Maybe it’s simply due to the current stage of my life, but my days can feel so busy and scattered that I have to fight the feeling of being overwhelmed. Where all the different scenarios or locations in my day bring a reminder of another thing that needs tending to, anything thing that I should be doing something about.
And that sense of being overwhelmed leads to the feeling of not even knowing where to start.
How It Looks
As I work from home, usually alone, there are a lot of ways this feeling can come at me. It’s also one of the dangers of working remotely from your home: people think pleasurable pursuits are a distraction (like binge-watching Netflix shows), but in reality, it’s my other responsibilities that distract. When you work in an office, the triggers and reminders of the tasks from the rest of your life are largely out of sight, out of mind.
Anyway, here’s how it can look on any given day for me:
I’m working on my most important work task of the day, the kind of activity where I want to be most focused. As I hit a moment of uncertainty about how to solve the problem, I take my fingers off the keyboard and look out the window as I meditate
At that moment, I observe that is stopped snowing … I wonder if I need to shovel the front deck
Then I question whether I’m going to get in the lunch run I had planned — I dislike running right after a snowfall, but I know I’ll feel pressure if I don’t do it
I return my attention to the task at hand, but just as I start to type, I hear the beep of the washing machine. I’ll need to get the next load going (6 people make a lot of dirty laundry in a week)
Dang that reminds me — I still haven’t taken any meat out of the freezer for dinner. I quickly do that, and put on the next load of laundry, before I forget again
I get back to work and make some progress. But once the uncertainty of how to handle the next unknown strikes again, I glance down at my hands as I stop to think
And then I notice the papers on my desk. Oh man, I need to get that account set up for the latest software tool our youngest’s teacher wants him to use. I write that down in my planner as a task to handle later in the day when work is finished
On the opposite page, my weekly goals are listed out. Sigh. It’s already Thursday, and I haven’t even started on my annual report for the church IT ministry. The board meeting is next week…
And on it goes. Every moment of every day does not feel like this, but the fact that I play multiple roles in my life and work from a space where all those roles converge means I often come face to face with all the reminders of my responsibilities.
How I Handle This Anxiety
How does one cope? Well, different people will have different responses. Not everyone is cut out for remote work, for example.
But here’s what works for me.
Be ok with working in small, micro chunks
You have to change your mindset. Even small bits of progress are just that: progress. I have had to recognize that even if it takes me 4 weeks to complete a task that could actually be finished in 4–5 hours, that’s the reality of the current stage of my life. And it’s ok.
With 4 kids coming up to their teen years, I’m likely the busiest I’ll ever be in my life. We have extracurricular activities 4 nights during the work week (and two on the weekend). I simply have to be on my game and as organized as possible. And some of my own desires have to be laid aside.
This is serving. And it’s a worthy sacrifice.
Another key here is straight out of GTD. I’m being inefficient if I handle the same thing more than once. Whether it’s a piece of paper or an email, I’m always needing to remind myself to process these items (and schedule a related task) and file them away rather than leaving them around.
Do not underestimate the power of the visual trigger. Seeing these items repeatedly will cause anxiety.
Have a weekly routine
This is an area I have struggled against for a long time. Matt Perman makes the recommendation for having a weekly routine, and I have fought this idea for far too long.
But it makes sense. If you wear multiple hats and those hats represent responsibility in a certain sphere of your life, you do well to give each of those roles some attention each week. I am in charge of the IT ministry at our church. It’s not a role for which I have a lot of time to devote, but I serve better when I give it at least a few minutes each week.
I’ve recently themed my weekdays so that each one has a different role in focus. It helps me to overcome that feeling of where to start. If I have a free moment, I focus on the day’s role.
Of course, I didn’t mention the fact that it’s always good to step back and evaluate whether you should cut some things from your life (and learn to say no). That’s a given.
But some things are worth saying yes to, even if it means you’re busier than a one-armed paper hanger.
One evening last week, I was sitting on my front stoop waiting for a friend to come over. I brought a book out with me, but instead of reading I just sat there and let my senses take in the scene.
I didn’t look or listen for anything in particular, I just let the details of this particular moment in the neighborhood come to me: the quality of the air—heavy and warm, the incoming summer storm kind; birds; two couples having a conversation down the sidewalk; the clinking of dishes coming from inside the house to my right; distant hammering from a construction site somewhere in the blocks behind my house.
That sounds nice. Real nice. The busier my life is, the more I long for these moments. It’s so easy to always focus on the next thing and miss the experience itself. Cain sums this up well:
Life can disappear on us just like a cup of coffee consumed on autopilot. In other words, to really experience life itself, as opposed to just more thinking about life, we need to remember we’re having an experience.
This article is a good reminder for me. I need to ensure there is enough margin in my life so I feel free to take the time to enjoy the various moments of my life.
I enjoyed this look at the devotional practices of Richard Baxter. I’m already a believer in Christian meditation, but sometimes hearing the experiences of others can be an inspiration to us.
In The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, Baxter states that, because man is a rational creature, we must reason with ourselves. We are to take a truth and mull it over in our minds. He compares it to a balance that sits before us. There is a natural desire to want to tip it, to add a little more weight, and then a little more, and then a little more, and finally the thing tips. So, it is to be with our hearts. We meditate upon a truth and add reason upon reason in order to believe this truth, to revel in this truth, to delight in this truth, and eventually the scale tips. We bring one reason to bear, and then another, arguing with ourselves, until eventually we are affected.
Since reading this, I’ve tweaked my morning routine slightly. I take a few minutes (not 30, but at least 5–10) to just focus on one aspect of God. The compassion of Christ, the long-suffering of the Father, how Christ fulfills the role of sacrifice and priest — whatever comes to mind or catches my attention in my reading.
And this change has had an impact in how worshipful I am in my devotions. Mixing in reading, intercessory prayer, and this focused meditation has been a blessing. I find the focus on God leads me to praise him more readily. From there, every other activity in my devotions is richer for it.
I’ve been heads down with our team getting Conveyor ready for a launch. And most of my work is writing. When you write copy for a product, you quickly come to realize how massive an effort this is — and just how much copy is required.
Tracking all your work and changes is not an easy task. And so I’ve been keeping an eye out for people describing their own writing practices of guidelines. As UX Writer is relatively new as a career choice, there’s not yet a lot of material to be found. Oh, you can find voice and tone guides (see Mailchimp and Shopify). And design or development frameworks are a dime a dozen.
But writing frameworks? This is a mythical creature, oft mentioned but never seen.
However, I did come across this nice resource: Design Better from the folks at InVision. It’s a large collection of resources (they say books, but it’s a collection of writing on the web) on various matters relating to design. And they included a decent chunk on writing.
It focuses on not only defining what a guideline is, but how to create one of your own.
Writing guidelines also help evolve your voice. Just as your personality matures over time, your voice will evolve as your company grows. Guidelines define what you should sound like right now, so when you do steer away from them, you’ll know that you’re doing so intentionally. (“I’ll just throw an emoji in this subject line,” turns into, “Hey, let’s test how emoji perform and see if they’re worth adding to our writing guidelines.”)
It’s a small section of the site overall, but it’s far better than most of the stuff Google has to offer when you go looking for “writing frameworks”.
Screen Time For Parents
Since I follow so many people who live on the edge of Apple updates and run the beta all spring and summer, I was comfortable upgrading to iOS 12 right away. And I’m pretty pleased with the biggest improvement: Screen Time.
Not only is this a helpful tool for myself, it’s a great option for parents. There’s a lot of products aiming to help parents to manage what their kids see and how long they’re on screens; Disney’s Circle is a prime example. So it’s not like Apple is far ahead of the curve here. But I have been happy with the implementation of screen time.
Alongside the Screen Time settings for my own device, I can see the devices of my kids. We currently have two children out of four with their own phone (one high schooler with a SIM card, one without). And Screen Time lets us set the same limits and restrictions as on my own phone.
Putting it to use
So far, we’ve not set many limits. We have a set Downtime for all our devices (I’m down a lot earlier than our t(w)eens). But apart from that, we’ve only set what apps are always allowed.
For now, we’re just letting our devices record our activity. Then each Sunday, we’ve decided to sit down as a family and compare our stats. Over time, we’ll decide whether further steps are required.
It’s not about how much time
In all our discussions, Erica and I try to emphasize the danger of addiction while also not sounding like we have it figured out. To show how we can struggle in this area ourselves, but without minimizing the behaviour. It’s not an easy line to walk.
One thing I have focused on is that I’m not quite as concerned about total time as I am about pickups. One thing I’ve learned from a couple years of using RescueTime (for macOS) is that the days where I feel most frazzled are not necessarily where I spend a lot of time on Twitter or reading blog articles.
The problem is constantly switching between activities. You don’t achieve focus or depth when you only stay in one application for less than five minutes at a time.
On my phone, this is best indicated by the amount of pickups.
So all this is great for awareness. And it’s so nice to have the tools available to enable conversations about this topic with concrete data. Whether or not it brings changes in behavior remains to be seen. But it’s a start.
Isaac Smith released issue #2 of the Frontier Journal. Like issue #1, there are some great articles. But I most enjoyed the Fuel for the Frontier part — it reminds me a lot of a digest email (like this one).
He covers a number of topics, but the portion at the end was the best. Issac shares how using analog tools has been a help, but he can still find himself slipping into reactive mode once he gets in front of the computer. A small change has helped:
A subtle but significant difference. Instead of making my default work approach my computer, I’ve made it easiest to work offline (pen and paper), then to work on my computer I have to shift my chair, posture, and attention over to my monitor.
My analog tools are front and center. My computer is off to the side waiting for me, when I’m ready to do work that requires a internet connection.