1. The closest gator. It’s just human nature to try killing the alligator that’s closest to your boat. Just by virtue of its proximity it’s the one that should pose the most danger. Most of the time your natural assumption is probably right. Every now and then, though, that gator that just happens to be closest is just swimming past… and while you’re focused on him the big, ugly sonofabitch swimming up behind you is the one that’s going to take a bite out of your ass.
2. Not being elsewhere. It’s a rare day when I don’t want to be home above all other places. Just this once, though, I wish circumstances would have allowed a bit of leeway so I could have found myself, for a few hours, in Rock Island, Illinois. Today was a live demonstration that that a certain big government agency can manage not to trip all over itself in pursuit of elevating someone eminently qualified into the ranks of senior leadership. I just wish I could have seen that shit in person, you know, just to prove in front of my own two little eyes that such a thing is actually possible.
3. Bordering on exhaustion. It’s not lack of sleep. Thank God my brain disengages as soon as I turn the lights off and lets me drift off to sleep on demand. The problem comes in those 19 intervening hours, when it’s busy jumping from point to point. I usually have a pretty good capacity for leaving the work over on the other side of the river, but for these past few weeks and another few to come, it seems to be following me. Even when I’m not thinking about it, a few ideas are churning in the back of my mind. It’s probably a necessary evil for the time being, but lord it’s wearing my ass out.
Tuesday is the new Monday. There. I Said it.
Once upon a time, not so very long ago I use to dread the arrival of Sunday night and the end of the weekend. Now that Mondays are usually spent working from the comfort of home, Tuesday is the day that causes the most angst and consternation. Now that I’ve settled into the new Monday routine I’m even more starkly aware of just how cripplingly unproductive a day at the average office is.
The trouble with being an information worker is that so much of what you touch requires some amount of reflection and analysis. Concentration is pretty easy to come by when you’ve got views of the woods and the loudest sound is mid-morning trash collection across the street. It’s a much harder commodity to come by when you’re stacked shoulder to shoulder with 30 other people who are all having their own conversations, or are warming up their lunch, ignoring phones ringing, pushing reams of paper through the shredder, and making their way to and from meetings and appointments, or who are just away from their desks wandering around to pass the time.
Now I can be a pretty focused guy. When the need arises I can summon monumental amounts of concentration on one point to the exclusion of all else… but I’m starting to suspect that the need to do that all day, every day is a major contributing factor to why I drive away from the office four days a week feeling like someone has run my brain through a blender. Somehow I doubt seriously that’s part of the recipe for wise and effective analysis over the long term.
I know for a fact that isn’t not even a short term recipe for a happy and productive Jeff.
I’ve always had trouble finding my mental focus in loud environments. I don’t know if that’s what makes the hermit life so appealing to me or if it’s the other way around. It doesn’t really matter which caused what. The end result is the same – sitting at my desk with glazed eyes completely unable to cobble together a single coherent thought. It’s just one of the many joys of existing in cubicle hell.
If I’m honest, I’ll admit that the day to day isn’t as bad as I feared, but with that said the bad moments are absolutely hellish. At one point this afternoon I was an unwilling third party participant to at least six conversations taking place simultaneously within 20 feet of my desk. Keeping track of the thread of my own thoughts proved to be something between challenging and impossible for the better part of two hours today. For the record, that doesn’t lead to good staff work and leaves me feeling just about as annoyed in this particular workplace as I’ve ever been. That’s no mean feat.
When other people leave the office they’re in a rush to meet for dinner, or go shopping, or engage in some other socially acceptable form of human interaction. When I leave I can’t get away from that sort of thing fast enough. Home is far from silent, of course. There’s the clatter of dogs on tile, television or radio humming quietly in the background, HVAC noises, or appliances running. Somehow those things manage to not be distracting. Half a dozen overlapping conversations, on the other hand, leave me tired and more than a bit frustrated with my own inability to focus through the distractors.
Whatever reason, the subdued sounds of home, a good book, and something pressed from the fruit of the arbor feels like exactly what I need to steady myself.
I don’t mind working hard. The powers that be are paying good money to rent my brain for 8 hours a day and I’ve got no compunction about whoring myself out like that. When push comes to shove I’d much rather be doing hard work with my brain than hard work with my back. The brain seems less likely to give out at an inopportune time and leave me lying flat on the floor or chewing muscle relaxers like candy corn.
Although I don’t mind working hard, I hate the living hell out of working stupid. I hate reworking the same ground two or three times and changing every happy to a glad. That’s not hard work. That’s not focusing on content or intent. That’s focusing on the style over the substance and the fact that anyone has time for that in this business should tell you a lot about how their time is being spent. I don’t mind if they want to waste their time turning the latest memo into the great American novel, but I’d appreciate it if they didn’t try dragging me along into their own personal hell. I’ve got worries enough of my own without keeping track of who likes one space after a period and who likes two.
The things we choose to focus on tells a lot about the kind of person we are when we shed the artificial constructs of rank or grade. It tells me everything I need to know about who “gets it” and who is way the hell out in the tall grass. Other people might not notice details like that, but I do. The Lord might tell us not to judge, but I think in this case He would make an exception.
I’d hate to calculate how many hours of training I’ve sat through over the last thirteen years. Only occasionally, when it was hosted in such exotic locations as Tampa or Dallas, have I ever voluntarily inflicted such opportunities on myself. Far more often it’s a statutory or regulatory requirement or worse drawing the short straw as a seat filler. Occasionally you can draw off some nugget of useful information, but more often it’s a study in watching the clock creep from one hour to the next.
Like so many other meetings, the first question asked by the would-be trainer should be “Can I convey this information in an email?” If the answer to that question is in the affirmative, you should write the email and forget about the training. If the answer is no, you may proceed with your planned training, but understand that anything of value or importance should be covered before 11AM, by which time all but a handful of the most dedicated and/or fanatical people will have stopped paying attention anyway.
Trainers tend to take this disinterest personally. They shouldn’t, because it has almost nothing to do with them or even with their content. You could be talking to me about the next sure fire way to make a million in the market and if you haven’t gotten to your point in the first three hours I’m going to lose interest. That’s just the way it is. I’ll most likely be polite and not focus all my attention on my phone. I’ll probably even nod at appropriate intervals and because of my years of practice I can probably even materially contribute to the conversation just based on whatever I’ve managed to overhear while most of my brain was otherwise occupied. It’s a skill, but not one anyone ever talks about.
But there it is. I’ve done my duty. Attended the training. Checked off another box. And as a reward, I don’t get any new knowledge, but I do get to look forward to trying to cram two days worth of work into a Tuesday and who doesn’t like that?
1. Being a ping pong ball. After many years of attending far more meetings than I want to recall. fortunately in that time I’ve cultivated a lead ass and a steel bladder, making it possible for me to endure just about any time suck thrown at me. What I don’t think I’ll ever get use to is the sheer volume of the damned things they throw at you while expecting you to get actual work done in the few minutes between them. Two before lunch, two after, and one blown off because it was scheduled after close of business. Add to that the slides, pre-meeting questions, general coordination, post-meeting minutes and that leaves about 45 minutes of the day in which real work might actually happen, except of course 30 of those minutes belong to lunch and even that gets interrupted a couple of times. It looks like I’m going to need to find a hidey-hole if I want to carve out a minute or two to have an actual uninterrupted thought for the foreseeable future.
2. Focus. Somewhere during my recently concluded vacation, I apparently lost my ability to focus. I’m sure it’s not helped by the ping pong routine referenced above, but it was brewing long before that. I can’t seem to string more than three sentences together without my brain running off in some other direction. I’m sure it’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s a damned annoyance when you get home, try to spend some time working your “second job” and can seem to squeeze a coherent thought out of the space between your ears.
3. My shoulder. I’ve been ignoring the nagging pain in my shoulder for a while now. For the last year or so it’s one of those things that comes and goes. Lately we seem to be in a mode of it coming more often than going. I’ll spare you the image of the face I make when I accidentally reach for something over my head. It’s probably one of those things that’s funny, just not to me. I’ve got a check up coming at the end of the month. Maybe I’ll remember to bring it up, if only because it might distract the German from yelling at me for packing on a few more pounds since he switched my meds and still loving red meat. Unfortunately, I suspect that kind of distraction would require some kind of major trauma in the head and chest region, but I’m willing to roll the dice on that.
There are always stories circulating about people who retire with thousands of hours of sick leave on the books. That’s good for them. 3000 hours of sick leave gives you a hell of a lot of credit towards your total years of service. As great as that sounds, I know I’m not going to be one of those people. I’m not an iron man. I don’t play hurt when I can avoid it and I don’t go in when I’m hacking up a lung. For one thing, I know that I don’t bring my A-game when I’m sick or hurt and for another it only seems decent not to wander in and infect everyone else with whatever crud I happen to have come down with. This week has been an object lesson in the former; a great primer for why I avoid playing hurt.
It really boils down to a matter of concentration and focus. When part of my brain is focused on just how damned uncomfortable I am, I’m not doing my best work. Chances are, I’m not even doing good work. I’ll probably never get nominated for employee of the quarter with that attitude, but it is what it is. One of the key lessons I’ve learned on the job is if you don’t look out for yourself, there’s no one else going to take the time to look out for you either. Long story short, yesterday’s post talked about the inevitable guilt that goes along with the sick day. I had plenty of time after writing that post to put some real thought into it – since laying flat on the floor isn’t good for much else than giving you time to think. It’s safe to say that after really reflecting on the last decade, I’m utterly cured of whatever misguided guilt I was feeling for staying put and taking care of me.
The job is happy enough to chew you up and grind you down. It’s your job to do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen. Here endeth the lesson.