Friday, July 2, 2010

Lessons from a whiteboard

I have a whiteboard at work.

I inherited it from the break room area in the old building when we moved off-campus.

Interns used to doodle on it; the office manager would sometimes write important dates; and the staff used it as a backrest when conversing over a cup of coffee.

It was a big, blank white board. No grids. No columns. No definition of any sort.

Do what you will with it.

Most engineers I know use their white boards to think things through -- make diagrams and complex flow charts; write out bits and bytes of information; create mock motherboards; and leave each other nerdy messages.

Well, I'm no left-brain type, so no inspiration there for me.

It sat in my office for two weeks before the facilities guys came and mounted it.

There it was -- a blank slate, staring at me.

I stared back equally blank.

I had never had a white board before, so I was really at a loss on how to make the best use of it.

I walked around the office -- other people had different versions: one had neat little squares where you could put dates and about two lines worth of data; another had graph-like grids; and yet another had columns.

Mine was just white.

I could do
anything with it. I just didn't know what.

Then, two days after the board had been installed, I went into a meeting. Came out with some front burner assignments that I immediately started transferring on to post-its, stuck strategically around my monitor.

Halfway through this task, the bulb went on.

I had four markers -- blue, red, green and black...why not use them to transfer this information on to the whiteboard?

I wrote "
On the burners for October" as my headline. And proceeded to write out the tasks tagged by deadlines.

The project name was in black; the task details in blue; the due date in red; and the completed date in green.

I had a system.

My office whiteboard

On the last day of the month, I took photos of the board, cleaned it until it squeaked and my office reeked of ethanol, and then filled it again with those three primary colors and black.

Colleagues and visitors were floored by my simple system. My manager thought it was ingenious. My office-mate tried to replicate it.

For all the
gadgets I own, this wire-less piece of melamine was what I had begun to rely on to keep me organized and on track.

I've used this whiteboard for almost 10 months now and as I was wiping it clean this morning to begin another month of activities, I realized that this board is so effective because it allows me to live my professional life in manageable chunks.

There is no big picture stuff on there.

Just the one month.

Four weeks. 20 days. 160 hours.

That's all it encapsulates.

It dawned on me that this whiteboard is teaching me a valuable lesson: focus on bite-sized chunks of your life. Live it every day.

Yes, all those big life plans are great to have, but who knows what's in store for you tomorrow, let alone 10 years from now?

It's overwhelming to plan out an entire lifetime given the number of variables and unknowns in one's path. Not to say that
some planning isn't good, but you will be able to inch your way to the long-term plans, only when you live your life fully today.

My big takeaway?

Make a wishlist, create some milestones, do what you can, and enjoy your present -- for there is no time like right now.

Also posted on my blog.