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.

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