Friday, November 19, 2010

Zeno's Projects

I was on vacation in late October and early November. Since we weren't planning any major trips, I had a list of projects to get done at home, including trying new recipes, learning new music, and selling some stuff on Ebay. However, the weather was gorgeous, and I didn't want to spend much time inside, so I concentrated on one project in our yard. I had started it in February, simply planning to prune the ivy away from a brick border during a time it was too wet to do much else. Once I got started, I discovered a lot of other over-grown things, and began to feel I'd never finish. I eventually named it Zeno's Yard Project, after the best-know of Zeno's paradoxes.

This Zeno's paradox basically says that it's impossible to get anywhere, because you always have to cover half the distance left, and then half that distance, and then half that distance, etc., etc. I was fascinated with it as a child; I remember trying to keep moving my finger smaller and smaller distances, but never touch the wall I was standing by. My Zeno Yard Project was something like that. I did finish it (after all, it is a paradox), but it involved a lot of work, and some serious sawing of 30-year-old arbor vitae and cotoneaster, not to mention pulling dried blackberry canes out of 10-foot-tall holly trees. and pulling up half-inch thick ivy vines. (For those concerned about invasive species, I'm replacing these invaders with native plants)

So what does this have to do with libraries? Well, after I got back to work, I started to notice that I've got a number of Zeno project here, too. They tend to be pretty technical services oriented, although I imagine folks in other library disicplines have them, too. Mine are usually lists (fequently in Create Lists in Millenium) of records than need to evaluated, and possibly updated or deleted. They frequently point out other problems that need to be addressed. They also typically aren't particularly high priority, so other demands take my attention away from them for months at a time.

I bet most of you out there in support staff land have similar projects. I'm not claiming to be in control of mine, but I have come up with some coping ideas:
  • Scope small: It's easier (and safer) to eat things in small bites. Don't get distracted from the thing you set out to accomplish. For instance, if your goal is to clean up check-in records, don't start cleaning up order records.
  • Harvest the low-hanging fruit: Do the easy stuff first. It's possible that will be enough.
  • Ask for help: You might need someone with different expertise to handle some of the project. Or, with a more general project, you may be able to turn it into a group event, where everyone pitches in for an hour.
  • Say "no": This is tough! If the project is really low-value and low-priority, a diplomatic "I'm sorry, but other priorities will keep me from working on this" is worth a try. (Of course, this is assuming this isn't a project that you assigned to yourself!). At the very least, asking to postpone the project, and giving a recommended date to start, may help.
We're all juggling multiple priorities in busy workplaces. Recognizing and managing Zeno projects can make our work a little easier.