'Think about how to do it right, rather than do it over'

15th December 2016 at 15:27
teaching, ideas, tips, schools, students
'Finding the time to rethink how you work can be difficult - but only by innovating will you find greater success'

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In the late 1970s, a former chemistry student of mine who had graduated with an engineering degree from MIT and was working in the nuclear power business revealed a slogan that he heard too often. The saying was: 'We don't have time to do it right, but we do have time to do it over.'

I was stunned. This was even before thoughts of Homer Simpson lounging at the control panel of a nuclear power plant could have come to mind. 

At first this saying didn't seem to make much sense, but I soon figured it out as I went about my own work and life. The main idea is that if you want to do something better, it will most likely take more time than if you continue doing it the old way. If you are very busy, the idea of taking more time to do a routine task certainly won't thrill you. Better to spend a little bit of time fixing it later if you really need to.

The problem is inertia. In physics and in human behavior it essentially means resistance to change. Knowing there is probably a better or more efficient way to do something and not exploring it may not be a crime, but it seems somewhat criminal to me. This is especially true for educators who are dealing with the futures of children.

Here is a simple example from my own experience where making the effort paid dividends: learning to type properly.

When I started teaching I didn't like any of the learning materials the school had so I started creating my own. It was slow going at first, but knew learning to type would help me create more and better lesson plans. With persistence and practice I was able to type as fast as I could think. 

When I became a school principal it also meant that the school secretary didn't have to transcribe my hand-written notes. This freed her up to do other things that benefited the school and ultimately the children. 

I also embraced technology. When I was a principal back in the 1990s, I had been using spreadsheets since they were invented in 1979. As a result it took me about half an hour to do my yearly budget while my colleagues worked nights and weekends with their yellow pads and calculators that showed only one number at a time.

I also took the time to learn how to select, sort, and display data in a powerful and more informative manner. I've seen many people engage in what amounts to serial searches of data since learning a modest amount of coding was something they were convinced they couldn't do.

My advice, however, is not just for educators and not just aimed at the workplace. It also applies to situations where you have to do something you have never done before. Take your time analyzing a problem prior to diving in as your first solution is not likely to be the best one you can dream up.

Changing one's behavior doesn't always take more time and the new behavior that seems better may fail to improve anything or even make things worse. You simply won't know for sure unless you take the time to try, but doing things the same way over and over is unlikely to deliver improvements. 

In my life I have found the effort to constantly improve well worth it. I hope you and the people you touch can adopt this approach to work and life in general. As the actress Ilka Chase once said, "The only people who never fail are those who never try”.

Douglas Green is a former school principal, administrator and university lecturer, who runs the www.drdrouggreen.com website and can be found tweeting at @drdouggreen

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