OK. So we looked briefly at those who have no decent work habits, then considered in detail those who couldn’t start a project and lightly touched on those who couldn’t finish one.
That leaves a whole lot of people who have no trouble starting a task and don’t have emotional barriers to finishing it either, but they struggle staying with a task during the long middle. There are at least a couple dozen different reasons for this, but since I need to wrap up this series and move on to other things, we will just look at two groups from this large cluster.
On the surface, they look a lot alike. They are easily distracted. But there are two completely different drives in the two groups I am thinking of here.
The first cause is the need to know the whole story behind something.
Let me illustrate with the case of the US Airways flight which Captain Sullenberger landed successfully in the Hudson River in January 2009. You all know the basic story line and how he was considered a hero for what he did. We saw pictures of the passengers standing on the wings of the plane, waiting for rescue boats, and we heard sundry opinions of what happened to the engines.
When I see a story like that, my mind asks a flood of questions which the press never bothers to answer.
-Where did they go from the plane?
-How quickly can an airline mobilize a crisis response team for a situation like this?
-When did the passengers get their baggage that was left behind in the overhead bins?
-What about the passenger who was diabetic and his insulin was in the overhead bin, and he was forbidden from getting it? Was the airport staff responsive? Were they able to get a doctor and a prescription and get a delivery before the person was in crisis?
-What about the businessman on his way to Europe who has his passport in the bag overhead? How long did it take for him to get it?
-Is the cargo area of an airplane waterproof? Did they eventually get their suitcases, and if so, were they dry or wet? How long did it take?
-How do you pick an airplane up out of the river anyway?
-So the flight attendants have to be heroic and be attentive to everyone’s needs while they themselves are living the same trauma. How badly did it hurt them to not be able to decompress and process until hours after everyone else did?
-Do they get any sort of hardship pay after an event like that — like a month off with pay to recoup emotionally?
-What does a captain or a flight attendant feel like the first time they take off again after an incident like that?
And that is just a tiny handful of the questions I ask and would like to know the answers. So I hear a news report, check out the pictures, and then calmly shift gears to sit down and write an article for the blog.
While I am trying to harness my mental capabilities to focus on the one thing in front of me, my mind is doing laps around the airplane story, asking all these questions which will never be answered because ILIKETOKNOWTHEWHOLESTORY! It is an issue of design. I was made to like the whole story. That is what allows me to see things in Scripture others don’t see quite so easily.
Grrrrr….. Incompetent news reporters.
The only tool I have found for defusing the drive to think about the whole thing is to put it off for a designated time. I seem to be able to tell the HIGHLY COMPETENT investigative reporter who lives inside my head, that it will get a reasonable amount of RAM at a later point in time and it works for me — a lot of the time.
On the days when I end up doing assembly or shipping, it is a win/win. Those two tasks can be a little, umm, how shall we say this. Ah! Intellectually unchallenging. There we are. (Nice word smithing, Arthur!) So while I am putting the wrong orders in your box I have probably given my mind permission to go finish the investigations the incompetent news reporters never even began.
Other times it may be my bathroom time, the drive home or some other low value time slot, but I do try to allot some time every couple of days for my brain to rage at the intellectual slovenliness of the people who write everything and anything from instructions, to blogs, to news reports and leave out all the good stuff.
Now there is a significantly different mental issue that looks very much like the first one, because a person is easily distracted. The difference is that it is, I think, more of a learned behavior. That is the ability to see every rabbit trail that might lead to something useful in the vague, indefinite future.
And when you see a potentially useful artifact, there is the tendency to interrupt the boring job and go check out the nugget.
I think (and may be wrong) that this is learned, because the people I see it in the most are those who have at some time in their life, been responsible for delivering answers to those in need.
Now this can range from a nurse, to a chef, to a mechanic, to a computer tech. If you are in a place where people are looking to you for answers in a situation with variables (not something standardized like an assembly line) and you never know what tomorrow’s questions will be, there will likely be a drive to acquire any resources you see lying around today, just in case . . .
For example, when we were living on the River Guama, we generally only went into the big city for serious shopping twice a year. We had THE LIST which had been discussed, and re-discussed, edited and refined, for a month before the trip. But as we wandered through the treasure chest of stores in town, there was such an itch to get one of everything to take back to the jungle with us, just in case . . .
Now when you shift that out of the tangible arena into the arena of thoughts, the need to acquire is endless. Are you a doctor or a writer or an IT guy or an inner healing person? You never know enough and you never know what tomorrow brings.
So if you have a strong work ethic (coupled with some woundedness and a legitimacy crutch or two) your tendency in any project that requires learning while you do it, is to become easily distracted.
Today’s project is right in front of you, and is known data, but that piece over there is so attractive. You take five minutes off from the paper you are writing to check out that possible nugget, and then you plan to get back to the paper — except for the fact that while you took that detour, you spotted another possible treasure just beyond . . .
I don’t have a great answer for this dynamic which will cause the energetic thinker (especially the energetic, right brain, slightly wounded, highly responsible, thinker) to interrupt a basic left brain task 100 times.
So lacking a great strategy, here are some coping mechanisms I have seen to be somewhat successful.
First of all is plain old-fashioned character. There are many people who have learned to just push through the mental discomfort of concentrating on one unloved task for a long period of time, so they can deliver the goods — on time. It works in the marketplace, but sure isn’t a fun way to live all the time.
A much more common way is to do “responsible interruptions.” This is my default tool. When I have a three-hour task that I know is not going to be joyous, I will engage in a lot of short recesses, being careful what I do, so I don’t trigger the first problem I mentioned above.
Now, it is an art form to find something interesting that I can start AND FINISH during the 30 second recess. It is important not to do something that is going to drag more of my brain power off to some (temporarily) forbidden zone.
So, for example, clicking over to check the news when I need a break is an absolute no-no. No matter what story I read, I will start wondering . . .
Check e-mails? Now that is a NO-NO to the third degree. Nothing remotely like closure there.
On the other hand, I can go check a favorite comic. I am there and back in 30 seconds, and a comic pretty much has to have some solid closure after no more than four frames.
Or I can interrupt Megan and ask how she is doing on something or another. Back in 20 seconds, most likely with closure. Very rarely does she need my help.
A trip to the kitchen for a glass of water, or a snack works. Or a two-minute recess to go shred some of the accumulated security paper.
Sometimes I will wax the woodwork in my office. I get out the paper towels and Lemon Pledge and limit myself to one board at a time. When I have written four more GOOD paragraphs, I can do another board.
Childish? Maybe. But I find that at the end of the day, if I have played the game well and taken short recesses (WITH CLOSURE) frequently, instead of forcing myself to concentrate on one project for a long period of time, I end the day with a better project and I am less exhausted.
So the next time you visit our office, check to see if all the glass is clean and the wood work is shiny. If so, you know I have been doing waaaaaaay too much admin work lately, because I promise you the woodwork never gets a spec of attention when I am working on one of those lovely creative projects that light me up.
Copyright February 2011 by Arthur Burk
From home for a change