A January Experiment: Focused Deep Work

Late in November of last year, I took on some new responsibilities at work. My team grew. My role grew. The amount of stuff I’m responsible for grew.

I’m going to have to do some things differently.

So in January, I’m going to experiment.

First, I overhauled my schedule so that I can have a solid block of focused work time each day, mostly first thing in the morning. Making this happen took an amazing (to me, anyway) two hours of focused effort on overhauling my calendar – but while I was at it, I also built in three visits to the gym, two long walks, and a preset day to work from the San Francisco office. This is all weekly, so it gives me a lot more predictability, and I feel good about having that work time to look forward to.

Second, over time I’ve gradually reduced my own multitasking. If I’m in a meeting, I don’t take my laptop, just a notebook and pen. This reduces the temptation to check email, especially because…

Third, I’ve turned off all email and chat notifications on my phone. I’ve also decided not to check email until after my daily focused work time.

So that’s January! I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes. I’m hoping that in combination, these changes will lead me to get more thoughtful work done, at a greater level of depth, while feeling less scattered.

2018 -> 2019

2018 was tough. In pretty much every aspect of life except work, 2018 was full, it was difficult, it was a headache and a pain both emotionally and physically and logistically (yeah, I know, that’s more things than ‘both.’ Too bad). I don’t know when I’ve ever spent so much time scheduling, and I hate scheduling. And scheduling was when I got a handle on things.

Some of the full was good. I travelled to Australia, and Tokyo, and Tel Aviv, and New Mexico, and New York (twice). At home, the avocado tree didn’t die. The deer in the yard are more used to me, and watch me cautiously instead of fleeing. There’s a red-shouldered hawk that’s taken to hanging out on the fence or cedar (cypress? I can never remember) tree. The house remodel, awful though it is, did start, and make progress. There’s now a ceiling light in the master bedroom, among other things. I published my first poem (thank you, Modern Haiku!) and was invited to be a featured reader at Coastside Poetry (coming up in February – thank you, Coastside!). And there’s work: work was a bonus this year. I joined a team I love. I took on new responsibilities I’m excited about. Plus I just like it. Work right now is, and throughout 2018 has been, my calm and happy place. I’m almost inexpressibly grateful for and excited about that.

In 2018, my goals were simple. Trust my energy. Find some whitespace. Get comfortable with uncertainty. Follow some patterns that work for me (morning planning, meditation, flow). That worked… okay-ish. I liked the idea of not having set goals, but I also often felt scattered and reactive, and until I sat down to think it over at the end of the year, I didn’t have any sense of progress. Plus I don’t like meditation; my notions of whitespace were vague; and the need for scheduling that is simply a side effect of travel house remodel new work responsibilities felt antithetical to uncertainty. By the end of the year, I’d taken on a ‘one day at a time’ approach that seemed to work; realized I want more of an ongoing sense of progress; and thanks to an ‘ack’ moment involving a favorite dress not fitting, realized I have a serious need for more fitness.

On to 2019!

#planning #goals

What about when work *is* balance?

I keep running into a common story about work-life balance. It’s a story about how ‘no one wishes they’d spent more time at the office,’ and ‘it’s not the most important thing’ and ‘I wanted to spend more time with family’ or ‘on the things that really matter.’ To go along with these stories, there are lots and lots of internet articles about how you should never check email before going to bed, or right when you wake up. You should let family time be family time, turn off the phone or turn on airplane mode, be present with your loved ones. Leave work at work. Also, you should meditate, and exercise, and eat healthily.

That’s common sense. That’s what we should all be doing, should all aspire to.

Right?

Right?

Shouldn’t we?

Family and life are more important than work. Work should be neatly boxed up, set aside.

Shouldn’t it?

I’ve pretty much believed that for my whole career, which is (wtf?!) a sizeable number of years at this point. Early on I worked hourly jobs, and that meant I had a baked-in mindset of either being ‘on’ for work or ‘off,’ rarely or ever in-between. I don’t generally work nights or weekends; I rarely checked work email in my off hours.

Then last year happened.

Last year was tough. It was tough on the family side and tough on the life side. Nothing went the way I planned. Bad stuff happened (and is still happening). I didn’t know – I still don’t know – what to do about most of it. I don’t know what will happen next, or where things will go. Some number of things will probably not end up in any way I think is OK. I’m not OK with how things are going, and I’m doing my best to turn them, but that’s hard, and in some cases just not possible. It’s exhausting, and it’s miserable, and I don’t want to be doing any of it. I am hanging on, but it’s not comfortable or fun, and it takes effort.

And none of that – not one single thing – has to do with work.

Work, in contrast to everything else, has been pretty much entirely lovely. I like my team. I like my job. It’s interesting stuff, I’m competent or good at it, it’s pretty much squarely lined up in the area of work I like best, where I think it’s important and I have some ideas but I don’t actually know how to do it yet – and I like the people I work with. I have solid professional support of various kinds and a network that I enjoy working with and I am actively looking forward to the next several months.

In other words, work is a real bright spot right now.

During one of the toughest weeks I’ve had, I started checking my work email right when I woke up, before I got out of bed. At first I felt bad about doing this – I should have work-life balance! – and then I realized that after checking my work email, I felt better. Calmer. Happier. More myself. Work email was a reminder that life wasn’t just the pile of rotten I was currently dealing with. Work email was a reminder that I was something other than the person dealing with that pile. Work email was a moment to slip into my other role, into the effort I wanted to be doing, into the person I like being, before taking a big deep breath and, strengthened, diving back into the rest of my life.

When the rest of my life was really tough, work was my lifeline.

I don’t quite know why I’m writing this. Things are so tough in California right now for so many people that I think I’ve been thinking a lot about how fortunate I am – and I want to express gratitude to the universe for that. I am fortunate to like my work. I am fortunate to like the people I work with. I am fortunate to like & get along with my family.

I am fortunate that when things are tough for me, I have this mental refuge to turn back to.

I know that many people don’t have that. I’m grateful.

And I’d like to remember and remind myself that common stories, even if they are often reasonable guideposts for life, may also be totally off-base for specific situations.

That’s all.

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