Turn Away from What Should Be and Focus on What Is

August 8, 2010 at 9:27 am | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Productivity, stress, Work Life | Leave a comment

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.

Tips for Boosting Your Energy Level — Now

August 6, 2010 at 4:58 am | Posted in Links, Productivity, Work Life | Leave a comment

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

August 3, 2010 at 5:11 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Productivity | Leave a comment

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

March 19, 2010 at 2:44 am | Posted in Links, Productivity | 1 Comment

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

February 24, 2010 at 5:07 am | Posted in In the News, Productivity, Sociability, Wellness, Work Life | Leave a comment

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

February 12, 2010 at 3:50 am | Posted in Productivity, Work Life | Leave a comment

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

February 11, 2010 at 3:38 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems, Productivity, Sociability, Work Life | Leave a comment

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.

I Hate the 21st Century Continued, in Which I Reject the Internet and Discuss an Article from The New York Times Concerning An Intriguing Academic Program

February 9, 2010 at 4:29 am | Posted in In the News, Philosophical Problems, Productivity, Sociability, Work Life | 2 Comments

Let me begin with bile and end, for once, on a hopeful note.

So. Lately computers in general and the Internet in particular have been driving me nuts. Several times a day I reflect gloomily on how much of my adult life I’ve wasted staring at screens small and large while pages load. I’ve definitely been either hypomanic or unusually irritable while entertaining this train of thought. Nonetheless, I think there’s genuine insight to be had here. Most days, between work and this space, I log a minimum of 10 hours online. Throw in an evening email check, a quick trip to, say, Amazon.com, and time squandered reading The Times on my iPod at lunch and in waiting rooms, and we’re looking at 12 or 13 hours. No wonder I’m still creeping through Victor David Hanson’s remarkable A War Like No Other.

(Digression that makes me wish for footnotes: When I searched Hanson’s book on Amazon, I was intrigued to note that he’s the author of Carnage and Culture, which I’ve long dismissed as a right-wing tract that blindly and possibly ahistorically that argues that a democratic tradition allowed the West to conquer and enslave New World indigenous cultures. Hanson’s book on the Peloponnesian war demonstrates the subtlety and reach of his scholarship; I’ll have to revisit Carnage and Culture.)

Back to the 21st Century, against which I hold a whole variety of grudges. My shoulders are perpetually sore from hunching over screens. Despite the hardware’s laughably superior processing power, the bloated software on my PC at work runs more slowly than the crude programs I installed on the Commodore 64 I had in high school.

To my endless irritation, the Internet has taken over my life. I date, buy books and clothes, correspond with friends, and work exclusively online. I text or email the gentlemen of my acquaintance to the exclusion of phone conversations (I’ll address the evils of cell phones presently). I’ve initiated, consummated, and ended key romantic partnerships via email (though never by text or instant message). This is crazy, and it has to stop.

Before you all begin to bristle at my Luddite ways, I will note that I reap benefits from it, too. Before online shopping no brick-and-mortar store carried my absurd clothing sizes (a 00 in jeans and a 30DD in bras). I’ve met some lovely people online. I adore Skype’s largely free VOIP service. So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t I brim with gratitude and plunge into every technology developed?

Overall, I think we’ve suffered more than we’re willing to admit. I’ve often joked that the Internet and smartphones are Gen X TV — that is, they destroy relationships and culture with their inexorable spread. Every now and then, I remind my office mate that Kierkegaard wrote Either/Or in its entirety in eight months using quill and ink. I’m here to tell you that hand-written 19th Century German philosophy beats the hell out of even the most learned contemporary discourse.

A few more examples:

1. Cell phones substantially reduce the quality of communication. Digital sound quality invariably muddies conversation. Everyone has a cell phone glued to their ear, yet complains about everyone else’s poor manners (phones ringing during sermons and seminars) and reckless behavior (talking and texting while driving).

2. Constant availability sucks. It also inspires complete submission. My life illustrates this neatly, since I carry two cell phones (company and personal) and a pager, and answer to a work landline, personal and business email, VOIP services like Skype, and instant messaging, which I loathe. Oh, and I text on both of my phones.

I hate, hate, hate this way of living, and I’ve resisted the innovations that irritate me most. It’s a radical step even to cut back on one medium, though. My coworkers, for example, rise indignant when I limit my emailing to two hours in the morning and afternoon; the evil minions of Mission Planning pestered me to get IM, and I gave in. Ever since, I’ve been subject to trivial and distracting interruptions throughout my work day.

3. As availability grows, so does the downpour of trivial requests. In their excellent book Send, David Shipley and Will Schwalby astutely point out that email and other forms of instant communication encourage people to ask for things that they could easily find for themselves. I’m as bad as anyone, demanding documents and contact information that’s easily searched out on our company intranet. This phenomenon causes everyone to fritter away precious work hours hunting down each others’ silly stuff and emailing it back and forth. Worse yet, we expect to get it now, and condemn people who fall behind in this insane environment. (I haven’t, but I’d like to.)

4. The data managers in offices adjacent to mine text me rather than sticking their heads around the door. Forget walking several blocks to the closed area to find me. When I get back, they whine that they needed me immediately. To which I say, then trot over to the next building and stop complaining about your expanding desk ass. They know perfectly well that cell phones aren’t permitted in labs and closed areas.

5. Sure, there’s Google. But that’s created three problems. First, it’s eliminated other sources of information, at least in my life. I don’t go to university libraries, and I have no phone book. I haven’t opened an atlas in years. This isn’t just nostalgia on my part. Each of these information sources carries distinct advantages over its online counterpart.

This trend becomes pernicious when writers argue, as Nick Bilton does in this New York Times article, that Twitter — Twitter! — is now mandatory. His arguments? Without Twitter, you might miss out on a coupon. Never mind that those very coupons will cause you to spend more money overall. Besides, everyone else is doing it, and you might fall behind. Being less available and connected than others is, in his world, perverse, irresponsible, and self-destructive.

This is idiotic. I hate Twitter, if only because it encourages illiteracy (as do texting, instant messaging, and email). For many people, it may be an excellent medium. I hold it in contempt, though, and I will not send or receive tweets.

Finally — and this sickens me — corporations sell Internet connectivity on the basis that it will allow you to find out anything, anytime, anywhere. You may ask, what’s wrong with that? I’m beginning to suspect that this has become a universal excuse for ignorance. Why know that capital of Peru when you can Google it with your smartphone? Why learn Japanese when their are translation programs? I’m serious about this — I think it contributes to our general contempt for education.

6. For all that people are connected, they’re no more available. It’s impossible to know which medium prompts the fastest response from any given person, so in a genuine emergency you have to take the time to page them, leave a voice mail on cell and landlines, send an email, and even tap out an instant message. I’ve done this in a pinch, and it’s an irritating time-waster to both sender and recipient.

So there.

But seriously, we’ve gotten to the point where we regard technology not as helpful, but as mandatory. Rather than scrutinizing and selecting among the various available media, we’ve created a regime under which we adopt everything on pain of being left behind.

There are holdouts. For instance, a couple of prominent bloggers have decided that email doesn’t serve their needs, and they’ve given it up. Others take a more passive-aggressive route, slacking off on their email in-boxes until they’re forced to declare electronic bankruptcy. (Two coworkers are near this point, and I’m annoyed that they never answer my plaintive emails.)

On the whole, though, we’re screwed. That’s why I’m launching an offensive to stay offline.

Starting tomorrow.

Moving along, I can’t stifle my ongoing interest in higher education. As a result, I’d like to share this article from The New York Times about programs that send at-risk high school students to community college early, allowing them to begin earning a two-year degree before graduating from high school.

I regarded the whole thing with skepticism when I first read the headline. Oh, Lord, I thought. Just what every college needs: A further surge of unprepared students. The article impressed me, however. The students go to community colleges (that’s not clear from the headline), which are much better prepared than four-year universities to tutor them in basic academic and study skills.

The numbers show that high expectations work. Not one participant in the North Carolina has dropped out; compare this to a 62 percent graduation rate at its feeder school. The students were far from being overachievers, but they still manage to outperform their older college counterparts. This interests me because community college students are often highly motivated. Two of the best students I know began their careers at a community college — my mom, who earned straight As through her college career, and a former colleague who earned a doctorate at the world-class graduate school where I got my graduate degree. The latter absolutely shames me with his erudition; he reads Homeric Greek and recently mastered Italian. He has a smattering of French, German and Russian (in which he was once reasonably fluent), and is studying contemporary Greek. Not to mention having one edited volume published and another in press. My teaching experience suggests that this applies to community college students in general — by the time they reach a four-year university, they are often well-prepared, and certainly mature.

So, yeah, on the whole community college students can be a force to be reckoned with. They’re often much more hungry for their degrees than the average student at a four-year university, and though many are less prepared when they begin (admittedly, my two examples were not), they can go on to whip more privileged students who go straight into a four-year program. The fact that troubled high school students can outperform an older, ambitious population speaks well for the North Carolina program.

It sounds, then, like solid academics and high expectations can do a lot to counter even a poor K-12 education. That gives me some hope for the future.

I’m finally signing off now after two and a half hours spent writing. I still have to answer my personal email, read my blogs, and look at the newspaper. Then I”l go to work.

Heaven help me.

How to Get Through a Wretched, Wretched Day

December 25, 2009 at 5:58 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, My Fascinating Mood, Productivity, Work Life | Leave a comment

This Monday, the 21st, was one of the roughest days of my life. I had a brutal weekend during which I struggled to get out of bed and brush my teeth, and come Monday, I wasn’t feeling much better. In fact, I was feeling mentally and physically shot.

I had the shakes for some reason, my back ached from staying in bed for three days (note to self — bed rest is the worst possible thing for middle-aged aches and pains), and I was thoroughly derealized and depersonalized. Emotionally, things were as bad as they could be. On the cognitive front, I had the attention span of a five-year-old boy who hasn’t taken his Ritalin, and even the most commonplace thoughts were arriving and leaving at an annoying drip-drip-drip pace.

Oddly, I had been briefly — very briefly — hypomanic on Friday, calling folks on the phone and chatting away in a manner that at least I found most amusing. Or perhaps I was simply acting normally and the contrast was so stark that I felt hypomanic. In any case, a brief spell of hypomania makes depression that much more difficult to weather because you really feel — or, at least, I really feel — that destiny intended you to live in this heightened state, and that you’ve been robbed for the last year or so since you last tasted it.

So, yeah, I was struggling. Going to work and staying there was was quite simply one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. This is sad in itself, because going to work is such a simple, basic act, and a part of me thinks “Good Lord, is this the sum total of my aspirations and abilities? Laboring mightily to see through a few trivial tasks at a job that is, let’s face it, largely administrative?” The answer, it would seem, is a humbling yes.

Right about now you’re probably asking yourself, “Wow, Dr. RandR, how did you accomplish this amazing feat of endurance?” Well, I’m glad you asked, because I’m about to give you some Pretty Darn Good Guidelines for Soldiering Through What Seems to Be an Impossible Task. Hang tight, here we go.

1. I’ve said this before, but it does bear repeating: No big goals. Break everything down into the tiniest imaginable steps, and work your way through one by one, refusing to think about the overwhelming whole. So in addition my master to do list, which, as usual, I populated with all sorts of ambitious projects that I had neither the intention nor the ability to carry out, I prepared a step-by-step list for each task that I absolutely had to accomplish, and I crept through my duties bit by bit in turn.

2. It helped that we had an urgent data delivery, and that none of my coworkers seemed inclined to help to get it out. I mean, if I were carted away to the looney bin before their very eyes, or they had proof positive that I was lying in a coma following a tragic car crash, I imagine someone would have stepped up to the plate. But as long as I was hovering around like a rain cloud, or at least likely to show up, everyone made it clear through their actions that they were too busy to help — and some were — or that they simply didn’t want to. So I was able to carry on in a martyred fashion about how if I’m not there to do things, they simply don’t get done.

A side note: a funny feature of my job — some would say a kafkaesque one — is that I have as little power as it’s possible for a creature with a pulse buried in a large, bureaucratic organization to have, and yet screwing up my main function by missing a data delivery actually carries severe penalties, both for me and for the organization as a whole. For the company, it can mean substantial fines and, in the long run, fewer widget contracts. I actually benefit from the sense of importance this gives me. If my job were entirely futile and pointless — I’ll refrain from pointing out specific functions at work, but trust me, they exist — I really wouldn’t be able to carry on at times. So I’m grateful for the bit of importance that I do have.

3. I’m not in the habit of speaking in an encouraging way to myself, but, boy, did I lay it on thick this week. At least one station in my head remained firmly tuned to the positive thinking channel: “It’s OK. You can do it. You’re going to be fine. You can do this. Just a little more. It’s really going to be OK.” It reminds me of the way I coached my car when the transmission suddenly stopped working the other day. A lot of, “Come on, baby! Just a little further! Let’s get through this one intersection, shall we?”

4. I flatly refused to think ahead to the future, or to ask any of the Big Questions. I’d been asking the Big Questions all weekend — “What am I doing on this planet? Why is there so much suffering in the world, and specifically in my skull?” — and — surprise, surprise! — I hadn’t managed to dredge up any persuasive answers, so come Monday I summoned all of my considerable powers of denial and refused to engage in any cheap existential philosophy. No big questions, just small tasks. No future; just the paper and pen, phone and computer before me.

5. I told myself again and again how proud I would feel if I managed to get through the day. I thought, “Heck, if I can sit upright and look busy for eight hours while feeling like this, then I can conquer the world!” And you know, I do feel proud. I’ve encounted a few stretches in my life where all I could do was slog through with very little hope, encouragement or pride, and I do pretty much manage to tough it out.

Taken together, these strategies did work. I doubt that they could work for months or even days on end, but luckily I did feel a bit better on Tuesday, so I didn’t have to test their efficacy over the long haul. I mean, I think I will eventually have to ask at least a couple of modest questions and discover some sort of purpose to drive me, but Monday was not the day for that, and I wisely refrained. As so often happens with depression, things did get a bit easier, and it was no longer such a superhuman struggle, say, to brush my teeth.

One consequence of my lost weekend is that I’ve had to skip Christmas. The window for buying and sending gifts and cards has closed, and I’m left reassuring myself that I will give everyone on my list random gifts throughout the year when they least expect it. Certainly not on their birthdays, since I always miss those. Perhaps in July, when the holidays seem so far away, and look alluring and not simply stressful.

One thing I did decide on Wednesday, my last day of work before the blessed, blessed holiday shutdown, is that I need a Grandiose Plan for this blog, and by extension for the rest of my life. Here’s the idea I’ve been toying with: what if I become the ideal mental patient? After all, I don’t follow a lot of my own advice. My diet isn’t horrible, but it certainly doesn’t meet FDA guidelines. The only exercise that I’ve been getting has been climbing the stairs at work and trudging back and forth to remote corners of our absurdly huge building. I’ve been slugging away at the coffee, which all the experts agree worsens mood disorders over the long run. I’ve stopped praying and attending church. And so on.

So I’ve been thinking: what if I really clean up my act? I don’t have to run a marathon, but I could revitalize my yoga practice and get the recommended minimum 20 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week. I could eat more fruits and vegetables, behave as if I haven’t childishly withdrawn my faith from God, and so forth. Obviously, I couldn’t do this all at once. If I did, I would probably be assumed into heaven body and soul like the Virgin Mary, and that would have unfortunate consequences at work and for this blog. (I’m guessing that they don’t have internet connections or cell phones in the afterlife. No TV, either.)

Even so, I’m almost ready to concoct a grand scheme for self improvement just as an experiment. Would I actually get measurably better? Or is it true that mine is a hopeless case and there’s no point in buying spinach just to see it wilt in my refrigerator? The benefit of this approach is that it’s purely experimental. I don’t have to believe that it will work in order to do it. That helps, since I’ve been having a bit of a belief problem for the last several months.

It would also make for good reading — better reading than relentless whining about my sad lot, which others already do much more eloquently on other blogs (well, their lots, not mine). It would prove amusing for others, if not for me. And it might just work. All of the science and clinical evidence suggests that I would improve to some degree. Perhaps the clincher is this: it may be a matter of life and death. I’m genuinely not sure that I can go on like this, so I don’t have much to lose.

So, yes, a hopeful, ambitious, apparently unquenchable corner of my soul has been urging me to concoct and at least try to carry out a Grand Scheme. Watch this space for further developments. Or for more relentless whining. Or, most likely, for both.

Love to all.

Book Review: Unclutter Your Life in One Week

December 11, 2009 at 4:35 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Productivity, Resources, Work Life | 1 Comment

Unclutter Your Life in One Week

The cover of Erin Rooney Doland's excellent book on organizing.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I am a huge believer in being organized, and in self-improvement in general. Nothing jazzes me quite like a complicated project that promises me a bright, shiny new life of simplicity and ease. On a more practical level, I believe that bipolar folk need to have good systems in place to keep us functioning when depression strikes.

Imagine my delight, then, when I read a review recommending Unclutter Your Life in One Week, a summary of wisdom from Erin Rooney Doland’s Unclutterer blog. I ordered it immediately, even though I thought I didn’t really have a tremendous amount of clutter in my home. How could I? I moved into my lovely new condo at the beginning of May, and purged crap madly before packing.

Of course, I do, indeed, have a good deal of clutter at home and at work. Why, my excess beauty supplies would keep a small village clean and preened for a month; my file drawers at work are crammed with outdated papers and office supplies that past data managers have bequeathed upon me, including, to my dismay, transparencies for overheads (which demonstrate that people bored each other well before PowerPoint) and printable labels for floppy disks.

Once I realized how dire the situation had become, I plunged into Doland’s program, and found her advice to be excellent. I would give one caveat: the agenda for each day is crazily ambitious. Unless you want to bog down and get discouraged, I suggest that you set aside two or three weeks for the dramatic cleanup that she recommends. I’m also a believer in incremental rather than dramatic habit change, if only because I’ve committed to so many radical new plans only to discard or simply forget them in the hustle of daily life. Again, I recommend that you allow several months to implement all of Doland’s cool systems.

The book is divided into separate chapters for each day of the week, each one focusing on a different area of the home and office. She begins by telling you how to clean, simplify and organize the area, then gives a system for maintaining your progress and streamlining the activities associated with the area. So, for example, Monday is devoted to tackling your wardrobe at home and your desk at work, and to setting up a “reception station” by your front door that will give you a transitional zone that will keep you from bringing clutter like loose change and unopened mail into your home.

I tackled the wardrobe project on Sunday, and am still working on it sporadically along with my bathroom. It’s Friday and I haven’t even touched the kitchen or living room. Of course, my wardrobe situation had become pretty grim. I love clothes and shoes, and tend to accumulate them willy-nilly without much regard for fit or function. Following her instructions, though, I managed to pare down my holdings and tidy the floor and storage bins. I haven’t yet established a routine for getting dressed, partly because that entails purchasing at least one big item — a full-length mirror. Also, Doland’s goal with getting dressed is to save time — she believes that it should take no more than five minutes — while I actually enjoy putting together the day’s stunning outfit. So I’m modifying her plan to make dressing fun and sensual rather than simply fast.

Doland provides examples of several wardrobe systems that could work, and encourages you to adopt one that you will actually maintain. This is a real advantage over programs like Getting Things Done that tend to seem elaborate, rigid, and overwhelming to us mentally ill folk. Again and again, Doland emphasizes that the goal is productivity, not maintaining a system for the sheer pleasure of being hyper-organized and precise. This is crucial, since I tend to use things like to do lists to procrastinate and engage in obsessive-compulsive checking behavior rather than as productivity tools.

All in all, though there are plenty of other systems out there (many of which I’ve tried), hers ranks in the 90th percentile, certainly. The same is true of her advice on emailing, filing, and running meetings — her systems are certainly not the only ones, and perhaps not the absolute best, but they are an excellent starting point if certain areas of your life have drifted out of control. Doland’s book rises above the competition because she breaks each project down into tiny steps and shows you exactly where to start on what could otherwise be an overwhelming project.

There are two odd omissions: there’s no advice on organizing storage closets (mine is quickly descending into chaos) or junk drawers (ditto). I can happily turn elsewhere for these, though, so it’s no big loss.

Overall, Doland’s book is a valuable organizing tool. Even if I only follow one-seventh of her advice, my quality of life will improve, and I’m all about quality of life. Too, this book showed up in the mail at just the right time: when I was digging out from a depressive episode and becoming discouraged by the disorder around me. I’m ready for some good old-fashioned goal-directed behavior, and Doland’s book has provided structure and encouragement. So buy it and jump in, or store it until you’re neck-deep in clutter and desperate for a cure.

Love to all.

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