Thursday, December 9, 2010

Living (Un)routinely

"Since routine is simply a means of controlling time, Europeans are better at it, and therefore accomplish more in a day, a month, or a year. They pay in monotony. Africans control time less efficiently, but enjoy it more: they pay in stagnation." from The Mottled Lizard, by Elspeth Huxley
The notion of using routine in order to manage time reminds me of the Industrial Revolution, when the factory assembly line took efficient use of time to an extreme. Along with the incredible innovations in making goods we apparently learned to apply the characteristics of rigid order, repetition, and predictability to our own lives, both inside and outside of the workplace. In other words, we learned to make our lives more machine-like, more like a precisely defined, tightly-coupled sequence of steps.

At Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco the clock tower has a plaque with a verse from the Hebrew Scriptures: "Son, observe the time, and fly from evil. [Ecclesiasticus 4:23]". An ancient Jewish scribe recorded this admonition that time is short and must be spent wisely in pursuit of the good.

More than two thousand years separate these two writers but in my mind there is a kind of common view of time as a precious finite "resource". So this attitude has been around a bit and became intensified with all the material successes of the developed world in modern times.

But we are really talking about two different things here. One is the use of routine as a way to control and manage time. The other is the drive to make good use of it. Those are two different things.

In the past few decades in the U.S. corporate world the former has been relaxed quite a bit. That's partly due to technology such as computers, the Internet, and cell phones. I think it is also due to the accelerated pace of change in the marketplace and in the business world. Being agile, adaptable, and responsive to uncertainty is considered to be an essential advantage. Still, the ability to follow routine is part of our cultural DNA.

My experience so far is that Tanzanians are not terribly fond of creating and following routine. It is something that they learned from their former colonizers, the British, whom they try to emulate in some ways, but not something that they much take to.

Consequently, I have had to learn both to adjust to people not following routine very well Unin my opinion) as well as often tossing it out the window entirely. For instance, on more than one occasion the school has had visitors show up with no warning at all, much less an appointment. I was expected to drop whatever I was doing in order to talk with them or show them around.

Initially, I found this sort of thing annoying and frustrating. Gradually, I've come to develop my ability to respond immediately to whatever comes up and to recognize that in many situations the interruption to my routine simply does not matter. I can pick up where I left off at a later time.


[ Note: in software development the term "routine" roughly means a set sequence of steps that is part of a larger computer program. How apt that is for the most complex and flexible of machines. ]

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