My attention is getting pulled in too many directions. The kids are in holiday mode and think my wife, who is also WFH, and I are also on holiday. With the lockdown and no domestic help available, we—especially the wife—are also managing cooking, housework, and caring for my ailing mother. On top of that, I am bombarded with WhatsApp messages and calls through the day and late into the evening, because my colleagues can’t see me, and assume I am available.
Plus my two-bedroom apartment is simply not fit for WFH. It wasn’t like this earlier whenever I did WFH—with the kids at school, wife at her office, an office to support me, and domestic help to keep the home running.
Now I can’t find a quiet corner where I can hunker down and focus. Yesterday, I decided to take a 10-minute power nap—and ended up crashing out for 30 minutes! I felt guilty when I woke up. I have CoVid coming out of my ears and am already feeling stretched.
First things first. There’s nothing to feel guilty about having napped for 30 minutes. The ground beneath our feet shifted overnight. And reading your note makes me feel breathless. But I think I understand why.
You’ve been pulled out of the “comfort zone” that was your workplace where you work, pushed into an “alien environment” that is home where family resides, and are being compelled to work out of home.
Fact is, we are fundamentally different people when at work and at home. At work, our minds operate in a different zone, with a certain set of people; at home, we live in an altogether different world with another set of people.
But when work comes home, minus the partitions our titles carry and the banter colleagues bring, it is inevitable that both worlds will collide. So, what you are experiencing now is not distraction, but stress induced by two worlds at war with each other for your attention.
May I suggest a few things?
Be kind to yourself
I cannot underline how important this is. Be kind to yourself. It takes some time and practice to operate at the border of both these worlds.
That is also why I cannot offer any clear answers to your dilemma, but offer some pointers basis personal experience.
When I started researching Project Aadhaar to write a book on it, I assumed home would be the ideal place to work from.
The assumption was this space will allow me to focus on research, deep reading and writing at a time and pace of my choosing. That I was horribly wrong became apparent soon. All the distractions you articulated started to mount and at the end of each day, while my intent was noble, the GTD list started to pile up.
Some conversations with mentors and mental health professionals helped. The sum and substance of what they told me was this. I must “get into the zone” to work.
By way of analogy, think of Roger Federer, my favourite athlete. After listening to friends who have seen him first hand, I felt compelled to point out, it isn’t his genius that catapults him to victory, but the routine that he follows. When he gets on the court, what we see isn’t magic as commentators would like us to believe, but a man who knows how to “get into the zone”. How do we get there?
I figured, to “get into the zone”, I’d have to look at the world around me, acknowledge reality, and work around it. Because the world doesn’t care what I want.
Exercise and meditate
With two young kids who think it is all right to barge in on me every once a while, a very unwell dad who needed attention 24/7, chores at home, and to stay on top of professional commitments, my assumptions turned awry very quickly. And I needed quality time as well myself.
I cannot underline the significance of how important quality time with the self is. To understand what trajectory my vitals follow, I started to monitor my heart rate (HR) using an app called Cardiograph. This can be downloaded on your phone. Turns out, my HR shoots up and stays in the high 70s—a sign of stress. To stay on top of things, I have to keep my HR in the early 60s.
How? The only way was if I could get time-out with myself.
The most pragmatic thing to do then was to wake up earlier than everyone else to get a few things done.
1. Get a full-body workout. Because I hate the gym, my friend Dr Rajat Chauhan, a sports medicine doctor, suggested nine exercises to start my day with. This can be done within 20 minutes.
May I suggest you get a respirometer as well? Use it first thing in the morning to breathe in and out for at least a minute. Repeat thrice a day. Even as it gets much needed oxygen into the system, it helps retrain the lungs to breathe deep and slow—something most of us have forgotten to do, and helps keep calm in the longer run. This very moderately priced device is available with all chemists. After trying a few out, I’ve settled for Romsons Respirometre (GS 6018).
2. In my scheme of things, this is followed by a shower, while my masala chai brews. After tea, I plug the headphones and mediate with Waking Up, an app created by neuroscientist, philosopher, and writer Sam Harris.
I settled on Waking Up after trying other meditation apps. I thought most of them shallow. This one distils wisdom from the great traditions of the world including Vipassana and includes conversations with some of the finest minds of our times.
Meditation helps the mind settle. In that silence, you can hear how noisy the head actually is. While this is a paid app, if you think it unaffordable, write to the Waking Up team and they offer free access right away. May I sincerely urge you to pay if you can afford it and not abuse their generosity?
Give up on GTD lists
Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky pointed out the Planning Fallacy which proposes that we are biased to underestimate the effort required for tasks and overestimate the time we have to complete it.
This is why, GTD lists are destined to fail. Like I articulated earlier, these lists keep piling up. Instead, why aren’t we talking about What Values Matter (WVM) lists?
The reason these lists fail is because GTD lists are reactive lists. Not an outcome of proactive thinking on what matters most.
For instance, we are taught to manage our career and finance. But how do we manage our relationships? How will we measure our lives? In spite of having spent much time thinking on questions such as these, I must admit, I am often guilty of what that great teacher Clayton Christensen warned against: “…people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most.”
To get into the zone then, I’ve done away with GTD lists. For everything—the time I need to spend with myself, to read, time with kids, friends, managing chores, and work.
Instead, I allocate rough dates and times on the calendar to what is negotiable and what is non-negotiable.
What make it to the calendar are things I hope to get done in a week, that include both the professional and personal—so long as they fit in with my values. If they don’t, they are thrown out right away.
It is pertinent to ask, how do you find your values?
A resource that comes to mind is this lovely book: 344 Questions: The Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Surival, and Artistic Fulfilment.
Ignore social media when you wake up
Peer-reviewed literature has meticulously documented the downsides of looking at the phone screen first thing in the morning. These include higher levels of anxiety and stress when you look at news feeds and IQ depletion after staring at social media. While at work, it can take anywhere between 23-25 minutes to recover focus after an interruption—or a distraction.
That is why, Nir Eyal keeps making the point, it is important to “gain traction”, which is the opposite of “distraction”. In other words, be indistractable. I had a lovely conversation with him on the theme. If you haven’t heard it yet, may I urge you to? There are some lovely pointers he offers on how to stay focused. Here’s a clip from that conversation:
Use some smart tech
There are things one can control: I’ve turned off notifications from apps. I’ve also permanently set colours on my phone to grayscale (black and white mode). I do that because past experience with some very fine designers and coders has taught me that all algorithms and colours are at work to grab my attention and time. I refuse to part with any of it.
I hear you about email overload and juggling calendars. Don’t even try. Automate it. Much like you outsource it to your assistant.
A few pointers come to mind right away.
- First, decide what calendar you want to use. There’s Google Calendar, Apple Calendar and Outlook Calendar. In any case, all of these are available on your devices and work across all platforms.
- Whatever you’re comfortable with, connect it to IFTTT (www.iffttt.com). An acronym for “If-this-then-that”. How to use it? Click here to understand how it works. And for a quick overview of what it is, this link does the job.
Simply put, if a certain action occurs, such as, when you receive a calendar invite, and if you accept it, you can trigger a chain of events. Such as, remind you at a certain hour that a meeting is coming up, and inform others in your team you will be unavailable for that time.
In much the same way, IFTTT recipes can respond to emails, or send text messages to let people know you’re tied up right now and will get back past a certain hour. I find it useful. It’s not perfect. But it works well for me.
Every once a while, a voice in the head suggests something be looked up or argues a task must be done, now. My way to get around it is to make a quick note of what I need to look up using an app called TodoIst. When the app reminds me about it later, oftentimes, what seemed urgent then, was actually trivial. The mind likes to play tricks.
Negotiate with family
At home, I’ve negotiated with the family that I ought to be left alone at set hours. The only person I cannot negotiate with is my younger daughter. She’s too young to understand. I’ve now accepted it is inevitable she will walk in when I am focused and ask a few questions—curiosity compels her to investigate. And it’s happened a few times when I’m on video calls. Just when I think I may hit the roof, people at the other end have smiled indulgently. Everyone is human.
Like I said at the outset, we’re learning to operate in a zone where two worlds are colliding. It’s a tightrope walk. That is one reason why we’ve taken a leaf out of our friend Biju Dominic’s weekly ritual. He is the CEO of Final Mile Consulting. Every Monday morning, each member of the team at Final Mile shares one new thing they have learnt. It’s a great way to learn and bond.
At home, we’ve started asking each other to explain a concept. Good Lord, it’s turning out to be tough! Last night, my 14-year-old daughter asked me to explain what does a non-binary person mean? An awkward attempt led to an hour long animated conversation around monogamy, heterosexuality, religion and ethics.
All of us are living, learning and grappling with every day. And the answers will emerge.