I have a wife, five (almost 6) kids, two dogs, and a cat. My life is full, fulfilling, and of course, complex at times. I start work early while still seeing the kids a bit before school. I do school pickups and sometimes drop-offs. I often play the role of unpaid Uber driver, errand runner, venture capital funder (with no expectation of a return on investment, aside from my kids’ happiness), and chore taskmaster. Is it a bit hectic at times? Sure. Would I choose it all over again? Absolutely.
Of all the things I’ve mentioned so far, you may be wondering what the hardest thing is. Interestingly, the hardest thing I have to deal with in my personal life is also the hardest thing I deal with in my professional life; they just look different.
Forced task switching is the hardest thing I deal with at home and work. It’s that moment when I’m trying to focus, I’m in the zone, I’m ready to accomplish something, write something, think through something, and then, at the worst possible moment, I’m interrupted. But, I’m not just interrupted by one kid; that would be easy to overcome. Instead, I’m interrupted by one kid wanting breakfast, and 30-seconds later, another asking a question, and 2-minutes later another asking to go to the store. Then, when they are all either dismissed or taken care of, depending on how good a dad I am at the time, the dog starts barking, the doorbell rings, and someone calls me, usually all at once.
Work is the same way, just slightly more subtle. I open the document I need to write, I’ve carved out focus time on my calendar, and I start writing. Then Microsoft Teams alerts me of a message; a team member has a question. I accidentally flip over to the screen with my email, happen to see a waiting message, am intrigued by the subject line and preview sentence, and find myself reading that email, and the next, and the next. Just when I think I have gotten back to focus, I get a question over Slack from a nonprofit where I volunteer. Next is a text message, and lest I leave out any communication tool, a message over Discord. Then, back to focused work, only to lose it again when my phone rings.
Over and over, every day is a fight for focused attention. At home, having time just to have a complete conversation with my wife is a herculean task, requiring the threat of time out if we are interrupted again. At work, focusing long enough to produce deep, quality work requires closing down at least five applications and putting notifications on silent for the hour.
I’m guessing that my hardest thing maybe yours too. Very few people live a life without interruptions. So, what are we going to do about it?
At home, I’m learning to focus through the chaos. Sounds impossible, I know, but I can’t expect a 5-year old not to need me frequently or a 15-year old not to want to go to a friend’s house at a moment’s notice. As I’m writing this, two of my boys are playing Mario in the same room with the volume a tad higher than I’d like, but I still managed to write 611 words.
At work, I choose the times I will do focused work. I carve out time on my calendar, and during those time slots, I close down all five communication apps to be sure I’m never distracted. Sure, I’m a little less available, but the quality of my work is better, and my communications, though more sporadic, are improved as well because they are not rushed.
How about you? What’s your hardest thing? Or, how do you focus to make sure the most important things get done?