because writing is clarifying

because writing is clarifying

Subbu Allamaraju’s Journal

Stop Feeding the Monkey – Journaling

Consider a few contemporary problems for tech workers.

Problem Number 1: Our attention has been fragmented for a while. We all have plenty of doom-scrolling opportunities on all our computing devices. As Cal Newport writes in his 2016 book Deep Work, “the rise of these [messaging, social media] tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers.” He then adds, “This state of fragmented attention cannot accommodate deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking.” Right, but that’s just part of the problem. It affects mental health too.

Problem Number 2: Distributed offices and the pandemic have amplified the fragmentation – at least for most if not all. Along with everything, we “digitally transformed” even simple acts of getting information. What could be a turn-your-head-to-ask-a-colleague-a-question is now a meeting on both of your calendars or one more Slack thread. I recently joked with a colleague that “you can butt-type a slack channel name to find a real one that you’re already part of.”

People are spending more time “syncing” and “aligning” through their favorite communication tools. Just the other day, I had to set up two 15 min meetings with two different individuals in two different time zones to put two things together.

These acts further sliver focus and attention. Not “syncing” and “aligning,” on the other hand, breed anxiety as you stop knowing what is going on and feel left out.

Problem Number 3: Slivered focus and attention multiply work in progress. You never get enough information and time at once to finish solving one problem before the next issue or task comes up. The more fragmented your attention is, the more unfinished work you accumulate.

The hilarious part is when people share their screens in meetings. Many people’s browsers nowadays have 10s of tabs. Each tab is potentially some unfinished work in progress. You wonder if they will ever read and process every tab and their anxiety of not doing so.

Also, consider that work at the workspace is increasingly becoming complex. I’ve three-four slow-burning topics on any given workweek and at least one fast-burning fire to handle. These add to the already fragmented mind to juggle between all these topics thinking, feeling, and planning, ad nauseam.

The Consequence

Likely as a consequence of such problems, I’ve gone through years of feeling completely drained and empty by Friday evenings and used to take most of Saturdays to recover. Then Sunday comes, we start checking and firing emails. We’re back to the war zone by Sunday evening or the loo time Monday early morning.

I don’t seem to be alone. Others seem to be facing similar problems. I often see tired and droopy faces at the end of any workday. People routinely share admissions of being busy and a lot going on.

No wonder. At least in the tech sector, with stakes and rewards being high, there is little incentive to do less. Slowing down is the least attractive option.

We can talk about mitigating or avoiding these problems for hours, but these are not going to go away. I don’t see myself slowing down anytime soon. I don’t see me reclaiming large parts of my calendar anytime soon. I keep trying and failing. There is so much unfinished stuff to do!

I’m not a neuroscientist, and I don’t know what this constant jugglery between unfinished tasks does to the brain. But I can equate the effects of this jugglery to “feeding the monkey” in the brain with an endless stream of entertainment. The monkey first gets excited with the stimulation and keeps jumping from topic to topic, but then eventually gets tired. I needed a way to stop feeding the monkey.

Stop Feeding the Monkey

Thanks to a tweet by Steve, I discovered journaling recently. I’m 31 days into daily journaling. So far, I’ve not had the usual Friday-drains.

At least once or twice daily, I dump all unfinished things and sort them in my journal. I try to organize my thoughts, feelings, and plans into various journals. Once I sort things out in a journal, the monkey has much less to do until new information, new threats, or some change in conditions.

Consequently, I’m much more detached and relaxed on even some of the most challenging days. On the days I fall back to old habits, the monkey takes over, and I’m less focused and drained.

Essentially I’m using a journal to stop feeding the monkey. It’s a technique to let ideas and thoughts breathe. That’s my coping technique.

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