Thoughts on "Good Enough" systems and Radar O'Reilly

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.)

Radar’s “ESP”

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?

Yes! As much as I look in wonder at folks using Obsidian, Roam, and other PKM tools, I just haven’t found a place for them yet. But I am happy to see that others found it working for them. I don’t have FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) when a new app shows up. I do a cursory look at a new app and ask myself if there is something in my current workflow/app that it does/doesn’t do. More often than not, I don’t replace my current app. One example was the new writing app that promises to integrate the best of Ulysses, Bear, and iA Writer into something new. I took a look and saw that it wasn’t for me quite yet. But at least I know that it is a possible option in the future if my future demands change. I’m also not a subscriber of SetApp. I just don’t have the time to explore all the new apps that are added to an impressive subscription. I try to streamline my apps to just what I need and no more. If there’s something truly out there, someone will comment on the interwebs and I’ll look once again.

I’m a firm believe of adopting pieces of a system and have it become a strong foundation piece by piece. I feel that building one habit at a time and then stacking on top of that over time tends to create a system that lasts longer. We all start off at white belt and get the foundation. Over time, we pass a test to acquire the next belt and develop a solid core that becomes solid over time.

That’s the foundation! Stick with it. I have OmniFocus but I don’t use all of the features that are included in a powerful app. I reckon that many users will probably use 5-10% of the feature set found in Microsoft Word/Excel or Adobe Photoshop. Get good at the features you need. Know that there are other features available if needed.

Oh, I’m guilty of this too! That’s why I’ve gotten away from a SetApp subscription. I’ve also narrowed down my never-ending stream of productivity tips/blog posts. I’ll give a cursory look at many new blog posts but will pick very few new experiments to try. I think a newbie in the productivity world will want to try everything and anything to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s a journey we all take. But as we go further down the road, we’ll start to see similar values and habits that reappear over time. I turned down my faucet down over time after having built a core set of habits/practices over a lengthy time.

I think that a lot of productivity tips/lifehacks are only good if they become a habit or system. I often try a new tip out for a few weeks and see if it sticks. A new productivity tip/app has to be used routinely for it to stick. I might try something for a couple of weeks and it just doesn’t fit in my life right now. The ones that stick are worth keeping. The others, I often write a small note in DEVONthink that describes the tip and why it didn’t work for me at this time. I can always refer to this later if I want to re-activate a old tip that I might find useful later. But more often than not, the tip just stays inactive in my archives.

Nowadays, I look for blog posts that will help me develop a habit that will stick around.

My system is “good enough for now.” Most of what I need are small tweaks to make life smoother. But I totally get it when newbies are trying to absorb as much as possible to see what works. Sifting through all the wonderful articles takes time until we create our own effective workflow.

Thanks for the awesome, post!

1 Like

Thanks for taking the time to write this out and share it with the community, @Kracke. I think you hit on a very important topic that a lot of folks who are interested in productivity practices deal with.

Honestly, I’ve been working with productivity systems for over a decade and it wasn’t until the last year where this desire mellowed out. I purposefully intentioned myself in 2020 to settle down my productivity system so I wasn’t changing tools so much. Interestingly enough, I think I changed tools more in 2020 than in other years – but it was in an effort to find a workflow that stuck vs. just trying new things out.

I’ve also noticed in myself a bit of skepticism toward new apps that offer to be the “next great thing”. Most often the hype is… hype. One example is Roam – there are some great features in Roam but to me the experience of using it did not add up to the hype around it. Another is Notion – again, a very powerful application, but the hype didn’t measure up long term, especially with their kitchen-sink approach to features. This skepticism as to the usefulness of new things has helped me keep focused on what works for me.

I’m at a place right now where things are good enough. It’s not perfect, but I’m not in search of perfect – only helpful.

I think this is the crux of the answer to your question @Kracke! Inefficient, chaotic – so what? :slight_smile:

If it works for you, then it works!

I remember an article that came up a few years ago where someone microscheduled their day down to the minute, and were hyperproductive with it. Great! That works for them. But will it work for the masses? Likely not.

It’s so easy to get swept up in all these hyper-organized systems and feel like you’re behind. But just like everything else, the law of diminishing returns applies to productivity systems. How much productivity are you eeking out by removing every efficiency?

I’d contend not that much.

The Pareto principle would state that 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort. If you want the rest of the 20% of results, you need to put in the 80% of the effort required.

In some cases, it’s worth it. In most others, it’s not. You’d be better off spending that 80% effort in actually getting stuff done instead of further optimizing your system.

P.S. good to hear from you @wilsonng! I’ve missed your wisdom around here :smiley:

I scheduled a podcast to go out on this topic 2021-02-15T14:00:00Z