Turn Away from What Should Be and Focus on What Is

I got up this morning to a problem that every human being confronts at one time or another: My time and energy are limited, and I can’t meet the demands that I’m facing right now. I think that the answer spelled out in the headline applies, not just to my immediate dilemma, but to any situation where the stakes are high. Let me begin with the problem, and derive what I think is the solution.

When I got up, I felt the hopelessness and dread that stem from a truly unmanageable workload. It’s unmanageable for several reasons:

1. There’s more than anyone can do in 40 hours a week. I’d be happy to do overtime, but…

2. I’m often in a situation where I’m facing deadlines for multiple, different mission-critical projects. This week, for example, I had to burn 110 data CDs for testing this weekend. At the same time, I needed to translate, index, post and log several data items for analysis — again, this weekend. None of this was optional — if I didn’t get to any one of these tasks, we would be looking at a schedule slip that we can’t afford. So it’s not enough for me to work overtime, since it’s literally impossible to do crucial tasks simultaneously when they have the same deadline.

3. The work requires total precision and unflagging attention. I can’t do it effectively when I’m exhausted, hungry, or depressed; I’m human, too, and I find it demoralizing to respond to constant nervous status inquiries from people who don’t understand the dimensions of my workload.

4. Other people depend on my work getting done quickly and accurately — if I don’t post data, others can’t perform analysis on it, and the program will miss crucial deadlines. If the data I post is corrupted or hard to locate, the engineers will waste precious hours restoring it or simply looking for it. In other words, if I fall behind, that places the whole program at risk.

5. If I defer routine tasks like training, eventually crises will erupt that will — yes — waste precious time and resources. Therefore I need to spend several hours a week tending to administrative tasks that aren’t, in the moment, mission critical.

6. My work requires an unusual level of conscientiousness. If I feel hopeless and stop caring — even just a little bit at the end of a long day or on a Friday — I risk making a critical mistake.

So, what to do? In the past, my solution has always been the one espoused by Boxer, the faithful draft horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm: I will work harder. I will get up earlier and stay later. Through sheer force of will, I will be perfect. Program and functional management, God bless ’em, have been quick to enforce this ethic whenever they think I might be slipping.

There’s just one problem with that. When Boxer’s health breaks — and it does break — the pigs send him to the knacker, and he’s made into glue. The farm loses Boxer, and Boxer loses everything.

My old answer is the wrong one, then. I think that my experience with climbing provides a better one: Turn away from what I think should be and face what is. When I’m climbing or belaying, I can’t afford to fool myself about my limits. If I don’t understand a belay technique and let my partner climb anyway, he could be seriously injured or killed. If I’m tired, distracted, or dehydrated, I need to look realistically at the extent of my impairment and do whatever I have to do — including refusing to climb or belay — to keep myself and my partner safe. A good climber is not someone who can scale a 5.12 with ease. A good climber is levelheaded, systematic, and, above all, realistic about her limits. A dangerous climber bluffs, brags, or refuses to acknowledge her own failings. She pretends to be perfectly skilled, fit and attentive, and thereby places her own life and others’ at risk. Pride — the kind that would lead me to overestimate my abilities or ignore my physical condition — has no place in an activity that involves risk.

You may ask, how does this apply to my life as a cubicle jockey? For one thing, my life is at stake. Also, the program has no margin for failure — if I make a horrible mistake or cause delays, it could cost the company a sum of money that I hate to contemplate.

Work differs from climbing in one crucial respect, however. Good climbers are swift to acknowledge and adapt to a partner’s limits, since no one wants to hang from a sheer cliff wall with no one on belay. Business tends to be more shortsighted. When time is short and profits and lives are at stake, management will reward me for ratcheting up the pressure on myself and refusing to accept limits. Until, of course, I reach a hard limit and break. Then they’ll just discard me and reach for someone who is still fresh. Unfair though it may be, it’s ultimately up to me to think for myself and for the program, and to call a halt to an untenable situation.

Starting Monday, then, I will turn away from the vision of myself as the perfect, tireless emplyee. I will go in an hour early and take a clear-eyed look at my workload and at my own individual, human limits. I will set up meetings with functional and program management, and I will communicate the facts clearly and dispassionately. I will spell out the consequences to the program if management ignores the problem and deprives me of the resources I need to solve it. I will document each conversation in writing, and take it up the chain of command if necessary. If my immediate bosses don’t see the problem, I suspect — I know — that upper management will.

It’s going to be hard, but it’s the only way.

Love to all.

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Tips for Boosting Your Energy Level — Now

How sad it is that when I’m tired, it’s usually because of something I’ve been doing wrong for several days. (Sleepless nights, anyone?) It often seems like I can only beat back exhaustion and guarantee some level of productivity by slugging down some coffee or eating an evil food. That’s why I was glad to see this post from The Happiness Project with some concrete and, I think, workable suggestions that will reliably raise your energy in the short term without undermining your health in the long run.

Today is the last day of my first week back at work. It’s gone extremely well. Not surprisingly, though, the last couple of days have reminded me exactly how easy it is to let myself be pushed into a miserably unhealthy lifestyle. Human beings were simply not meant to work nine and a half hours a day and commute for another hour. It takes an unholy level of planning and discipline to prepare healthy meals, get eight hours of sleep, work out, and take regular breaks.

Love to all.

Accomplish More by Refusing to Accept Your Usual Excuses

Woman belaying
This works best when you're not dizzy, nauseated, or dehydrated.
Because I’m depressed much of the time, I procrastinate a lot. I devote a shameful amount of mental energy to either badgering myself into action or, more often, talking myself out of it. Since I got out of the hospital this last time, I notice that I divide my motives for inaction between lame, shuffling excuses and near-irrefutable reasons.

I’m simple, and if I’m not paying attention, I can easily dupe myself with an excuse along the lines of, “I just don’t feel like it right now — maybe after I’ve eaten something….” If I’m on my game, though, I can bring myself up with a round turn and scold myself out of that sort of absurdity. As a result, lame excuses don’t present a serious problem.

Reasons that appear excellent on the surface present a much greater danger to happiness and productivity. I started paying attention to this issue a few days ago when I was preparing to go climbing. There are always excellent reasons to avoid rock climbing: It requires concentration, and I often feel distracted and irritable; it can be tiring, and I often lack energy; success and failure are highly public, and I am inclined to self-consciousness; there’s a small but real risk of death or serious injury for myself or my partner. I recognize, though, that none of these constitutes a real reason to avoid an activity that I love and excel at. My main reason for not getting to the gym? Feeling nauseated or dizzy.

You may cry, as I do, “But that’s an excellent reason! What if you got sick or fainted while you were on belay? You could kill your climbing partner! Nausea and dizziness are symptoms of dehydration — it would be very bad to climb while you’re dehydrated!” And so forth.

The thing is, nausea and dizziness are my main anxiety symptoms, and anxiety has paralyzed me for much of my life. If I refuse to climb — or go to church, or practice yoga, or whatever — whenever my stomach is upset, I won’t do any of these things often enough to make a difference. I’ll spend my life firmly planted under my bedclothes, whimpering. For other people, gastrointestinal symptoms are a sign that they should take it easy. For me, they just mean that I’m anxious. If I don’t accept the small risk that I really am sick, I’ll never get really good at climbing, or at anything else that presents a serious challenge. I can’t afford to accept an excuse that would serve for another person.

The good news is, the last few times I went climbing, I did it in spite of really rotten stomach cramps. Of course, I stopped noticing the pain after I climbed a couple of routes. I managed to stay focused while on belay; I didn’t faint, drop the rope, and allow my partner to fall to his death. The moral of the story? If I want to function, let alone excel, I need to push past even my most sensible excuses.

Love to all.

An Intriguing Link on Email, and a Quick Progress Report

Here’s an ebook on how to use email consciously. I can’t vouch for it — I haven bought it yet — but it fits with my attempts to be learn a more conscious approach to new media.

I’m sorry to be so scarce in this space. I’m attending an Intensive Outpatient Program at a local hospital, and it’s just tremendously beneficial. I’m waking up a lot later, though, so it limits my writing time. If it continues to be helpful, I’ll probably continue to struggle to write. The weekend is coming, though, so perhaps that will help.

Love to all.

In Which I Share My New System for To-Do Lists and Consider How to Avoid Alienation at Work

Alone in a crowd
I've summoned up some strategies for feeling less alone in the crowd at work.
I’m excited by the following development: I’ve hit on a better (or at least different) way of formatting my all-important to-do lists.

My penultimate system entailed highlighting my MIT’s (Most Important Things), as well as any routine tasks that had to be completed by the day’s end (or COB, as we cube rats like to call it). When I would look for a new task, though, I found myself reading over every item and feeling guilty for anything that I knew I couldn’t complete.

Thus the new system. Now I break my to-do list into three shorter lists: MIT’s, routine stuff, and Other. I work them in order without peeking ahead, and so far it’s working well.

Some may say that my systems are unnecessarily elaborate. Whatever works, I say.

I’ve also become aware of exactly how alienated I feel at work. I hardly speak to the other data managers; I can hear them whooping it up in the office next to mine (the one my former office mate is squatting in), which makes me sad or sour grapes, depending on whether I’m depressed or enraged.

I do tell myself that all this will change when I move to my new cube near the test engineers, and that may be true. Even so, I made and began to follow a list of Tactics To Feel More Engaged in the Office. Here goes:

1. Seek out people whom I like. This means chatting with two data managers, Michele and Karen, who work near a manufacturing area that I frequent. So I’ve sworn to visit them whenever I pass. They greet me eagerly. After even a brief chat, I feel less like I’m from Mars.

2. Work to find common ground with people I find difficult, and notice qualities that I respect. This presents a challenge, given that we don’t actually share work, or even frequent each others’ offices. And since my office mate has seceded, I feel awkward addressing her. In fact, I castigate myself every time I see her. Things are bad enough that I need to make a specific effort.

3. I’m taking over one function from my former office mate and I need occasional training, so I make a point of asking her to show me things rather than turning to team members who make me less nervous.

4. Read articles about the industry and relevant government policy daily.

5. Soak up the frequent email updates from the engineers I work with, and ask questions when I’m curious.

6. List my strengths and note how I can use them at work. I got this strategy from an internal marketing campaign sponsored by our HR department. I often feel that there is no overlap between my job functions and my skills, but this isn’t totally true. I can seek out opportunities for writing and public speaking, for example, and when I do, it’s fun to excel.

7. Schedule weekly status meetings with my section head, especially now that she has moved to another building. I’d prefer to stay out of her way, but that’s unlikely to improve my rank and rating.

These steps aren’t easy for me now, and they’ll get more difficult when I’ve finally moved, but I will try.

A final quick note: I’m not at all motivated to make changes that seem trivial, and most of my Perfect Mental Patient project strikes me that way. It isn’t as life-improving as I’d hoped, and seems not to address the fundamental problem. More on the problem I’ve identified and ways to attack it tomorrow.

Love to all.

Oops — last quick note: I’m fascinated by this article from The New York Times. It confirms an idea that I’ve long taken as a maxim. Studies now show that sitting still for hours at a time can undo even the most vigorous daily exercise program. Aside from developing the dreaded Desk Ass, office workers who enjoy few opportunities to move around weigh more than people with more active jobs. They’re also at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses associated with sedentary habits. This is the case even when researchers match the two groups for after-hours exercise. Really, this should be obvious; anything that can give you deep vein thrombosis can’t be beneficial. So now I’ll feel even more justified in springing up every few minutes to pick something up off of the printer or visit the ladies’ room.

I’ve long cherished the idea of starting a Six Sigma project that would set aside a half an hour a day for people in particularly sedentary jobs to walk and do yoga. Maybe this is my cue.

Now I can say it: Love to all.

I Like the 21st Century Better When I Limit My Role in It

Fire
Unless you'd like to see my head explode, don't page me if nothing's on fire.
I’m not the Unibomber, and I don’t live in a cave, but, man, curtailing my computer time has improved my sense of connection. Today I will take that as my topic, on the theory that it’s not only interesting but a huge mood boost.

Where to start? I’ll begin with my scheme for improving communications at work. Two days ago I acted with remarkable audacity for the mouse-me, approaching our crusty Program head with a suggestion: Why not ask everyone to make a list of the media they use, ranked by preference and average response time? I also thought we should each explain how to contact us in a true emergency.

My reasoning should be familiar by now. To wit, the best way to reach people depends on their circumstances and preferences. Those with BlackBerries like emails since they can read them in meetings. For the IT folks, paging makes sense since they’re never at they’re desks, and they can’t carry cell phones in the closed areas and labs. I “only” check email three times a day, and reserve my pager for emergencies. In fact, I rarely carry the latter during business hours, since it makes sense to call me at my desk for hot assignments.

He immediately saw what I mean. He could rattle off the preferences of all the people he called regularly, but had no idea about how to find most of us quickly. He also agreed that nothing is more irritating than being pestered with trivialities in a medium that you reserve for emergencies. In fact, he hates to be paged, too. So I sailed off to set my plan in motion. I can’t tell you how much this delighted me. My section head only calls me to castigate me for an error in corporate protocol or drop work on me, in that order. I positively adore the Program now.

What’s next? Suggesting email-free Fridays, of course.

I continue to reap the benefits of face-to-face communication, too. Yesterday presented more of a challenge, because I had tease out a series of potentially production-stopping issues, which entailed trotting from office to office and building to building to gather facts and opinions. It still worked charmingly, though, and as before, I ended up having a series of valuable incidental conversations.

More later — my alarm went off, which means it’s time to wrap it up.

Love to all.

Get Thee Behind Me, Internet

Yesterday, just for fun, I limited my time on the computer at work to about two hours. Before I got in, I would have sworn to you that six hours was a stretch, and that even that would risk curtailing my productivity. Not so. In fact, it looks like I’ve accidentally discovered a striking way to boost my mood.

The goal was simple: To stay not only offline, but off the computer entirely. When I needed to see people, my default setting was a face-to-face visit. If that didn’t work, I resorted to a telephone call. This resolution alone wrought enormous changes, and demonstrated the limits of electronic communication.

Surely, I thought, personal visits will take too long. What’s more, how likely is it that people will actually be at their desks? I was cast down early in the morning, for example, when I trotted the quarter mile or so to see IT regarding server access for two other data managers; my target had popped out for a smoke.

On a whim I stopped by my section head’s desk, and found out that I would be able to have lunch with the customer (who was visiting) despite a crucial teleconference I’d mistakenly scheduled from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. If I hadn’t seen her face-to-face, they almost certainly would have gone without me, and I’ve done enough damage to my career through social avoidance, thank you very much.

Next I poked my head into the cube shared by two women whom I find congenial. Since they’re in a distant building and on a different program, I typically see them only in meetings. We had a most excellent time chatting about nothing in particular, and strengthened a promising bond substantially.

I returned to my desk strengthened in my resolve. Within minutes, the IT guy who had ignored two days of plaintive voice mails called and asked what he could do for me. Granted, this gentleman is more “responsive,” as we say, than our usual Program IT people. Even so, it set a land speed record for IT service.

The trend continued. An engineer visited my cube to compliment me on my presentation two days ago on disability awareness; we enjoyed an enlightening chat about his reaction to a sudden, invisible disability, and he expressed interest in attending a brown bag seminar that I’m planning on behalf of the disabled employees resource group. I stopped by the office of the program manager, whom I fear and revere, to suggest a way of improving team communication (more on this revolutionary notion in a later post). I didn’t find him, but, again, he called back promptly, allowing me to stop by a second time. I pitched my idea, which he loved, then we discussed my presentation and problems that disabled employees face throughout the company. I wandered by the office of the gentleman who handles security for Mission Planning. He wandered back and took the time to explain a complicated issue connected with the Program’s telemetry data, which I process and store.

You get the point. These are just examples — I started dozens of valuable face-to-face interactions throughout the day, and I largely stayed off the computer. I also left my beloved iPhone at home. I started out downright alarmed — What if my car breaks down? Oh, yeah, I’ll call AAA on my company phone — but was converted by lunch, since I avoided spending my lunch hunched over a tiny screen reading The Times. You couldn’t pay me to take the thing today.

I had no idea how completely I relied on the computer to communicate, and how much time I frittered away sending and receiving terse, functional emails. That single activity apparently accounts for more than two-thirds of my terminal time. So what did I do online? I looked up people in our online employee directory and did some word processing — that’s it.

The key question is, was I productive enough? Yes and no. I sent fewer messages, certainly, and I did have less time to write. Even so, I’m positive that I came out substantially ahead: In one day I learned more about my colleagues and management than I had in the previous year, and they got to know me. This may prove to be a secret weapon: If I can strengthen my bonds with the Program, I stand to gain significant status and influence. And, of course, the Program gains from spontaneous brainstorming sessions and improved communication. I gathered and shared a tremendous amount of work-related information through spontaneous, free-form conversation, and this sparked ideas that wouldn’t have come to me had I sent even the most eloquent email. Hot damn.

Further radical steps: I’ve resolved to thank people specifically and honestly for their help once a week, and to cut out emails and IMs reading “Thank you,” or, more often, “Thx.” Visiting will be my default mode, followed by calls to people’s landlines. Only if those methods fail will I send an email. After one revolutionary day, I’m certain that email works well for broadcast communication, but is otherwise of marginal value. It turns out that people instinctively accord more importance to a face-to-face visit.

Three caveats: First, I’m still hypomanic, and I may find it tough to keep this up when the inevitable depression crashes over me. I suspect, though, that I vibrated with energy partly because the social contact lifted my spirits. We’ll see. Second, if others take my lead, the magical expediting effect of my visits may dwindle. I’ll take it — the detailed conversation alone pays off one hundredfold. Finally, for all I know, others may already be visiting each other and chatting away, of course. I may simply be catching up. I doubt that they conduct business face-to-face, however — I think that their face-to-face contact is purely social.

So, wow. I’ve got a lot more to tell, but my alarm went off, and it’s time to shut down my laptop.

Love to all.