Thursday, February 07, 2019

In search of lost time: the Costco plan

Figure 1. Not Walden Pond.
Over at Inside Higher Ed, Michael S. Harris has a good essay called "The Zero-Sum Game of Faculty Productivity." Harris argues that"The best way to tackle the zero-sum game and better prioritize our time is to make explicit the trade-offs that exist in faculty work."

This isn't an earth-shattering idea, and in fact it reminds me of a post I wrote a few years back, "Groundhog Day: Mid-career Academic Choices."

But it's a great reminder that time is limited, and so are our choices.  Harris gives some examples, with my commentary:

1. "For example, what if you spent more time creating an interactive activity for class than revising the look of your lecture slides?" Great idea, although revising the look of lecture slides is 99th on any list of 100 tasks.

2. "What if you created an answer sheet with clear explanations to distribute to class rather than writing brief notes in the margin on each individual student exam?" This is a lovely sentiment. What would happen is that students would ignore the answer sheet and come to your office or, more likely, email you because they don't see why theirs isn't like the best answer. It's nice to believe that they see what you see, but many will not, and they'll feel injured at the depersonalized nature of the feedback and say so on your evaluations.

 3. "What if you checked your email three times a day instead of three times an hour?" Great suggestion for anyone who does not have time-sensitive things going on. Still, three times a day should be plenty. 

Harris quotes Steve Jobs, who reduced the number of product lines so that he could focus Apple's attention on a few of them. (That's also what McDonald's did when it started out: a few products done well rather than many done not so well.)

It struck me that what Harris is talking about is the Costco plan. A very long time ago, a student of mine related to a Costco executive wrote that its philosophy was not to give consumers endless choice but to choose the best thing and stock it. That's it.

Now, obviously Costco stocks more than one kind of toothpaste, one kind of shampoo, etc., although in my house we still kid about the Soviet-style choices that are made for us: "Costco loves us. Costco knows what is best. You WILL grow to love the Costco choices. Two plus two is five."


Figure 2. Thoreau, definitely not in Costco's mission statement.


But the reality is that if you trust the choices, and as a Costco cult member I generally do, your shopping is more efficient and you save time.

Applying this to your own work, as Harris suggests, makes sense.

What are the things you need to do?
What are the things you want to do?
What priorities do you have?
What are the things getting in the way of them?



I'm not saying that you should make your mind into a retail giant, but if you're trying to pursue 15 smaller things instead of figuring out how they fit into your plan of 5 big ones, the choices alone are distracting you and taking up time.

Or, to put it another way in the words of that old anti-capitalist Henry David Thoreau:

Simplify, simplify.

[Edited to add: More Thoreau posts.]

2 comments:

gwinne said...

I really appreciate this post. I am definitely in triage mode (today was the 8th day off my kids have had since MLK!!!!). Sometimes there are so many priorities it's not even clear which to do first; today I decided to take 15 minutes just to clear some of the paper piles in my house so I could focus a bit. I've also cut some texts from my seminar; my students think it's for them--and it partly is--but I need a bit more space as well.

Say more about how you decide what goes to the top of the list? The email fires are terrible.

Undine said...

gwinne--those sound like great things to do, especially cutting a few texts. More space.
The email fires--I don't know what to say about them. I don't answer them on weekends unless there's something really dire (and there rarely is). I'm floundering on the writing after obsessively finishing the project that would not die, though.