Impossibilities in Work

Work can be stressful. Demands, obligations, and the need to make regular decisions can assault us from multiple directions. To make it worse, many of these demands conflict with each other or are impossible to do in the time frames given.

While we can hope that our work world would change for the better on its own, that wish rarely finds reality. We can also decide to work for the idea of future relief: leaving at the end of the workday, getting a massage at the end of the week, or going on vacation sometime in the coming months. But how often, when we return, does that second or third email throw us back into the turmoil as if we’d never been gone in the first place?

Task Systems Are Not Enough

Task management systems can be very helpful. Learning how to arrange work, reduce clutter, and create useful tasks can help us make decisions and work through the things that need to be done.

But they are often not enough. Knowing what we can do, let alone what we can do well, is often unclear until we’ve tried. We can joke that just writing a task doesn’t do the work for us. And, when we see how little we can get done or that there were other paths we could have tried, we might find regret and overwhelm.

The issue is not that current task systems are not good. They are, in fact, quite excellent when used well. However, their approach is entirely “outside-in”. They leave a massive blindspot where our experience sits. How we are during work and how we experience work itself is often lost.

Most tasks take longer than we think: suddenly we realize that some call needs to happen before we start writing, another idea someone had now needs adding, or that we could have gathered our thoughts better before a meeting we now find ourselves in. Decisions and the work itself are often clarified as we get to them, despite our best preparations.

We need to add an “inside-out” approach to help give us the edge, to help us gather a real sense of how our work forms, and to fully realize the limits of time and attention. When we have that experience, we can address our work so that we maintain focus to do what we choose to and do it well, even when too much comes our way.

An Exercise in Decision

As the simplest example of what I mean by an inside-approach, consider trying the following exercise. At some point today:

  1. Stop what you are doing, so long as it is not irresponsible or reckless to do so.
  2. Then pause.
  3. Actively rest your mind on the decision about what you’d like to do next.
  4. Vital to this process is that you wait and not act while you are considering what to do next.

During this time, more than likely, many ideas will come to mind. Things you might want to do, are worried about, things you feel you have to do, or otherwise will appear.

Let these ideas and feelings come to mind. You can have a piece of paper nearby to jot some of them down or you can close your eyes while doing this.

As your mind wanders, let those thoughts fade off and return your mind to the decision until no further thoughts appear.

5. Wait until no new ideas about what to do next come to mind. In other words, when your ideas and feelings start to repeat, fade out, or just sit there, even as you continue to pause, you are ready.

6. At that point, you can make a settled decision.

I’m willing to bet that whatever it is you choose to do, be that a project or checking email, contacting someone about an important matter or even just playing a game if that’s what you decide to do, will be given greater focus and even a greater sense of meaning.

Importantly, you may also notice that this process takes time. It may not be long. Sometimes a few moments will do. But when you have that vital, direct sense of this very useful process taking the time it takes, you will be much more inclined and able to say, “Give me a moment to think here” in the many ways that can be phrased so you can give your thoughts the time they need to form.

This is even more important when you are pressured such as when someone tells you do these 5 things and you already have 7 things to do on your mind.

Much of our work worlds nowadays assault this sort of decision making. We can blame technology, we can blame our work environments, and we can blame ourselves. Regardless, the responsibility to give our thoughts the time needed to form is our own.