Head Down

August 10, 2014 by Gabe | [mmd] |

I like writing. I like podcasting. I like screwing around with apps, scripts and code. But being an adult sometimes means sacrificing what I like for the things I love. In the past 9 months I've completed a complex project for work and started another personal project that has forced me out of my cruising altitude. With large projects, it's not usually the hours of focused work that interfere with less important projects. Often, it's about the mindshare that complex problems consume when my fingers aren't on a keyboard.1

I don't believe that humans struggle with multitasking.2 Multitasking is one of the reasons we no longer hide in the tall grass. It's hard for me to imagine having 86 billion neurons and no capacity for parallel processing. For me, the problem with checking email while on the phone is not a problem with multitasking. It's a problem with caring. When I don't care that much about my six different tasks, I don't do them that well. Most of the time that's just fine because, let's be honest, most of the milieu doesn't require much attention.

Working on a complex project requires more than just casual contemplation because hard problems consume the mind-space I waste on bullshit. So, instead of trying to figure out the best way to script my word processor while I'm eating dinner or watching TV, my mind is trying to shuffle resources and evaluate alternative project timelines for my job. The enjoyable, and perhaps most productive, part of a hard problem is the time I spend thinking about it while I'm not actually working on it.3 I can pretend that the world has my undivided attention at any given moment, but my reality (and I hope my secret) is that my attention is always divided. If you've read this far, you should be questioning my logic. If I have the capacity for parallel processing, then what's the problem?

I have a limited reservoir of caring. Most of my caring is reserved for the things I love, such as my family and friends. The tiny fraction I share with the rest of the world keeps me employed, entertained and distracted. I'm fiercely protective of that reservoir and will readily eject anything that attempts to steal from it. When work heats up, I care a heck of a lot more about the tasks it requires from me, partly because it pays for food, clothing and birthday presents. It's a proxy for the things I love.

Sometimes I feel guilty when I get an email asking for my time or I think of a helpful tutorial for this site but have no time to write it. More often I just appreciate that I've reserved that time for something else. When all of my caring is already allocated to other things I don't even feel guilty. I really enjoy problem solving and writing on Macdrifter, recording Technical Difficulties, and chatting on Twitter, but the truth is that I could shut it all down tomorrow and be just fine.4

It's 4 a.m. on a Sunday. It's dark and everyone I care about is still asleep while I write this post. I guess I still care, a little bit, about the milieu.

So it goes.

  1. Boy, how do you write something like this without sounding like a complete self obsessed asshole? Well, I guess my hope is that you write it honestly and thoughtfully. I'm writing this because I assume that I'm not special or unique. I assume I'm just one speck trying to make things workout better than they would without me. My hope is that some poor speck of a human like me will stumble on this and think they're not totally boned. Rise up specks. We are the dust of the earth. Let's screw some stuff up good. 

  2. I think it's more likely that our brains need experiences that help us develop fast context switching. But that's only useful if our individual existence requires it. Otherwise, relax, kickback and enjoy the focus. 

  3. The tenuous and loosely structured problem solving I do during the in-between times often results in more of the eureka moments. I'm obviously not a cognitive psychologist but I always assumed it's because those sessions are less rigid and not goal oriented which makes me more open to pathways of problem solving I might otherwise reject. 

  4. I've chosen not to make these things my job. It's just not a compelling scenario for me.