See The Board, See The Whole Board

As a thirty-something living in New York, I am required by law to be obsessed with two things: The Wire and The West Wing. While is it often the nuances that make me love both of these epic series (except Season 2 of The Wire, but I digress) it is actually one of the more heavy-handed episodes of The West Wing that I continually find myself obsessing over. “Hartfield’s Landing” is an episode in which the President is dealing with a brewing crisis between China while playing concurrent chess matches against both Toby and Sam.

While there is so much loaded into that one hour1, there is one concept that I continually lean on. In fact, I’m actually starting to realize that it has become the center of my philosophy on productivity. It is President Bartlet’s fatherly prodding’s for Sam to “see the board, see the whole board” during their chess games. This idea of seeing all of the pieces, understanding all of the possible moves and then acting with clarity has become a growing obsession. I constantly find myself getting lost, my brain struggling to juggle all of the input that comes along with being an employee, a manager, a husband and a father. And when the going gets tough, it feels hard enough to focus on what is staring me in the face, nonetheless seeing anything close to the full picture.

I’ve spent the better part of my life, and occasionally the better part of my day, fighting off chaos. I struggle against a lifetime of acquired bad habits and a healthy dose of innate ADHD. So much of what I am looking to do with my system, which is a combination of GTD, Merlin Mann’s philosophies, tips and tactics picked up from others2 is to get to the point where I can see the whole board, to take all of the threads of my life and weave them together. It’s an overwhelming goal, especially when you take into account the fact that it is at complete odds with my DNA, but it is what I feel I need to succeed.

I’m a good ways off from seeing the whole board, but I’m certainly starting to see more of it. Little by little, the systems I am putting in place to capture ideas, tasks and appointments are helping me to see more of the picture. The better I get at getting my arms around my responsibilities, the easier it has become to make better choices. The easier I make it to see all of the chaos around me, the less overwhelmed I feel by it.

So, if like me, you struggle to get your arms around life, stop, take a step back and see the board. See the whole board. It is going to take time (a lot of time), it is going to take work (A LOT OF WORK) but slowly, steadily you will begin to see more of the picture, to feel more in control of your life.

And if you haven’t watched every damned episode of both The West Wing and The Wire, well 1) I’m envious of you and 2) ARE YOU CRAZY? Get on that!

Everyone has their own tricks and tips for seeing more of the picture, for finding the clarity to see the whole board. What are yours?


  1. Another post for another day.  

  2. Along with a good amount of trial and error.  

7 Responses to See The Board, See The Whole Board

  1. Hi Michael,

    I’m one of those guys who loved season two of The Wire, those crazy Stevedores and Ziggy, c’mon. Season four was the gem of the series though. Never saw and episode of The West Wing.

    It’s funny I mentioned on another blog my obsession with list-making methods, such as David Allen’s GTD, the big three Zen Habits approach, the Mark Forster approach, and my own crazy systems. I have a hard time staying on task, because I’m excited and there is so damned much stuff to do, oh yeah, and the day job and my wife and kids :)

    I’ve tried just about everything, but right now I’m using a very simple system called TeuxDeux. I’ll let you know how it works out.

    Thanks for the reminder to see the whole board!

    So, what was the final count over at Gini’s place?

    • I can’t lie, Ziggy was kind of awesome, but that season wasn’t up to the series (nor were parts of 5). Couldn’t agree more on Season 4, think it is probably one of the best arcs in television history. They took those four kids on a hell of a journey and everything was meticulously thought out from the first to last frame. I envy that you have The West Wing to look forward to.

      I’ve never been able to swallow a system whole, but have taken parts from GTD, Zen’s stuff and especially from Merlin Mann. ADHD, wife, kids, a job and interests make it tough to get it all in. Yet getting it to the point where I can at least know what everything in has helped. I’ll be interested to know how TeuxDeux goes.

      Not sure what the final count was but we kicked her old records ass. Livefyre does this weird thing where it starts high and then kicks out a bunch of comments so I don’t know just how badly we won.

  2. Hey Michael, it is so easy to get down in the weeds and forget to stick your head up to ‘see’ the whole picture. The ‘life’ part I feel I do well; I don’t have it figured out by any means but I seem to be able to coexist in this universe with relative ease. It’s all the other detail stuff that becomes my Achilles heal; I can just ‘show up’ really well, I fall short if there is more than that involved. Hence the picket fence around my online activities instead of a wall. 

    I think you are taking the right steps if you are able to organize and keep a focus on a step by step progression.

    I’m hit or miss on TV on don’t watch either of those shows. It’s either baseball while I’m online or Family Matters or the Mentalist (I want his hair). 

    That’s my story for today and I’m sticking with it.  

    • Forget to “get down”, I lived in those weeds for a long time thinking that was all there was. I had no concept of sticking my head up :)

      Details kill me too which is why I spend so much time thinking and working. I’m way better off the cuff. But don’t discount how important showing up is, plenty don’t even do that.

      As for TV. I miss baseball, as a Mets fan, I’ve given up. We need to discuss Family Matters at some point, I worry.

      • Fortunately my Rays have a glimmer of hope; it still scares me to see the back half of their lineup averaging about .210. As far as Family Matters, yes that should cause some concern…………:)

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