Monthly Archives: September 2020

the junk drawer of the brain

I’ve had a lot of metaphors for how I’ve felt since the COVID-19 crisis started. The most frequent I use for myself is an image where my mind is clogged with short pieces of thread, a drifting mass of incomplete thoughts that I am constantly trying, and failing, to braid together into coherent strings. This is often at its worst when I have not taken the time or headspace for myself, which I need in order to focus on smoothing all those little pieces of thread out. Once I parse through my thoughts, I can often transform all those incomplete fragments into substance that can be subsequently spun into extended threads of consciousness. It’s a new condition for me, because while I am used to writing to make sense of my thoughts, I am not used to having my thoughts this fragmented.

My brain has become a junk drawer.

This isn’t a new condition, but seems to be worsened by two separate factors, both circumstantial from the pandemic. The first is from my professional sphere, combination of task switching and call overload that is killing my discipline to focus. My job often requires a lot of task switching, but the virtual nature of my team has resulted in a substantial uptick in how many times I am task switching per day. With a dispersed team, we are all IMing each other instead of engaging in person at the office. This results in more interruptions and task switches, as we can no longer rely on the visual clues of a person at work to better time our messages with their breaks from flow. We also IM much more because of the lack of hallway conversations, an inability to chat with each other in natural conversations that would be far more efficient than the all-day random Teams chats we use as a substitute. The result is a constant switch between Microsoft applications. I feel my ability to focus on just writing a PowerPoint is deteriorating as a result.

Eliminating Task Switching to Improve Productivity of Teams
The knowledge worker at the best of times.

The second factor is from my domestic sphere. It is the nature of being the person at home, working, with a child in the house. Let me preface again here, I have a child that requires far less effort than he would have two years ago. He’s able to log himself into Google Classroom and Hangouts and get through his own day. He sets up his own playdates in the afternoon and bikes (or scoots) to play dates and sportball practices all by himself. He logs himself in to his online activities: D&D, comedy, guitar. But even with all this, I am still constantly identity shifting throughout the day between Boss Lady and Mama. I’ll come out to refill my water bottle and find Ben sitting on the couch, camera off, reading instead of participating in class. I’ll find him procrastinating assignments or playing Words with Friends during school hours. I’ll realize that it’s 2pm and while I have been eating protein bars and leftovers at my own desk, he has not eaten lunch yet because he was too distracted reading to eat. And while he tries not to bother me, if I am not in a call, he will come in to ask for permission to watch TV or shift his Fortnite time from the weekend to a weekday.

Fortnite for Nintendo Switch - Nintendo Game Details
“No, child, you may only pursue your highly addicting game on weekends”

All of this is exhausting and is training my brain to expect to go from one task to another instead of remaining in flow. Flow is that state of being on which I wrote a solid blog post a couple years ago, the week before I started my “new” job at OMD. Here is the TED talk that also summarizes this state:

I need the efficiency from a flow state to get through my day as a knowledge worker. Being in flow is also where I really create the work that shows the talent and intellect that powers my career. Like much of my childhood, my career is partially built on a reputation for being “smart”. The pieces of work that showcase my intelligence are built in a state of flow. Without being able to go into that state, where my ideas come together into a narrative and where I’m able to put something together that ties together all the tech and details that go into the back-end of my job with the concepts that make up the front-end of it, that is where I excel.

Transforming knowledge workers into innovation workers to improve corporate  productivity - ScienceDirect
Insight, information and knowledge all require focus

Where I am struggling now is that all of this disconnect, all of these short attention activities, do not deliver the value to my work that just being present and paying attention does. It’s multitasking on calls, it’s spending more time flipping through emails, it’s being unable to work consistently without getting distracted doing stuff that is kind of worthwhile but not worthwhile in the context of interrupting my workday. Part of this is just having too many things to do (did Anthem process the claim for Ben’s doctor visit? is OptumRX sending my prescription?) but part of it is that the quick tasks feel easier than the longer tasks, and surfing for weekend getaways or quarantine AirBNBs feels easier at any time than working. Now that my brain is in this horrible place of constant disconnect and short-term procrastination, it’s exceptionally hard to be present in ways that reinforce my value at work, much less get anything worthwhile done…and those are the losses and misses that are ratcheting my anxiety up…and anxiety is exhausting.

I could now go into all the ways I am going to fix this, but I think instead of that, I am going to process this for the weekend and re-set the habits and behaviors. Maybe it’s just putting a “BE PRESENT” post-it on the wall behind my computer. Maybe it’s resuming meditation. Maybe it’s focusing on goals, not tasks. I am pretty sure it is all these things and more, but something has to change to combat the clutter that I feel my head is just constantly stuffed with every day.


I have lobbied for years to be included as Generation X. I associate most with the generation that came of age just in time for the post-post punk that became termed as “grunge”. My husband, born in the mid-70s, is squarely in the GenX timeframe. My late 70s birthday was, for years, debatable as GenX vs. millenial, with the original GenX cutoff being 1977. My argument was that, because I graduated high school in 1994, with kids born in 1977, I should be counted as culturally Generation X. Finally, in 2014, Good Magazine coined the term “xennial“, and now GenX has been re-defined as being through 1980. I am therefore Generation X, and can lay claim to that culture in its entirety. This has never been more relevant than it is right now:

It’s still a little weird being among the youngest GenXers though, because so many of the cultural touchstones of the generation are really five or ten years before my time. I got to thinking about this lately because I subscribed to Luminary so I could listen to the Roxane Gay/Tressie MacMillan Cottom podcast, and ended up also listening to “Break Stuff: The Story of Woodstock ’99“. For most of my life, on the very rare occasions I thought of either festival, I would think of my generation’s event as being Woodstock ’94. I always thought of Woodstock ’99 as being for people who are younger than I am, like the elder Millenials. Then, this week, I realized that most of that festival’s attendees were between the ages of 18 and 25 at the time of the event. Meaning these people, who went to this exceptionally awful festival all about nu-metal, are literally exactly my age. Why did I always think of this festival as being for people who were not born early enough to be part of what I think of as “my” generation?

Part of my mental distance from the pop culture of 1999 was my status as a full fledged ADULT (TM) at the time, just like all the other GenXers who started their careers in the 1990s. I was living in Texas in 1999, a college dropout with a car and an apartment, trying to climb some mythical corporate ladder that I didn’t quite understand, because I just wanted each rung to take me further away from high school. My mid-teen years had been an absolute disaster, and even a couple late-teen years of Reasonable Bohemian Normalcy weren’t enough to redeem the concept of youth. I wanted to be an adult fast. I wanted to get away from all the youth culture so I could get away from my own expectations to fit in as a Young, Cool Person. It was with the smugness of an adult that I read the reports of Woodstock ’99 at the time, thinking “oh, those crazy kids!” as I saw the video of the fires and looting and broken stuff. (I went back to being a young person a couple years later when I returned to UBC in 2001, but that’s a different story.)

The bigger reason that I’ve always had a mental distance, as well as a sense of smug superiority, to separate me from attendees of Woodstock ’99, is that I am highly judgmental of the two awful genres that came after “grunge”. I remember in the years after high school as the music industry desperately scrambled for a replacement for first Nirvana, and then, by 1997, Pearl Jam, when the latter left the spotlight in protest of the industry. The music industry promptly filled in the gap with nu-metal and pop-punk, lifting up genuinely terrible (and often misogynistic) music to fill the liminal space between post-punk and classic hard rock that the Seattle pantheon of bands had filled. And most of the “alternative” music of the late 1990s is terrible.

Look, I know there’s someone reading who probably thinks the late 1990s was a great time for music. And I even recognize that a lot of these bands are made up of talented and hard working individuals. that these late-90s bands all worked hard to pay their dues before being headline acts. However, I will never accept that the nu-metal bands, exemplified by Korn and Limp Bizkit, have the artistic or aesthetic appeal of an Alice in Chains or a Soundgarden. I will also never accept that the pop-punk bands of the late 1990s (with the exception of Green Day) have the same appeal as the post-punk bands of even five years before. And I will never accept the existence of Kid Rock. As far as I am concerned, most of the genre lumped under “alternative” music could jump from 1994 to 2003 and with the exception of Fiona Apple and Garbage, I doubt I would miss anything.

It is these kind of cranky old person rants that put me squarely in the camp of GenXer.

The other aspect of my GenX status is my early adoption of technology. I have had an email address since 1994. I have had a cell phone since 1997. When we think of a tech early adopter now, we think of someone who gets on the latest social media platforms. I was such a tech early adopter, I got on the internet before it was a thing, without even using AOL to do it. I remember a text only internet as it transitioned to Netscape. I remember when the Internet was for engaging in actual discussion and not oversimplified arguments!

This is one of the other keystones of Generation X: we are also referred to as the “Oregon Trail Generation”, a generation who grew up with personal computers and then transitioned seamlessly onto the Internet. I’ve been working in digital for a career since 2003, which is not even a decade after the first banner ad appeared, and I remember placing media buys on Some of these huge sites from Web 1.0 that don’t exist anymore or are so radically altered as to be irrelevant, I am old enough to have put ads on them. That career starting point, along with my encyclopedic knowledge of 90s Simpsons episodes and Seattle grunge bands, should be my GenX resume.

The final reason I disconnect so much from the late 1990s and insist on a retroactive cultural association with the pop culture earlier part of the decade (even though I was a hopeless nerd completely disconnected from the zeitgeist at the actual time) is my pervasive sense that, by the year 2000, we were trending back away from any promise of inclusivity, cultural or gender, promised in the earlier 1990s. Perhaps this is the jaded view of someone who doesn’t want to do a ton of research right now, but in the early 1990s it felt like we were seeing more perspectives, more representation in pop culture from non-white groups. By the late 1990s, it felt like any responsibility for inclusion had fallen by the wayside, as the North American culture tried to convince itself that we had reached a point of equality and therefore didn’t need to do actual work for equality. By the year 2000, colorblindness would prevail over any active anti-racism, and third-wave feminism would be transformed into a weak “girl power” glitter sticker.

So this is why I cling so much to my status as a GenXer, and despite my love for tech, kind of wish it was still 1994 some days. Maybe the trajectory of the 1990s is where history went wrong. Maybe the existence of the super-white, super-male, super-violent festival that ended the decade should have been a warning sign that we needed to fight harder and make the 2000s about representing other voices, other perspectives, other visions, instead of assuming a neutral stance and throwing our collective hands up in the air. Maybe we should have realized that the Internet should have some sort of learning based barrier to entry so the lazy and gullible would have less access to it and we wouldn’t have elected the worst president ever. Maybe being a GenXer is a way to keep my nostalgia point fixed at a time in history when we thought things were going to get better, not worse. I’m not sure. I will, however, continue to happily place as much blame as possible on Boomers until such time as we get the first GenX president and might actually have to take some accountability for everything that’s happened since we got old enough to not care.