that I commit to feeding you. Let's also say that I make these commitments on regular basis so that I have more and more people I'm feeding. Over time, I start to ration the food because of quantity limitations, but the quality of the food gets better and better.

At some point, you're down to 1 teaspoonful per day, but it's the best spoonful ever. Eventually, you starve to death, but with really, really great food!
Love begetting love and setting no limits on my capacity for love are both wonderful concepts, philosophically.

Your Stop List
Do you ever find yourself in situations where you're overwhelmed by all that you have to do feeling that you're not doing anything well? Perhaps you feel that you're doing some things well, but really slacking on others. Are you burning out the people who work for you or with you whether their employees or friends or family members? Have you exhausted the limits of your capacity to improve your efficiency?

If so, it's likely that you're violating Teflon's Law of Conservation of Doing.

The solution to this is simple and straightforward albeit perhaps a bit challenging to implement. The solution is simply to, as Faith put it so eloquently, "Just Stop It!"

However, in this case, the Stop It doesn't refer to how you're feeling, it refers to what you're doing.

Creating a Stop List
A key management technique that many people never learn is the creation of a stop list. A stop list is simply a list of activities that you're going to no longer do, or at least put on the back burner. If you're overworked to the point of exhaustion, a stop list can literally be a lifesaver. If you're in business, a stop list can be the difference between success and bankruptcy. Stop lists are amazing tools.

To create a stop list:
  1. Grab a piece of lined paper and draw four columns labeled Activity, Time, Priority, and Stop.
  2. In the activities column, write down all the activities that you're doing or trying to do. (Don't forget things like sleeping, eating and driving to work).
  3. For each activity, roughly estimate in hours or fractions of hours the amount of time required each day to do that activity well and write it next to that activity in the Time column.
  4. For each activity, specify a priority level from 1 to 10 in the Priority column making 1 the highest priority. The priority level should reflect the priority you desire, not the one that you've put into action.
  5. Add up all the hours and write the number down at the top of the page.
  6. Walk through your list and write Stop in the Stop column of each low priority activity you intend to stop. As you do so, subtract the amount of time for that activity from your total time.
  7. Repeat step six until the number of hours is less than 24.
Implementing Your Stop List
As you implement your stop list you'll be amazed to find out how much time you spend on activities that you don't consider important or perhaps not desirable at all. Also, as you implement your stop list, don't be surprised if not everyone is happy about it.

If you're a slack-picker-upper, then the slack-droppers might not be pleased. If you spend a lot of time in inane socializing around the water cooler, the office-gossipers may miss you. If you spend lots of time chasing down meaningless data for executives who don't know what to do with it anyway, you may be asked to explain yourself. The people who routinely walk into your office to gripe may get their noses out of shape when you stop them after the third time you've heard the same complaint.

However, as you implement and stick to your stop list, you'll also start to feel much better. The quality of the things that you do will improve dramatically. You'll see progress in your life and you'll improve in areas that matter to you.

Corollary to Teflon's Conservation of Doing:
As you stop doing things that don't matter to you, the quality of the things that you continue to do will get better and better.
What will you stop today?

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