DC Newman

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Managing the chaos

I mentioned in another post that I’m a maker and I have accumulated a wide variety of skills that I use to build and repair and create with. It occurred to me that I really wanted to expand on that project process a little more as I think I can offer some tips that may be useful to other folks not only for hobbies, but also for work and perhaps even life. (Also as a side note, the header image is NOT my shop. I have much better lighting in my shop.)

I like making things. Building, creating, repairing, tinkering. That’s how I relax. The physical act of “doing” is calming for me. And I usually have a bunch of different projects going at any given time. As strange as it may sound, I often find my Zen place when I’m working in the shop on stuff. Some folks go to the gym, some paint, I build and repair and create stuff. That’s just how I’m wired I guess. It doesn’t even matter how hard the work is, its the doing and working and creating that relaxes me. It lets me let go of everything else going on in my life for a few brief moments, and just focus on one single project or task.

A side benefit is that often lets be clear out some of the “junk” that accumulates in my head. Often after a session in the shop, I’ll have a new idea for work, or better clarity about how I can solve a problem that I’m working on. Focusing on one task seems to get my conscious mind out of the way of my unconscious so that it can work through other stuff. Its kinda cool actually. So how do I manage the chaos?

I call it “micro focusing.”

I put all of my attention into accomplishing a single tiny part of whatever larger project I’m working on. Don’t worry about the entire project, in fact, the point is to not about anything else I have going on with work or family. I just make the time to focus on that one single task. And then when I complete that task, I move on to the next one. Essentially I use a really tiny version of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” concept. While most folks use it to develop habits by repeating that habit every day, and trying not to break the chain of days. I use it for project management.

When I work on a project, I make sure that I can accomplish something specific on the project every time I go out to work. Its not about finishing the entire project in one go. That’s too much, and its usually overwhelming. Its just about keeping up the forward momentum.

The goal every time I go out to the shop to work is to keep my “project chain” going. I try to cut through the chaos and find a specific task that will get me closer to the end of the project, but also allow me to finish that specific task in one session. If I have a little time, I’ll do one little task. If I have more time, I’ll do the same little task, and then once completed I’ll move on to the next task that I can still finish in that session. I always want to end time in the shop with an accomplishment.

I can hear the question already… “But what happens is something goes wrong and you can’t finish? What if something breaks, or you are missing parts, or its just not working? What about when everything goes wrong and its chaos and pandemonium? How do you manage that?”

The simple answer: I switch tasks.

I will switch from the project to figuring out what I can do to make sure that I can finish next time. So my new task becomes figuring out a solution to finish next time. That way I still get a win. I still get to complete a task every session. And I get the feeling of accomplishment that goes with completing something. I’m still making progress, and I’m staying limber and adaptable. That’s what’s nice about working like this on “hobby” projects. There isn’t a set deadline. Its OK to walk away from a project for a bit while you puzzle things out. Sometimes it’s better to not try to manage the chaos and to just give it a little space and time.

Also, the randomness of moving from one task to something that’s potentially totally different gives my brain a chance to switch gears.

Let me give you an example. Weekends I try to set aside a couple of hours to work in the shop or the yard or work on the house. This past week I had set aside some project time on Saturday. You have to understand that I went out with NOTHING specific in mind to work on. I figured that I’d find out what project was calling out to me to begin with and I’d start there. So I open up the shop and take a moment to look around for my first project. And there is it.

My automotive lift.

The last time I had been working, I has been working on something that was parked on the lift. And in the middle of that, the lift started acting up. Which made finishing the first job impossible. So I adjusted my “Active project” and focused out figuring out what was wrong with the lift. It turns out that it was low on hydraulic fluid. (Which I did not have on hand) So my task then was to create a parts shopping list to get the lift working again. I took a few minutes and got my shopping list firmed up. Task finished. So I turned a failure into a win and kept the chain going.

Later that week as I was out running some other errands, I was able to make a little time free so I stopped to pick up what I needed for the lift project. Now that I had the correct parts, I dropped them off in the shop right next to the lift so I’d be ready on the weekend to work on that project. Task completed. Another win.

So I’m looking around the shop Saturday morning…

And I see the supplies sitting right next to the lift. So there is my first project. I’ll service the lift first. A funnel and gloves and I had the fluids topped off. Then I tested the lift completely to make sure that everything was working properly. One project finished. First win for the day. Unfortunately, I managed to overfill the reservoir a little bit and during testing, that extra hydraulic fluid bubbled out and spilled on the floor. So lets take that failure, and turn it into another win. There is my next task. Clean up the floor so I don’t slip and hurt myself. A little oil dry on the floor to soak up the mess, and now I have to wait a few minutes for it to work. So I pivot and find another small project to do in between. Always moving forward. Keep the chain going.

I grabbed a box cutter and started to break down some cardboard that is waiting to be recycled. 20 minutes of hacking and stuffing and now the recycle pile is now almost gone, the bin is full, and I have another project completed. Another win. Now I can go back to the oil dry and get it swept up and disposed of properly. Another small project done.

One more win!

I spent the whole time I was out in the shop bouncing from one small project to the next. You could say that a good number of those projects were cleanup projects, which are typically the least fun things to do in a shop. Making stuff is always more fun than cleaning up afterwards. Making stuff is a messy process though, and since I don’t have staff to clean up my shop, I get to do it all. Breaking those jobs up into micro tasks makes them a little easier to swallow. Its not about “Cleaning the shop”, its just cleaning this one little part of the shop. I start with a little tiny project so I can get that first little win. And then just keep the momentum going until I’m out of time for the day.

You don’t eat an elephant all at once, you do it one bite at a time.

So what are you going to micro focus on first?

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