No Rules, Just Right
I work at a really big company. Fortune 50, I think, but definitely Fortune 100. This is my first job in this world, really. Not my first brush with this kind of IT: I worked at a very, very large nonprofit in the early 2010’s, so “corporate” that we actually still used Lotus Notes, which I now feel weirdly nostalgic for even though it was terrible. But even then, I was in charge of a lot of technology purchases, and could backdoor in Macs and Thinkpads that I had admin access to, and could use whatever tools I wanted. That is decidedly not the environment in which I now work, where the infosec team actually cares what I install on the computer they’ve given me.
This felt oppressive at first. “How am I supposed to get my work done without being able to install Emacs and Xmind and all the fonts I want and pandoc and the Windows Subsystem for Linux?” I asked. “Why can’t I use all these SaaS apps I love like Trello and Workflowy to keep track of all my work? Why do they care where I’m doing this work as long as I’m effective?” On many occasions when I first started, my main feeling when I was trying to figure out how to organize my stuff was, “How am I supposed to do anything with… these tools?”
This is, of course, because for most of my career, no one cared what I installed. I could (and did!) do my work on a Linux Thinkpad that the company didn’t even own and no one batted an eye. I had free reign to float from tool to tool, from platform to platform, searching like Goldilocks for the task manager that was just right, dumping as much company information into those platforms as I could. I always kept a separate Chrome profile, of course, keeping all the logins and accounts and tools separated from my “personal” stuff. But that was about as strict as the separation got.
I’ve written in these pages before about how frustrating I found basically my entire “system,” such as it was. I’ve developed a very particular way of working over the years, and that way of working was and still is characterized by what my friend Stephen Hackett calls “forest fires.” Every so often, usually once or twice a year, my whole system becomes so byzantine and out of date that I have to burn the whole thing down and start over with what’s left. I’ve never been fully satisfied with any method for tracking goals longer than a couple of weeks–maybe because my ADHD makes it impossible for me to actually think about anything that far in advance–and so nothing has actually worked for long enough to ease that dissatisfaction.
That didn’t stop me from feeling frustrated by not being able to use them, whether that was because they’re blocked on the company network or because there are strict rules about putting any company information into non-approved systems. I was convinced that I was going to be less effective at my job without being able to use all these systems I’d been stringing along for years and years, accreting subscriptions to web-based productivity software like layers of sediment on the bottom of a pond, slowly filling it in.
Eventually, I moved beyond the honeymoon phase of my job, past the three months that it takes to figure out what you’re actually supposed to do at any new job, and I had to actually get to work. What I came to realize, now that I’m a ways into this thing, is that I don’t actually miss any of these tools. Everything I thought I couldn’t live without, I didn’t need at all.
To be clear, some of them are great tools. Trello, especially, was particularly good for the kinds of work I was doing. (I haven’t really used it at all since the Atlassian takeover really started bearing fruit, so I have no idea how it is today. I also know that Microsoft Planner, while interesting on its own merits, is nowhere near as good for the ways I used Trello’s cards.) But I’ve ended up replacing them all with stuff that was just… already on my computer, and as I’ve moved more and more of my overall system that direction, I’ve only found that I didn’t need to be so unhappy in the first place.
I’ve started using basic Microsoft Office tools to do basically all of the stuff I was doing in other systems. Todoist still persists, but for the rest of my complicated, bespoke, precious snowflake of a Very Serious Productivity System, I eventually gave up trying to backdoor my way into using what I wanted and just figured out how to do it with what I already had1, and I haven’t regretted it for a second.
OneNote is where I organize all my “reference” information, like meeting notes and agendas and emails that I need to save for reference. It’s good at this, as this is basically exactly the purpose for which it was designed. I’m using it for something else, though: I have a “Meta” section in my main notebook where I have an outline of everything I’m doing.
The top levels of the outline are my objectives for this fiscal year. Under each heading, I have a list of projects associated with that objective and a little status note about each, along with notes about what’s on hold, what’s upcoming, who I need to talk to about what, etc. that I was using Trello card comments for in a previous life. I have whole sections dedicated to some of these outline items, but for this list, which I review every Monday and every Friday, it’s enough to know where I stand. My next actions are laid out very clearly across all of my objectives.
Even Word, not necessarily known as a productivity tool, has a place in the system: as my career has progressed and I’ve gotten busier I’ve adopted Cal Newport’s idea of the Weekly Plan as the basic unit of a productivity system. I was doing those in my personal OneNote, with a new plan document for every week, but guess what? Can’t get to my personal OneDrive when I’m on the corporate network, either.
Instead what I’ve come up with is a very bespoke Word template for a new weekly plan. Every day has sections for meetings, important tasks, our family meal plan, and whatever grad school coursework I need to get done (yes, I’m working on a graduate degree and yes, it’s harder than I thought it was going to be). Is it as nice as having it all in OneNote on my phone? No. But I can print it out and write on it, editing as I go, revising the actual Word document only when the handwritten annotations become annoying. Despite all my consternation at the beginning, it works nicely.
This is the most shocking development here. I was feeling disorganized, and where I previously would have used a kanban tool like Trello or Workflowy in “board” mode (still a great tool), I first tinkered with Microsoft solutions like the aforementioned Planner and the new web-oriented version of Project, but eventually settled on using the thing that everyone tells you not to use for everything in a corporate environment: a spreadsheet.
Are there better ways to track things? Probably. But is it good enough to have a big table tracking every deliverable I’ve actually committed to, along with the date I need to deliver it, the status (right now, just “Not started,” “In progress,” “Waiting,” and “Done”), and if it’s Waiting, who am I waiting on to do something?
It might be overkill, and I fully admit that it’s a pretty egregious abuse of what a spreadsheet is for, but it works, and it’s already on my computer.
What It All Means
There are two ways to interpret these developments:
I have given up, surrendering to being a corporate drone and convincing myself I’m comfortable with using generic tools for a job when I know there are better purpose-built options out there.
I have (finally?) matured to the point that I don’t get so hung up about having to have exactly the right piece of web-based productivity software to get anything done or stay organized. While basic Microsoft Office tools are not the prettiest and they’re not really intended for these purposes, they all work fine.
I think–or hope, anyway–that the reality is about 75% of option 2 and 25% of option 1. Office is fine. OneNote in particular–speaking of the “legacy” version of it more than the “OneNote for Windows 10” version, which I think is due to go away anyway–is really pretty good, a very flexible tool for capturing all kinds of notes. It was already part of my system before I got to this job with its stricter rules. And to be clear, I think the stricter rules are probably good. Working at small enough places that there are basically no rules about what I can do with company equipment has its upsides, but just because I am fairly responsible with what I’m installing doesn’t mean everybody else would be. Having rules about what kinds of systems in which company-related data can be stored is a good thing!
I just needed a way to keep track of my work that didn’t require special permission from infosec, because for some tools I’ll never get it and for others the return on the time investment just would never be there. The reality is that I could probably find a way to do all of this with text files in Notepad if I really needed to (which I don’t, because I got Emacs approved, remember?)… but I don’t need to. By taking the time to find a way to use what I already had, I’ve come out with a system that takes less effort and creates less anxiety about whether there could be other tools that worked better, removing a whole avenue for my ADHD fiddling.
And that’s really the name of the game. The system is just motion, designed to support the action of doing the work that I’m paid to do. I feel that more clearly than I have before, and it happened when I embraced being locked out of screwing around with a million project- and task-management apps.
The exception to this is Emacs. I had to run it through a special approval process for GPL software to be reviewed by legal, but I felt like it was a reasonable amount of one-time overhead to be able to use the text editor I’m most proficient with. ↩︎
Published October 16, 2022 12:00