Off Topic: How I chop wood and carry water

 “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.”  Zen proverb

 I see my daily work as nothing more than a high tech form of chopping wood and carrying water.  Work can sometimes seem to be overwhelming or unmanageable, but in the end I think that everything can be broken down into small and manageable tasks.  I’ve always been interested in hearing how others go about their daily work, and also understanding what works and what does not.

 For the last year I’ve had two separate roles at Microsoft – SQL Premier Field Engineer and Acting Program Manager for the SQL Microsoft Certified Master and Architect program.  I also just agreed to be more involved with my townhome association (hurrah – more work!) and so I have a renewed energy around keeping organized and productive (without getting too stressed).

 For today’s post, I’m going to talk about my adopted work philosophies that have, at least so far, kept me organized, on track, and productive.

  <Expectation warning> There is nothing amazingly original or ground breaking here – just various scraps and bits that I’ve picked up over time from wiser people over time</Expectation warning>:

  •  Make the complicated simple.  Even when projects are complicated and sprawling – you can still break them apart into smaller tasks.  Those smaller tasks will need to be done in a certain order.   Your smaller tasks still seem too complicated?  Keep chopping.  Too many tasks?  Ask for help. 

  • Single tasking?  Yes. Single tasking has been my friend for years.  When I’m completely focused on a task, that’s when the magic happens.  Whether I’m reading an article, writing an email or listening to a customer question – when I give my full attention, it’s all good.    Single tasking doesn’t mean I don’t handle multiple issues or tasks in a day – but rather, when I move to a task, I try to give it 100% attention.

  • Delegate and follow-up.  I’m still learning how to delegate (more).  Some people actually want to help - and you need to give people the opportunity to do so.  Follow-up is equally important – and that’s also an area where I constantly calibrate (give people enough space to get something done but still keep things moving within a reasonable timeframe).

  • I set my cache to 15% “learn” and 85% “do”.   In the SQL Server world, if you’re not continually reading and learning, you’re falling behind. For a typical 60 hour work week, I’m spending 9 hours dedicated to consuming new information.  Ideally you can combine “learn” with “do”, but I still think it is important to establish isolated learning and “think” time.

  • Responsive is best.  If I’m very busy, I still like to respond.  My response might be “sorry – I’ll look at this next month and get back to you” – but at a minimum I want to acknowledge receipt of a request or question.  If I haven’t responded to you – it is because your email went to my spam or you misspelled my email address.  I don’t think that this is always possible at a larger scale, but right now I’m still in a place where I can be responsive.

  •  Bad news?  Get it out now.  When I have something uncomfortable I need to communicate, I don’t let it block my day’s activities.  I don’t sit on the information.  Unless constrained by confidentiality concerns or NDA purposes, I get the bad news out quickly. 

  • AAA? (Angry? Annoyed? Alarmed?) Hold that email. I’m not always good about this - and when I don’t follow this advice I always regret it.  If I’m in a heightened state of irritation that is usually a sign to myself to hold off on the email. 

  • Am I feeling righteous? I’m probably the one who is wrong.  Since joining corporate America sixteen years ago - I’ve been through this cycle many times.  If I’m feeling righteous or indignant, that’s my alert to check the facts about a situation before making bad assumptions. There is a good chance I’m the one who is wrong.

  • Physical order reflects mental order.  My desk at home has a printer, a router, my laptop, a mouse, and that’s it.  Everything else is filed away and out of sight.  My desk at my customer site has a phone, hand sanitizer, laptop, caffeine, one metal tray and a pad of paper.  That’s it.  Clean workspace, clean mind.  That isn’t everyone’s style, but it works for me. 

 That’s all today.    Time to chop some wood.

Comments (6)

  1. Toph says:

    this is one of the nicest article having enough to implement in one's life 🙂 thank you for sharing with us

  2. josephsa says:

    Thanks for the feedback Toph!  🙂

  3. CompuFirm says:

    Great contribution to the blog. Well written

  4. CompuFirm says:

    Great contribution to the blog. Well written

  5. Sudeep Bhaskar says:

    Chop wood, carry water. both make wood and water managable! enlightened 🙂 Thanks Joe for this excellent piece of art.

  6. Joe Sack says:

    Thanks Sudeep!  Hope all is well with you. 🙂

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