Harry Smith

Principles of Craftsperson Productivity

How to apply the methods of Master Craftspeople to your own work, to maximise your time and energy.

The gentle early summer sun filters through the window catching the glint of iron flecked glaze and suspended dust in equal measure. Sudden burts of morning song from the near by birds punctuate the silence. And from the corner of this empty studio comes the steady whirring and scrapping of the master at work. Deft hand takes each half dried form with a careful balance of confidence and delicate touch. A couple of taps on the wheel is all it takes to center the piece. A few operations to straighten an edge, refine a detail, bring it to specification. It’s off again, and set upon yet another pile. The master potter does not blink as their hands reach out for the next. Outwards from them radiate the fruits of their focus. Pots, plates, mugs, jugs, teapots, bowls and jars.

How and why are craftspeople so effective with their time? It is staggering how productive craftspeople are and have to be. It’s no easy life. To reach mastery they have had to make many thousands of repetitions. The sheer volume of their craft has ingrained in them a fast, effecient, beautiful way of working. It was not taught to them, but has evolved with their practice.

If you watch a while you notice that while every craft is different, there are principles to their method. When indendent thinkers arrive to the same conclusions, pay attention. There are tools here which are true across disciplines. What is true across some disciplines is often true of all discplines. It takes so long to arrive at mastery that it leads to this sort of deep wisdom. This wisdom only evolves through ritualistic daily practice.

There are five principles to the staggering skill and productivty of the master craftsperson.

The Principles of Master Craftsperson Productivity

1. Intensity of Focus

If you read the written work of a master, for example Paul Seller, they have a sacred reverence for their work. Your hands can only hold one tool at a time, and perform only one action at a time. You can’t rectify mistakes with ease in the physical world of the craftsperson. The craftsperson does each action on it’s own. But with the highest possible intensity of focus. They avoid mistakes by being sure of every action, by knowing that all is in order before comitting. That focus does not wander until they take the task to completion. If you do this you will move faster than if you try to do too much. Nothing will slow you down more than fixing the oversights that come from hasty work. To go fast you have to go well.

2. Understand Active vs. Inactive Time

Every process has some amount of active time and some inactive time. Active time is the part that requires us to apply intense focus. Inactive time is all the actions that do not need direct attention. When the craftsperson waits for glue to dry. Or dough to rise before baking. If you waste inactive time, delays compound and projects derail. You can not allow time to catch you unaware and unprepared. The master craftsperson is never idle. These are the questions you must ask when you find yourself in inactive time:

  • What similar tasks can I batch together while this paticular setup is in place?
  • What do I need to produce or gather for the next stage of this project?
  • What do I need to produce or gather for any future stage of this project?
  • What other tasks can I fit in this time frame, for either this project or another project?

3. Batch your Tasks

Any craftsperson has to produce many items of the exact same specification. The actions, by design, are repetative. If you had to build one hundred doll houses you could go about it two different ways. You could try to build the first, and then the second, and then third. It would take you a hell of a long time. The correct way, and they way real craftspeople do it, is to batch those tasks together. Do each operation in order, but one hundred times. The repitition embeds the knowledge in the body rather than the mind. When an action is in the body, it becomes natural and masterful. Batch your tasks.

4. Use your Apprentice

Why do master craftspeople have apprentices? Partly because they trained that way. Partly because one day their hands will grow old and their eyesight will fail them. But most of all, it is the only way to achieve actual multitasking. What is difficult for the apprentice is trivial for the master. So it is much better for both if the apprentice practices the fundamental skills while the master focuses on work only they can do. The master delegates the work. Then they appraise the work. Then, satisifed with the quality of it, they progress the apprentice to more challenging roles. This cycle - delegate, appraise, progress - is the key.

5. Master your Workshop

The workshop of the master craftsperson is their second brain. It is the best and most accurate representation of all the knowledge they have accrued. As their work changes, so does their workshop. The workshop evolves, adapted to the paticular niche it’s master inhabits. They invest as much time and energy into having the appropriate space to work as they invest in the work itself. Good craftspeople do blame their tools after all. If your workspace does not reflect the methodologies you adhere to then change it. Your systems serve you, not the other way around.

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