Time well spent can be difficult to see

Out of the Woods

Posted: Sunday, December 02, 2001

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.

Yesterday I approached a coworker's desk and noticed that she was still, serene and peacefully gazing out at nothing. She noticed it at the same moment and snapped to here and now, registering a moment of embarrassment before attacking whatever was in front of her. She is an energetic worker, motivated enough to be irritating, yet she felt the need to keep in motion. Why do we do that? I blame workplace sitcoms of the '60s and '70s. We need to look busy in case the boss shows up.

We do so many different kinds of work it's hard to say what we should look like while we do it. I expect someone who inspects things moving past on a conveyor to appear to be examining each one or someone who is replacing my muffler at an hourly rate to keep parts and tools hopping. What about people who design things or write technical documents? Surely a lot of that work goes on inside their heads. More modern sitcoms allow for that and make fun of working people who play and appear to goof around a lot while they work. We are to assume they produce an acceptable amount of work in spite of it because they are brilliant, modern workers, I guess.

How many times have you passed a construction site and there appear to be several people leaning on shovels, standing around watching one guy work? Our reactions range from actually rolling down the window to yell, "get to work" to assuming it's break time. The television training we got as kids keeps us from seeing a brainstorming session or a consensus building moment that is an important, and in the long run cost saving, part of the project.

I am a firm believer in thinking things through before making them happen. It's a mental version of measure twice and cut once. In an office setting, that produces filing systems that are works of art and manual direction that any fool can follow. That conviction may or may not show while I do my work, but I probably spend more time than I realize in serene contemplation. No one has checked my pulse as I work yet, but they have turned up the ringer on my phone. I hate when they all sneak out without telling me it's time to go home.

Things become clearer and fall into place when you relax and let them. The slag is cleared away and your information forms an ingot. While I focus on what I want to accomplish and wait for it to form, other things I may have been thinking about get caught in the smelter and clarify, too. For example, something like why we call a group of plants "wintergreen" may suddenly make sense. Not that I, personally, spent time at my desk on it. But when you are in the focus-and-fall-into-place mode, who knows what may fall prey to your keen organizational and analytical powers. I suggest you keep a discreet notepad handy and jot down those stray bonus ingots so you don't have to try to remember them and can get right back to that set of graphs and tables.

There are limits to the contemplation to conclusion method. Sometimes nothing happens. Then you look like you are doing nothing because you are, indeed, doing nothing. At that point, you need to spring into action and do something entirely different to hit your reset button. I can't tell you how many times a nagging little how-to problem has resolved itself while I pack heavy boxes up a set of stairs. It may take a lot of boxes, but it's so worth it. Especially if anyone actually wants those boxes up those stairs. Someone will sometimes stop me in the middle of apparently poorly thought out manual labor and ask what I think I'm doing. I say I am thinking and they usually go away.

My point is, we all need to broaden our image of what work looks like and allow ourselves to slow down and let the thinking process be thorough and productive. We shouldn't assume anyone is not working just because they are staring out the window and holding a notepad filled with Louie Louie lyrics -- oops. Quick, pie charts or something, my boss is coming.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.

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