On Systems, Productivity, and Radar O’Reilly
I know this is probably a dated reference, but I I’ve been thinking a lot about Radar O’Reilly lately. Walter “Radar” O’Reilly is a character that most people know from the TV show M*A*S*H. As company clerk, he is responsible for keeping things running smoothly, handling the mountains of paperwork required by the military, and generally serving as the “knower of things” for the unit. He’s the Commanding Officer’s right hand man, and he could get the unit almost anything it ever needed.
If you are wondering what a character in a drama/comedy from the 1970s has to do with productivity, personal knowledge management, and my own struggles in implementing systems, let me tell you: there are two specific “running gags” with this character that have been sticking out to me as I try to get some systems back in order.
The Filing System of Radar
Radar’s filing system is particular to the man. There are plenty of gags about where to find things:
- “Radar, would the paperwork be filed under J for Jeep or M for Maintenance?” “Neither, it’s under I for Iowa. We have a lot a jeeps in Iowa, and every time I think of Iowa, I think of Jeeps.”
- someone is looking for a map of the minefield and cannot find it under M … “It’s under B for Boom.”
- upon hearing that Radar’s bugle is in the filing cabinet under B … “Where do you keep you clipboard? Under C?” “No, K.”
What makes for some goofy jokes looks like complete mess if you examine it objectively. How does this make any sense? How can you find anything?
The thing is, Radar knows exactly where everything is in that system. Need Jeep Maintenance paperwork? Easy. Look under _I _ for Iowa. He doesn’t blink, he doesn’t hesitate. He just knows where to find what he needs. (Which brings me to the next gag.)
Walter O’Reilly gets the nickname “Radar” because he often knew or anticipated things before they happened. In part, he had phenomenal hearing and would hear the choppers coming with wounded soldiers before anyone else could. When Radar said “incoming wounded”, everyone trusted that assessment.
But it went beyond that, with Radar appearing in the CO’s office with an answer or file before it was actually requested. This was played up for comedy of the show, with Colonels getting flustered by Radar’s sudden appearance with exactly the file they needed, but it seems to me to be the mark of an ideal assistant - someone who anticipates your needs almost before you are aware of them.
What does this have to do with productivity?
Radar has been coming to mind a lot lately as I have been trying to overhaul/reboot my own organizational systems. Everything is “on the table” during this re-organization - physical files, digital files, tasks, projects, notes. I cam to this point when I realized that the systems I had developed were systems for someone else’s life. I had watched dozens of YouTube videos, read dozens of articles, read a couple of books and settled on some “best practices” that I tried to implement.
I won’t bore you with specifics, but I essentially cherry-picked the more innovative tips, tricks, techniques, and systems and tried to establish my own system. I downloaded new apps. I renamed things with new nomenclature.
And I felt lost.
Turns out, that file naming scheme worked great for that design firm, but kind of fell apart when I tried to implement it in my solo freelancing life. That context-driven task management system that had brilliant automations based on geolocation collapsed under the reality that my physical context is always the same — at home with all my personal and work stuff. The hours I sank into customizing that PKM app because someone I respect manages their whole life with it were lost because that app felt clunky to me … and I didn’t like using it.
In short, I didn’t follow Radar’s example. The systems I had built were “for show”. I had spent time developing something that others would look at an appreciate the tweaks and tricks I has created. My solution would be a universal one that could maybe be published someday…. Except it doesn’t work for me at all.
The case for “just in time” and “good enough”
This has been said by multiple people, but the solution I am trying now is “just start and build it as you go”. Don’t try to build a folder hierarchy that anticipates every possible need — file your stuff in the place that makes sense and where you can find it. If that folder gets too big, divide it up in a way that makes sense to you and move on. Start with a list of what you need to do and expand it only when you have to. Just start taking notes and linking them and organizing them as you go. None of this is set in stone. None of it is permanent.
And yet, I’ve frequently found myself in an awkward position. Just today, I was looking at the big pile of plain-text notes that I have and thought “what a mess! You look like you have no idea what you are doing!” There are only 50 or so topical notes in a single folder. I have another folder with daily logs. One more with weekly logs. A quote about computer programming is nestled alongside a list of Sci-Fi novels I want to read and checklist for a volunteer position at my church. It’s inefficient. It’s chaotic. And I know where everything is. (And honestly, I am such a big fan of search that the “big pile and a good search engine” method works … for me).
My task system is a project list, a main task list, and a list for today. Nothing is tagged or flagged. It is not elegant. No one will write a book about it.
How do you manage the overthinking?
I am coming to a place where I recognize my own tendency to love tweaking systems. I am prone to incorporate things from people I admire whether or not their solutions apply to my life at all.
For example, I find the idea of a Zettelkasten truly fascinating. I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I finally had to admit that this is true because I kind of wish my life had room and space for the deep thinking and research that this approach is intended to manage. The truth is, that is not the life I am living right now.
In oversimplified terms — I may think that mountain climbing is really cool. I may want to try it someday. I do not need to buy high-end mountain climbing gear when I have yet to even go on a real hike in the past 6 months. That gear may be cool, but it doesn’t address my challenges.
And yet, I can’t “un-know” what I know. I know the apps that are out there. I know a dozen different approaches. I am finding myself, more and more, feeling intense dissatisfaction with the things that are working for me because they aren’t … sexy? innovative? cool?
How do you manage the desire to tweak and fuss and re-work when the system you have is good enough for the problems you are facing today and the best use of your time is to get to work with what you already have? I’ve printed out a picture of Radar and taped it to my monitor as a reminder, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have to fight the siren call of “productivity porn” again and again.
How about you?