“People love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results.”
– Albert Einstein
Strange. I never knew him, but Albert seems to have known me; I’m not one for delayed gratification. As an old mentor of mine used to say with a smile, ‘if it ain’t instant, it ain’t gratification’.
I’ve always loved chopping wood, ever since I was big enough to heft a hatchet (and my father’s desire for a big strapping lumberjack of a lad won the toss over my mother’s desire for me to grow up with all my fingers and toes). Nearly 50 years later, there are still far too many trees near the cottage that bear the scars of my youthful enthusiasm for Chopping Things Down.
It wasn’t until I was well into my thirties that I found the above quote that finally explained (in part) my murderous proclivities with an axe, and the rest was clarified when I read the book ‘Getting Things Done’ and understood the piece about the pleasure of doing work where one can actually see the results.
It isn’t often like that with day to day work. Viewed in a certain light, I talk for a living. I talk to individuals, I talk to groups, I ‘talk’ via e-mail. Many of the changes that happen as a result of my work happen long after I have left the room, so it is hard to get a sense of what I do that changes things in the world. Not so with chopping wood. No point in talking to the log about making a change. But if I hit it clean and hard, it changes pretty quickly.
There are many things to enjoy about it: the physicality of it, the discharge of aggression, the use of a familiar tool, but mostly it is just great to not to have to wait for a result.
It is also easy to see progress from start to finish with next actions:
· It’s easy to see what incomplete looks like,
· It is clear what doing looks like,
· And it is very clear what done looks like,
The open loop in my brain about ‘chop log’ doesn’t stay open for very long, and it is satisfying to close it, again and again.
If you are reading this then you are probably already convinced by the benefits of identifying next actions, so I won’t spend much time on that. Just one thing: when I get stuck – and I still do, after all these years – it is usually because I haven’t taken the time to really think things through to get real clarity. The clarity that lets me know exactly what the next action is, that is the equivalent of ‘chop log’, on projects that are vague, complex or scary for me.
There is another parallel to GTD, inasmuch as the fundamentals of chopping wood look very similar to the advanced version of chopping wood. Which is not to say that nothing changes.
In terms of the mechanics of it, nothing much changes, but actually, everything is different. Like a concert pianist doing scales or a black belt doing a kata, the fundamentals still need focused repetition, but they are not doing those fundamentals in the same manner as a beginner would.
Similarly, it is only now – after 45 years of practice – that I’m getting the work of splitting a pile of logs done with about a third of the effort I was using in my twenties. Simple things, like letting the weight of the axe work for me, taking breaks when my form goes off, cutting in the direction of any knots in the log – these are things I used to bull my way through when I was younger, at huge energetic cost.
This is also true for processing my ‘stuff’. The mechanics of processing are exactly as they were 10 years ago, but it is costing me a lot less time and effort to cut through the forest of vagueness and complexity that shows up in my world every day.
Which, happily, gives me more time to do things like explore other definitions of ‘incomplete next action’ in the Visual Dictionary…