Balance, Productivity, and Temper

It’s been a few days since I did a work-life balance whine, but it’s not like I’m not thinking about it. The problem for the moment is the psychology of trying to be productive in limited time. Specifically, while I know intellectually that I need to be efficient in working, and make the most of even small blocks of free time, this runs hard up against my personal psychology, which is that I hate being interrupted.

The example that brought this to mind is from this morning. This summer, we’ve established a routine where I get up around 6:30 and take The Pip downstairs for drinking milk and watching stuff off the DVR, while Kate goes back to bed for an hour or so. The Pip is, unfortunately, cutting a molar, and it’s very hard to be a Little Dude when you’re getting great big teeth, so he didn’t sleep well at all last night. And when I went in to get him, he wanted to continue sleeping on Kate’s lap, so I came downstairs by myself.

And since this freed up a block of time, I decided to try to put it to good use, working on a blog post for later today. In a sadly predictable manner, though, Il Duderino woke up and demanded to come downstairs (followed shortly by his big sister) when I was maybe halfway through.

The problem is, while half a blog post is better than the nothing I would’ve gotten done had The Pip been on his usual schedule, I find it really intensely irritating to have to break off in the middle of something. Like, physically angry, stomp-around-and-snap-at-the-kids irritating. I’m perfectly happy to write off an hour completely to catching up on The Daily Show with the Little Dude, but having that time nominally “freed up” was actually worse for my mood and overall productivity than doing nothing at all.

This is really the primary limiting factor in my attempts to maintain some sort of productivity while also fulfilling my family responsibilities. I try to do the “work in little blocks” thing that everyone recommends, but it just never works out well. Except in the exceedingly rare cases where I have something to do that I can actually finish in the short breaks that come up while the kids are around, trying to get work done in small chunks just leaves me pissed off all the time, because I’m always being interrupted. So everything gets pushed off to times when they’re either asleep or at day care, and I end up with long stretches of completely unproductive time during the day. Which does nothing to help with the fact that I’m a giant ball of stress over the book-in-progress and various work-related stuff.

I have no idea what to do about this, but it’s making me crazy. The options seem to be walking around in a foul mood a lot of the time, or sacrificing some part of my professional activities so as to free up time for doing nothing. Which, incidentally, tends to put me in a foul mood.

I need to either find a way to be more Zen about the whole thing, or become much more of an asshole than I already am. And while I’m well aware that as a man, the “asshole” route is far more socially acceptable than it would be for a woman in my position, that doesn’t actually help anything…

7 thoughts on “Balance, Productivity, and Temper

  1. No kids here, but since you mentioned being a jerk about saying no to professional activities, right now I’m getting some dramatic illustration of how important it is to say “no.” I said yes to doing a small bit of work on something…and the requests never end. I did a large project for some people a few years ago…and they think I’m their permanent workhorse for anything they can’t get around to doing themselves.

    Even worse, a few months ago, I said “no” to something. The person begged. I said “no” again. They promised to do a large chunk of the work themselves. So we reluctantly did something and sent it to them. Since then, it’s been periodic requests for “just one more thing.” I thought this project had hit a deadline months ago and I could assume no more requests…but another request showed up this morning.

    It’s really, really, REALLY hard to walk away once you say yes to even the smallest thing. And it cuts into all your time for everything else that you really want to do.

  2. The problem is that I am management, both at work and at home. Most of the interruptions that throw me off are people asking for my permission to Do Stuff (either “Can we buy this spectrometer?” or “Daddy, can I watch tv?”).

    I can sort of partition my time in the way that he talks about in that article– during the academic year, I basically blocked off Tuesday and/or Thursday as Book Days, and refused to do anything chair-related on those days. MWF were Faculty Days, when I taught my classes, graded papers, and dealt with administrative nonsense. That sorta-kinda works.

    It doesn’t really help with the mornings and evenings, though, unless I just write them off completely. Which is basically what I do, but every now and then I make the mistake of thinking I can get something productive done during a gap when I’m not actively required for child-wrangling, which is almost always a disaster.

  3. Two other things that I should’ve included in the original post:

    1) This psychological thing also isn’t restricted to actual work. The same effect happens, to a very slightly lesser degree, with fiction and media. If I start reading a book or watching a basketball game, getting pulled out of that is almost as irritating as getting pulled out of writing something. The level of annoyance is proportional to how much I care about whatever I’m reading/ watching. This means that I’ve basically stopped watching any televised drama or reading books that I care about during hours when the kids are or might be awake. I don’t even watch much sports on tv any more– even if I don’t much care about the teams involved, I get cranky when I get interrupted, so it’s safer to just skip watching unless I really, really care about the outcome, in which case we block out the time.

    This isn’t new, either– my parents could undoubtedly confirm that I was the same way with books on long car trips. If we arrived at our destination in the middle of a book or chapter, I would be grumpy and anti-social for a good while after being forced to put the book down.

    2) Interestingly, this also manifests in our approach to weekends. Kate finds it stressful to take the kids out and about, but I find it much more annoying to stay home. If I’m at home, my computer is right there reminding me that I could be doing something with it, and there are constant reminders of the dozens of low-priority household tasks that really ought to get done at some point. If I’m out with the kids, though, I’m out with the kids, and have to explicitly acknowledge to myself that absolutely nothing else is getting done during that time.

    So, while kid-herding in public places has its stressful elements, I’m actually more relaxed doing that than staying home and playing in and around the house. It’s exhausting, but other than the bits where SteelyKid refuses to actually eat anything in a span of less than an hour, I’m much happier going out than staying in.

  4. Chad, I sympathize with your situation very much because I see a lot of myself in it. Over the years I’ve run into some of the same problems you’ve described, and so I’d like to share with you some anecdotal wisdom I’ve gleaned from that time.

    To start things off let me paraphrase my favorite Don Quixote: “Try to know yourself, which is the most difficult knowledge to acquire.”

    It sounds like you’ve done just that by realizing that you operate better when allowed to work in large, uninterrupted chunks rather than in small, whenever-I-can-get-them opportunities. I call this being a gulper rather than a sipper. George RR Martin is the same way when it comes to his writing. And it applies not just to writing, but bleeds over into the way we gulpers entertain ourselves. I like to let myself be consumed by whatever activity I’m currently partaking in, which is why I typically find that I have the volume turned way up once I’m done watching a show. This is because I don’t like to miss even a single word. It’s also why I don’t like to read in 10 minute chunks, and why I turn my phone off when I watch movies, or a lot of things really.

    So since you know that this is the way you operate best, the question then becomes how you can create opportunities to work this way. Being a fellow writer (fantasy novelist, unpublished ATM but with plenty of hours to my name) I’ve found some good ways to create those opportunities. When I was completing my Master’s in Electrical Engineering while also trying to write at the same time I quickly learned that doing schoolwork and writing fiction were next to impossible to do in the same day. So essentially I tried to create days in which my only duty was to write fiction, and I did this by either getting my schoolwork done early in the week or scheduling it for a later day when I’d gotten more info about how to solve it. It sounds like you are doing something similar to this by blocking off T/U as book days. That’s definitely a good start.

    But as you’ve said, doing that is not enough. And I guess here’s where the rubber meets the road. What I’ve learned is that nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to just give you these chunks of uninterrupted time to work on what you love. You HAVE to create them yourself. For me, that mostly involves saying no to most social activities, turning my phone off so I am not interrupted when I’m working, and in a lot of cases, clearly communicating with relevant parties that I won’t get back to them until it is convenient for me to do so. I know this sounds selfish, but you should look at is as catering to your demands for your time rather than to others’ demands for your time.

    So with all that said, here are some bullet point tips:
    – Ditch the work in little chunks recommendation. Use it for things that you don’t care about being interrupted in, but definitely don’t use it for the important things.
    – Commit yourself to being consumed by whatever you are doing. If it’s just hanging with the kids, let that be it. If it’s relaxing, let that be it. If it’s… you get the idea.
    – Say no! Say no to opportunities if they would interrupt a chunk of time you’ve set aside for being consumed by something. Say no to emails and phone calls that demand your immediate attention – they can almost always wait. I’ve noted that people don’t always respect when you tell them you’re unavailable, so sometimes you just need to actually be unavailable. And perhaps most importantly of all, say no to little chunks of time that present themselves as opportunities to work uninterrupted when they really aren’t (e.g. your breakfast example). Either say no to them or suffer the consequences is what I’ve learned. A possible compromise is to lower your expectations for them.
    – And definitely most important of all, make use of your wife. She is your greatest asset in this quest to create chunks of uninterrupted time. She cares about your needs and your desire to create these opportunities, so communicate with her on how to handle the kids so you can create some of these opportunities, whether they are one or two evenings a week, or maybe half a Saturday.

    Alright, that’s all I can think of at the moment. I hope you can find some success in creating these opportunities, because Lord knows society doesn’t operate this way and you’ll have to fight to create them.

    Oh, and P.S. – Quit measuring your productivity in how many words you get written or things like that. Looking back, my most productive days are simply the days where I allowed myself to think and had a great idea, such as a new magic system or a quirky character trait. After all, that’s what we strive for in these chunks of uninterrupted time – the chance to allow ourselves to get lost in something.

    (Apologies for any formatting issues; I pasted this over from Word)

  5. Maybe the problem is the way you are writing the posts. If your method is to write the whole thing in one go, or in one “flow”, then obviously any interruption is going to derail the entire process.

    Perhaps you could try “prototyping” various sections, then filling them each in in shorter bursts. Kind of like how disserations are written, only in a much smaller form.

  6. I am struggling hugely with this. As a writer/editor and stay-at-home mom, I haven’t figured out how to deal well with this issue. I loathe being interrupted and yes, I become a grumpy, snappy monster which takes so much energy to wrangle under control that it hardly seems worth trying to accomplish certain things when I’m likely to be interrupted. It’s like being derailed over and over again. Getting yanked out of my delicious, soul-fulfilling deep focus. When I was younger, I could not, physically could not, stop playing my flute no matter who interrupted me until I had finished the piece or at least the phrase I was on.

    Alexander, you have some great ideas! Definitely worthy of a “copy-paste-print-post on my wall”.

    Thanks for this post.

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