How to Become a Compulsive Workaholic With No Life… Or The Secrets Behind My Success

Nancy Baym from Online Fandom has tagged me with the “Simply Successful Secrets” meme. I am supposed to tell you some of the secrets behind my success.

I was tempted to say that one of the secrets is that I never respond to blog memes, chain letters, pyramid schemes, letters from Africans who want to promise me a portion of their national treasury, and venture capitalists who think that I might have a strong interest in their next project if I only set aside an hour or two to consult with them for free. By riding my life of such things, I discover I have many more hours in the day than most of my friends.

But then I took a niceness pill and decided that it was only fair that Nancy tagged me since I tagged her a few months ago in response to the Five Things You Don’t Know About Me meme.

I also figure that this is an aspect of the communal and informal nature of the blogosphere that people stop what they are doing, suspend the normal topics of their blogs, and write personal things because someone essentially dared them to do so. It’s hard to imagine anything would happen if at the end of this post I tagged Dan Rather, John Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, or Simon Cowell. None of these people have sufficient control over their own output to be able to put the social obligations represented by such memes ahead of institutional expectations.

So, you want to know how I succeed at doing the broad range of things I write about here. Well, let me give you a clue. These are the things I wanted to do this weekend:

Go to see Grindhouse at the Boston Common Theater.

Watch the opening episode of The Sopranos‘ final season

Keep plowing through the new Robin Hood series from the UK.

Watch the 5th season dvds of The Shield that just arrived from Amazon

Read the growing pile of comics and graphic novels next to my bed.

Finally get a running start on the Second Season of Supernatural.

Etc., etc., etc.

Keep in mind the myth that I get paid to watch movies and television, read comics, and play video games. I could in theory count any of the above as work but it is all less pressing than the things I ended up spending the weekend doing.

Instead, these are some of the things that I did do this weekend (from a list of more than 47 items):

Write the welcome letter to those attending the Media in Transition 5 conference.

Review and make notes on the rough cuts of the next round of Project nml Exemplars.

Read and comment on draft chapters for four different thesis

grade a pile of undergraduate essays

prepare for next week’s classes

develop a description for a revision of the Comparative Media Studies undergraduate curriculum

Prepare powerpoints for a series of talks I am giving over the next few weeks.

write blog entries

You know you work too hard when you think the best thing about weekends is that you don’t have any meetings and so you can really get work done.

In other words, if you want to know the secret of my success, talk to Doctor Faustus.

So, you can follow the advice below if you wish but keep in mind that, as the title of this post suggests, doing so will probably suck the blood out of your body and turn you into a compulsive workaholic. Read the following at your own risk.


Follow the Path of Least Resistance. One reason why I do so many different things in once — like publish three books back to back — is that it allows me to stay in constant motion. If you do only one thing and you hit a roadblock, all you can do is stop until you can route around it. If you multitask, then you just shift lanes, do something else for a while, and come back to the original task hopefully with a fresh perspective. So, the key to getting lots of things done is to have lots of things to do in the first place and to keep doing at least some of them all the time.

Make Lists. It is easy to get lost when you have a few hundred different balls flying at you from all directions. So, periodically, you need to stop for ten minutes and make a list of all of the things you have to do. The list helps you to set priorities and figure out what you want to do. It allows you to be proactive rather than reactive. It provides the pleasure of crossing off items on the list which can itself be a strong motivator to keep working.

Exploit Electronic Media. I could not do what I do if I did not have e-mail and other electronic media. I would accomplish far less if I was stuck in a postal or telephone based information economy. With e-mail, I can fire off e-mail when I think of it, in the middle of the night, and not have to worry about reaching the person on the other end of the phone. I may fire off thirty or forty pieces of e-mail in an hour. E-mail also allows me to keep a record of what I’ve said and what the other person said in response. So I use e-mail even with my assistant who sits in the outer office.

Network. As will be clear by now to regular readers of this blog, I know a lot of people and I know who to go to for help, advice, etc. This means I also try to be there for these people. I try to respond to every piece of e-mail I get and to do as many favors for as many people as I can. (That’s partially because I am an Eagle Scout and so doing a good deed everyday has become second nature, but it is also the case that avoiding conflicts lowers friction in my life and having lots of friendly contacts insures that I can count on people when I need them.) Favors cost time in the short run, save time in the long run. Annoying people costs you every time.

If You Want to Write, Write. Robert Benchley published a classic essay in the 1930s called “How to Get Things Done” (or some such) in which he said the first step in doing everything you have been procrastinating about is to sit down to write. Most of us would rather do anything — even those chores we’ve been putting off — rather than write. As a former journalist, I am not afraid of writing. I also know that with constant deadline pressure I can’t afford to be a perfectionist. Procrastination is an indulgence for those people who have time for it. I don’t and so I don’t put things off that I can do right now. And writing is key among them. And following my core logic of the path of least resistance, if I start to feel blocked as a writer, I often will change the format or tools that I am using for writing. So, I will write parts of my essays as e-mail (since most of us are more comfortable writing an e-mail to a friend than writing an essay for class) or powerpoint (since it allows me to shuffle the pieces and reorganize my mouths as many times as needed.)

Exercise and Work at the Same Time. My doctor wanted me to exercise. I knew I would never do it since it would take time away from work. So I decided to integrate it into my professional life. I now have walking office hours. I will take a student or colleague with me on the two mile walk around the Charles I take most days, weather permitting. It both insures that I get my exercise and that I get to know the people I work with better. Of course, you can push this principle too far. I once half jokingly asked a friend who wanted me to take up Yoga whether I could do it and watch television at the same time. She was not amused.

Break Big Tasks into Smaller Tasks. This is something I’ve learned from being an MIT. You can’t deal with a complex system without taking it apart, working through each part, and then putting it back together again. Besides, most of us feel overwhelmed by big projects but can deal with small items of our list without much worry. So, break it down into whatever granularity you need to focus on and complete the task at hand.

Get a Great Staff. All of the above might sound totally egotistical since it implies that I am in any way the author of my own success. The reality is that Henry Jenkins can do all of these things because Henry Jenkins isn’t a person. He’s a brand. There’s a large team of really great people working in the CMS program who either enable me to do things or take away obstacles so I can focus my time and energy on the tasks that do require my attention. My father taught me years ago to treat your staff well and they will help you; treat them badly and you are in big, big trouble. I am always astonished by how few academics understand this basic principle.

Reword Yourself for Success. This is the one that I honor in the abstract rather than in reality but it is key. If you exhaust yourself, you can’t work effectively. Just as you should treat your staff well, you should treat yourself well. So, I probably should have done at least one of those things that I wanted to do this weekend just so I can keep moving forward in the week ahead. But even as I am writing this, I know I am probably not going to listen to myself. And if I don’t follow my own advice, why should you?

so, the final message here is don’t try this at home, kids!

Comments

  1. Great advice, boss. I already do most of the things you describe here, although I stopped making lists this semester when they just got too bloody overwhelming, and the Thesis had to take precedence over just about everything else!

    I’d add one additional tip: subdivide your email inbox. Since I tend to use my inbox as a de facto to-do list, I’ve found it’s a huge help to create folders in your e-mail client for “To-Do: Personal” and “To-Do: Professional”, et cetera. That way I don’t get overwhelmed when my inbox lists over a hundred actionable items every day — I just shunt things into separate folders and then tackle those one at a time. (Which, I suppose, is just a different form of making lists. But anyway.)

    I’ve also tacked an inspirational quote from Teddy Roosevelt up on my wall over my computer — clichéd, I know, but it does help: “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have!” It helps me to remember to shift to a second project when I become stuck on the first one instead of wasting time despairing over a roadblock.

  2. ‘Make lists’ has served me well for, well, as long as I’ve been alive. And while I’m not sure I can count as successful yet, I think I’m doing pretty well. You’re lucky, though, that you can exercise and work at the same time — I can’t seem to manage it, no matter how sure I am that this will be the day that I bring my books with me onto the treadmill.

    But you really ought to follow your own advice and see “Grindhouse” anyway, as it was so excellent that I actually yelled at the movie screen at one point in sheer glee (I almost, almost always restrain myself). Then again, I suppose you might not be a person who can be pacified by panem et circenses (which is essentially what “Grindhouse” is a homage to: the sweet, sweet sight of motion picture sex n’ violence) in which case you probably won’t be as thrilled as I was.

    As for the communal and informal part of the blogosphere — most blogs I read are personal; therefore, you are not only well within your rights but actually almost required to occasionally write entries about personal topics. I at least find blogs that don’t ever do so quite offputting (unless they’re group blogs).

  3. Henry,

    I have looked at over 100 entries to this Simply Successful Secrets project, and I can usually get a feel for the person on the other end of the keyboard, as it were, and that was the case with you as well.

    I felt bad for your lost weekend, though, because what you WANTED to do certainly sounded more exciting than what you ended up doing!

    However, being someone who works 7 days per week myself, I recognize the pattern, so I’ll just give you a stern “You need to take time for yourself!” warning, and leave it at that.

    All of that being said, your success is clearly the result of some great habits and some good old-fashioned hard work and perseverance. Who’da thunk it???

    Thanks for participating, Henry. Now, go take a day off. The Sopranos are waiting!

  4. Jason Rockwood says:

    Don’t let Yoga-girl keep you down! The next wave of yoga is a media-rich yoga experience.

  5. Greg Demchak says:

    Very good advise.

    I thought you might be interested in new post-apocalyptic webisode series i’ve been working on. It can be viewed on may video sharing sites, and our own site, http://www.ladywasteland.com

    I am architect by background, with degree from MIT, and currently design software, but also write and produce an experiment in on-line media delivery with a good fried and director. Would be interested in having you watch it and see what you think.

    -Greg Demchak

    Wasteland Films