How Long Will This Take?

On both Friday and Saturday I had some tasks that I had to accomplish, both of which depended on having relatively good weather. I had to fix a leaky roof at my house, and I had to put away my sailboat for the winter. There were similarities for both days’ tasks, in that I could not predict how long it would take me to do them. Also, on both days, I ended up being concerned about finishing before dark or before the rain came. I hate the pressure of having to finish up an open-ended task because the day is coming to an end and things… Have. To. Be. Done.

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On Saturday, E asked me, “How long will this take?” I couldn’t give an answer. Even though I’ve winterized the boat several times before, I still had no idea how long it would take. Why? It is basically the same job every year, so why can’t I just analyze the task and figure out how long it takes?

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While I was working on it, I was wondering about this. It made me think of something that happened in my teaching several years ago. I had a student in class who had switched majors from aviation to education. He had wanted to be a pilot, but had changed his mind and now he wanted to be a teacher. One day in class, he asked me why I was making things so complicated. In aviation, he said, everything boiled down to checklists. When you were getting ready to fly a plane, you had a checklist that you had to go through to make everything ready to go. Well, I was really struck by the comparison and by the question. My answer was that human beings are more complex than airplanes.

But still, there is a nagging part of me that is unsatisfied with that answer. Why can’t we boil teaching down to a checklist? Somehow that question seemed similar to me to the question on Saturday: Why couldn’t I know exactly how long this boat winterization would take?

As I worked on the boat, and on the previous day as I worked on the roof, there were parts of the task that did not go smoothly. There were problems that cropped up where I needed to stop and think about what to do. I had to try things, see how they worked, and then try something else. I had to keep fiddling around trying to make things the way I wanted them. This is where the time vortex came into play. This was the unpredictable part of the job. This is also where, if I had been forced to hold to a tight time schedule, I would have had real problems. I needed time to get it right. The issue of “getting it right” had to be given a higher priority than holding to a schedule.

Eureka!

Problem solving, and getting it right when there are multiple ways to approach the problem, are totally different than the sort of thing that can be done by checklist. When you’re getting ready to fly a plane, you don’t want multiple ways to approach the problem. You want the one and only, tried-and-true procedure that is known to work. If any step in the process hits a snag, you want a contingency plan that also gives you step-by-step directions to procedurally fix that problem. The last place I want creative thinking is from my pilot as he prepares for takeoff!

But the problems I run into in life – like fixing my roof and getting my boat “just right” for the winter, tend not to be refined, procedural problems. Certainly the problems teachers run into are not refined, procedural problems. These are problems that require creative, on-the-spot solutions where there are multiple possible pathways that may lead to the desired results. Often one pathway must be explored and exhausted before it becomes obvious that another pathway might be a better idea.

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I think this may be why I couldn’t say, in advance, how long it would take me to do the boat. If I could just be sure that there wouldn’t be any problems to solve along the way, maybe I could be more predictable. But, until life treats me more predictably, I will have to fly by the seat of my pants in a lot of circumstances.

 

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