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Sometimes tasks take too much time

People who know me know that I’m perpetually behind in getting things done (grading, paperwork, straightening my offices). Many issues contribute to being perpetually behind. In part, I just have a lot of small things to do [1] In part, it’s because I’m tempted to do the easy tasks first, rather than the difficult ones [2]. In part, I delay tasks because I’ve already delayed them, and it’s hard to get the energy to start a delayed task. But it’s also that some tasks take much longer than they should.

Why do some of my tasks take too long? Let’s look at an example from a recent evening. I wanted to donate some money to Grinnell [3]. My memory said Oh, that’ll be easy. There’s a big Donate button at the top of every page on the Web site. But it turns out I was wrong. At some point, the College seems to have realized that it was a little bit tacky to be so blatantly asking for money.

So I did the next thing: I Googled Donate to Grinnell [4]. The first thing that came up was the Giving to Grinnell page at I said to myself Hmmm … that’s interesting. I thought we discontinued forum. Now, most people who knew that we’d discontinued forum would just scroll down until they found the right page. But I clicked on the link to see what would happen. And then I waited, and waited, and waited. At this point, most people would say Okay, it’s time to try a different link. But this is me. So I took a snapshot of the screen, fired up my email program, and sent a message to DAR saying Maybe someone should pay attention to this problem.

What’s the next link? A page entitled Donate | Grinnell College. Ah, that sounds promising. So I clicked on the link. Guess what? It’s a Donate to the Liberal Arts in Prison Program page [6]. Fortunately, that page links to the College’s brand new donation form. Of course, that page is entitled Donation Form - Alumni - Grinnell College, which makes me wonder if I’m allowed to use it. Never mind, we’ll press on.

I started to enter the donation information and then saw that the form includes a friendly line that reads My company will macth my gift - Look it up. So I decided to see if Grinnell will match my gift to Grinnell [7]. And I discovered that that feature is broken. Did I say to myself That’s not my problem? and go back to donating? No, I took the time to document the issue (including my browser and OS) and then send another message to DAR.

Oh, I also took the time to craft text that says that the money need not be used within a particular time period [8].

And, after donating, I decided to check to see whether there’s a real donation history on the new site. (The old site claimed to have a donation history, but didn’t.)

Finally, after donating, I drafted the first part of this essay.

So, what should have been a five-minute task, at most, took something like twenty minutes, not including the time to draft this part of the essay.

What’s the moral? You might think that the moral would be another rant about the state of our Web site. But that’s not what I intend as the moral. The moral is that my personality is such that (a) I tend to do side explorations in the middle of any task; (b) I find ways to break things; (c) I take the time to notify people when things are broken; and (d) sometimes I’m too damn finicky. All these things make me slower at the tasks I undertake. Will I change? Probably not.

Just so you know, the story above is not an isolated incident. The next day, I had a disagreement with an administrator about an aspect of a policy adopted last year. So, first I looked for the minutes on GrinCo [10]. But the only things I could find on the Dean’s site on GrinCo were the agendas for this year’s faculty meetings. Was I deterred? No, I sent a message to the person responsible for taking minutes at the meetings. And, amazingly [12], she wrote back to me quickly to tell me that the old minutes were actually on P’Web [13].

Now, I tend to stay off of P’Web, except to print my class roster. So it took a few minutes to see where they hid things in the latest redesign. But, eventually, I was able to find the faculty meeting minutes. And then I realized that I had to tell the legendary Erik Simpson where they were [14].

Now, the interesting thing about the P’Web repository of faculty meeting minutes is that there aren’t really minutes there. Well, there are minutes, but they aren’t labeled as minutes. Rather, we have the agendas for each faculty meeting, and the agenda for each faculty meeting contains the minutes from the previous meeting. I don’t think that’s a good way to organize information, so I dropped a note to the person responsible for taking the minutes, who told me that someone else is responsible for posting the minutes [15]. I also dropped a note to my representative on Executive Council to ask why it is so hard to find the minutes.

Next I tried to find the information I wanted. And try some more. Maybe I remembered incorrectly. But I’m usually good at remembering policy discussions. And, after a bit, I realized that there’s a significant flaw in our method of posting minutes. If we approve revisions to the minutes [16], those revisions appear in the minutes of the meeting at which we approve the revisions, but the minutes themselves don’t appear in updated form. That warranted another message to the person responsible for the minutes (or for posting the minutes). Eventually, that will warrant a note to my Dean.

I also noticed that when the agendas appear in my Web browser, the PDF documents have a very interesting title: I am pleased recommend to you xxxx xxxxx - 2-15-16_Faculty Meeting Agenda [17,18]. And, of course, that led me to send another flurry of email messages, particularly to the person who posted the agendas, since I don’t think they intended the document to have that name [19].

Even after all of that, I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.

Fortunately, I often take my own minutes for most faculty meetings that I attend. They are usually briefer than the official minutes. They are always snarkier than the official minutes. But they provide me with reminders. And, fortunately, I had taken notes at the meeting in which the policy was under discussion and I was able to figure out which meeting that was. And, lo and behold, my memory was correct.

Was I done? Of course not. I had to finish by sending a note to the administrators with whom I was debating the issue. I am pleased to say that they accepted my note, even though the discussion was not recorded in the minutes [20].

Are there new morals to this second story? No, I do not intend any morals to be about our Web presence. I’ve already talked to the person responsible for posting the minutes and agendas, and she is working on moving them all to GrinCo, which is an appropriate place for them [21]. Unfortunately, there is no convenient way to move the files between systems [22], so it’s going to take some time.

Whoops! I went off track there for a minute. I think there are two important morals for this second story. One, I send a lot of extra email messages while completing a task. Two, when I’m sure I’m write about something, I keep digging and digging, even though it takes a lot of time.

So, why do tasks take so damn much time? Because I don’t let things slide. Because I think people should know when things are broken. Because I like to send snarky email.

Would I be more efficient if I could avoid some of these things?
Probably. But I wouldn’t have as much fun. More importantly, I can’t really help it. By this stage of my life, this work mode is part of who I am.

Two really long essays in two days. That’s not a good sign. Let’s hope that I’m more concise tomorrow [23].

[1] See the forthcoming essay entitled Nibbled to death by ducks

[2] See the recent essay entitled Misunderstanding metaphors

[3] Yes, I regularly donate to Grinnell. I donate to my department, to the Grinnell Science Project, to studio art, to the writing lab, to swimming and diving, and sometimes even to the general fund. I would encourage you to donate to Grinnell, too. If you choose to make targeted donations, please include a note that This gift is to be used as the department sees fit. In particular, the department should not be required to use this gift within a particular time period. See my forthcoming essay entitled Donating to Grinnell for more details.

[4] That means that Google now knows that I donate, or at least think about donating. I should probably be more cautious about what I search for. Oh well, it’s better than More evil than Satan (or the typo of More evil than Stan) [5].

[5] See the forthcoming essay entitled Embarrassing teaching moments

[6] Grinnell’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program is wonderful. You should consider donating. Maybe that will be my next donation.

[7] Yeah, no, as my students say.

[8] Why are you reading this footnote? I’ve already said that I’ll talk about that in the forthcoming essay entitled Donating to Grinnell [9].

[9] Why have I designated so many of my essays as forthcoming? See the forthcoming essay entitled Forthcoming essays for more details.

[10] In case you haven’t been keeping track, the College has a Sharepointless site that they refer to as GrinnellShare. However, since its url is, I call it GrinCo. See my forthcoming essay entitled GrinCo - Where we make you smile for more details [11].

[11] Have I pushed this joke too far? See another forthcoming essay

[12] Or not so amazingly, given who it is.

[13] For those not at Grinnell, P’Web is Pioneer Web, Grinnell’s Blackboard installation. Blackboard is a Learning Management System (LMS, for you TLA advocates). Why are the faculty meeting minutes on our LMS? Because Grinnell subscribes to the if all you have is a hammer philosophy of software. We saw it with Blackboard. We see it with Sharepointless. We’ll soon see it with Salesforce.

[14] I think my message was Erik, you’ll enjoy this. Rabbit holes multiply almost as quickly as rabbits. His response was as sarcastic as you would expect.

[15] See, Erik. They just keep multiplying and multiplying.

[16] As you would expect, I’m the faculty member who seems most likely to suggest revisions to the minutes.

[17] I have x’d out the person’s name.

[18] Amazingly, I didn’t complain about the date format. But yes, I do have a forthcoming essay

[19] Neither she nor I can figure out why they have that name. I think it’s because Microsoft Windows is not particularly user friendly.

[20] Reminder to self: Pay even more attention to what does and does not go in the minutes of the faculty meeting.

[21] While I think many things at the College should be public, I accept that faculty meeting minutes do not have to be public.

[22] Cue snarky comment.

[23] Would you believe that I have a forthcoming essay on concision?

Version 1.1.4 of 2017-05-28.