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Work Smart

What The Girl Scouts Taught Me About Productivity

Just like earning badges, getting things done involves breaking big goals down into doable steps.

What The Girl Scouts Taught Me About Productivity

[Photo: Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, Item No. 31422]

One of my children joined the Cub Scouts this fall, a decision that's made me quite nostalgic for my own Girl Scouts days. He’s taken with the camping, but I realized the part I liked most was earning Girl Scouts badges. It probably sparked my lifelong interest in time management and productivity.

Getting things done involves breaking big, nebulous concepts into actionable steps. Badge earning taps into the same mind-set, and by giving evidence of progress, it is immensely satisfying—perhaps as much, I would argue, as digging into a stack of Thin Mints.

Talk to managers about their productivity woes, and you’ll hear that people, particularly new young hires, frequently don’t know how to get started on big projects. They don’t know how to pace themselves toward deadlines. When the path forward is uncertain, this can lead to much wheel spinning and emergencies. Or things just don’t get done.

Scouting, which tries to teach children about the world and how it works, faces a similar dilemma. How do you know if a child understands First Aid, or healthy eating, or how to be an "active citizen," or "Ms. Fix-It," or appreciate "local lore" (to list some badge names)? People could spend decades learning about any of these topics and still face unanswerable questions. The point is not certainty. It's to have enough working knowledge and practical experience to make progress to incorporate these things into one’s life.

Breaking Concepts Into Steps

I recently dug up a copy of Girl Scout Badges and Signs, the handbook I used as a Junior Girl Scout in the 1980s. One forward-looking (for the time) badge I remember earning was "Computer Fun." This was illustrated by a patch with "00111 10011" on it. You needed to complete six of 12 possible activities.

Examples:

  • "Look through books, newspapers, or magazines, watch television, and/or go in person to find computers being used for at least five different purposes. Share what you find with your troop members."
  • "Find out the names of at least three computer languages. In one of these, learn the symbols you would use to get the computer to add, subtract, multiply, and divide."
  • "Find a place, such as a high school or business that has a keypunch machine for punching computer cards. Watch someone punch information on the card or punch one yourself with your name, address, and phone number on it. Find out how the letters and numbers are related to the positions of the holes on the card."

At the end of these and other activities, you would have figured out that the code on the badge itself: 00111 10011 in the binary system is 7 and 19, when mapped onto the order of the alphabet stands for G S, the Girl Scouts. Of course. Earning the badge meant a scout could make enough sense of those concepts to feel comfortable.

Badges For Grownups

Along the way, the scout would also tap into one of the most powerful forces in human psychology.

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile famously analyzed thousands of diary entries from workers about their moods. She found that people were happiest when they felt a sense of progress in their work. Checking off badge requirements will do that. And securing that patch onto your vest or sash is the ultimate satisfying moment.

Much of life can be approached the same way. Perhaps you want to get your finances in order. That seems complicated and difficult, and possibly not worth trying. But what if you pretended to be the designer of a Personal Finance badge? You might create potential activities such as tracking your spending for a month, setting up automatic deposits in a retirement account, seeing what people doing similar work are paid and creating a case for a raise, rebalancing a brokerage account (if you have one, or opening one if you don’t), trying to negotiate better deals on recurring payments, and the like. You’d go through these one by one and check them off. At the end, you wouldn’t be Warren Buffet, but you’d be in much better financial shape than before.

At work, perhaps, you want to land a new big client. There is an element of luck to this, but a badge designer could also come up with plenty of steps to try in the pursuit. You call current clients and ask for referrals. You research the best networking events and send people to each one with a mission. You publish a white paper showing your expertise, and include information on how to contact you. All this activity will likely generate something positive for the organization, and people will feel happy as they undertake each step. They are getting stuff done. Just like a Girl Scout with her eye on a shiny new badge.

related video: From Silent Films To Cookie Empires: The Girl Scouts' Evolving Brand

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