A lot of activities in life or work have to be done more than once, or even repeatedly – many times over and over. Often then we are usually only done for now. That is important, but we will do well to care about later, too.
To begin, two examples. Imagine a household, if you will.
A typical activity in the kitchen is to make a meal. You need to have some idea what you are doing, the right ingredients, utensils and dishes, a clean working surface, et cetera. Eventually, hopefully you will have produced a nutritious and ideally tasty meal. In the course of it all, of course: dishes.
The size of the meal – and the number of dishes – will differ based on the number of mouths to feed. Some meals are more elaborate than others, some involve more people than others. However, in the typical household this type of activity occurs again and again. How soon again, how often? It depends.
When is it time to do dishes? Next day, end of this day? As much as possible, while preparing the meal? Cleaning as you cook, allowing you to sit down for the meal with an essentially clean kitchen could be the right move, though it may not be practicable.
Different room, similar questions.
Let’s say you begin the week with only clean clothes. You put on clothes in the morning. Of course wearing clothes and going about your day has the effect of turning clean clothes into dirty ones. At the end of the day, you move some or all of the worn clothes into the hamper.
All of this repeats every day throughout that week. Every day you convert clean clothes to dirty clothes. Depending on the number of people in the household, the load multiplies accordingly.
By the end of the week, a sizable portion of the household’s clothes will have moved from dressers into the laundry hamper(s). How many days until “laundry day?”One, seven, fourteen? Zero?
This is not really about dishes or laundry. What is neat about these examples though is that there is a good chance you see versions of that play out in your own household. You can examine them there, experiment perhaps, see what you can learn.
There are important commonalities between them and you can see those in a whole lot of areas outside the home.
You care about getting the work done, but also realize, it practically never ends. The kitchen is to be used, clothes are there to be worn, and so forth. Shortly after everything is cleaned up, more work to be done shows up. Of course, that is not a problem to be fixed — that is just how it is. It is the nature of the work.
This type of work is generally not done once, but rather over and over again. It happens over time.
That being so, we care about this work, but knowing we have to do this again, also future work. Thinking about future work can (and often should) change how we approach present one.
Thinking about the future here, you realize this: It is not just about future work, but also the future self. Most mental models ultimately aim to to improve the odds for your future self.
If it is about your future work, then it is also about how your future self gets to spend time and invest attention.
The system perspective on this type of work is useful here. Whether it is about preparing meals, doing laundry, commuting to work, hiring new team members, assembling products in a factory or growing the code base for a software application, and so forth – it all involves work moving through systems:
A system is a group of interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. A system, surrounded and influenced by its environment, is described by its boundaries, structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning. Systems are the subjects of study of systems theory and other systems sciences.
Of course, the systems have to perform and process their work repeatedly. If the kitchen system only accounts for making meals, you will soon run out of clean dishes or working surfaces. Considering future resource needs is important. Likewise, usage can lead to stress, which can affect the quality and performance of components of the systems or of the work accomplished.
When it is not working right, experience degrades over time, or has become unhelpfully inconsistent. Dishes pile up, when you need them most. The specific pants you are looking for are still (or again, you cannot be sure!) in the laundry. A mechanical machine is moving much less smoothly than it used to. A code base that used to be so simple is suddenly in a state where changes are
surprisingly remarkably time-consuming.
Working clean means to work sustainably, so that it can be done over and over again without producing undue waste and without introducing preventable slowdowns or degradations.
Constraints and needs will differ from system to system, process to process. Given one of those and as a sort of reminder, I like to ask:
What does working clean look like there?
That will usually inspire some interesting thinking.