the genius of not being able to fix the copier

This week in Sunday Life I’m strategically incompetent

114017 3 600 the genius of not being able to fix the copier
by Kyle Alexander

Confession: I get off on productivity porn.

I’m only a recreational voyeur, mind.  Late at night, in the lonely privacy of my bedroom, I like to peruse sites like 43Folders and Getting Things Done (GTD) e-courses, you know, to see how other people “File Tax Receipts in 5 Easy Steps” or “Focus like Steve Jobs, Now!”. But, I’m not a full subscriber. I mean, I’m no productivity pervert. Some of that Extreme Colour-Coding Your To-Do List stuff can get pretty gonzo!

Anyway, as a “productivity connoisseur”, I’ve noticed the biggest issue in this murky neck of the interweb right now is “waiting for” items. If you’re a productive list-making type you’ll know the list system comes unstuck once a task requires follow-up from a second party. For example, to get your report completed you need a statistic from a colleague. You email them requesting the data and delete this task off your to-do list. Done! Because you trust the item is now headed for the other person’s to-do list. BUT – oh dear – if said colleague isn’t a list person and doesn’t follow up, then the task disappears into the unproductive ether, un-accounted for Un-ticked!

“Waiting for” items drive me to distraction. They leave me in a permanent state of “there’s something I’ve forgotten”-ness. Only to interrupt me in the middle of a shower (and I have to bolt out, dripping wet, to my to-do list: “chase bloody Roger about that invoicing issue”). It’s frustrating. Doubly so because the fact the other party feels completely entitled to let a task slip so easily, while we remain vigilant, is …unfair.

So this week I set out to find a salve to such a quandary. I scrolled my favourite sites and found two ways out.

First, consider this.

If something is on your to-do list, it matters to you.

Which means, by rights, the onus is on you to chase it up, not your colleague supplying the data. It’s the law of greater need.

Sure, it’s rude of them not to reply. But it’s not their responsibility. Or it’s less so. In other words, rigid to-do listers out there (myself included), time to build a bridge over your frustration. And get over it with this idea: the waiting-for list. The WFL was first espoused by David Allen (the kinky mind beyind GTD). It sits alongside your normal to-do list and he advises getting used to the idea it’s likely to be the longest.

The second idea requires stepping into the other person’s shoes for a minute. And comprehending the notion of “strategic incompetence”, a term coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe a technique used by successful business leaders. It involves being intentionally useless at certain tasks, like fixing fax machine jams or typing up meeting minutes, so that other people will step in and do them, leaving you to get on with important stuff.  Of course, this tactic is entirely selfish – it relies on some other sucker doing the banal work. I know I put myself out on a limb here, but I suggest that men, in the main, can be particularly adept at strategic incompetence.

Not being able to sort whites from the darks is a skill, I tell you.

And how many blokes put their hand up to organise the farewell cake in your office?

Viewed in a productivity light, however, strategic incompetence can be smart work practice. These days there are so many easy ways for others to compete for your time (someone emailed me recently to ask what temperature to cook muffins at… what am I, Google?). So being selectively useless or, indeed, not responding to another’s to-do list request, is an expectations management tool.

My point, then, is that it’s fruitful to learn from those who frustrate us. And perhaps be a little less vigilant ourselves. Or to put it in Taoist terms: get a little wu wei with it.  That is,

know when to act and when not to act, for “non action” can often be the most productive, artful route.

Recently I backed off from being so efficient email replying. Why? Because being prompt means people have come to rely on me for answers instead of working things out for themselves (ergo: It felt selfish and mercenary at first. But I realized this is what’s required to survive Zen-fully in this e-available world.

What do you think? Being less available, a little less “able”…a good idea? And do we agree with my blokes generalisation?


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