This is a story about re-learning how to work
I don’t know about you, but at some point in my career, I forgot how to work. I forgot how to monotask, and I certainly forgot how to focus. Urgency overtook intention, and I lost the thread. This is the story about how I got it back, and this post is for you if you’re looking to do the same.
All good intentions
Last summer after I quit my job and left Somerville, I sat down on a Monday morning in August, opened my laptop, and prepared to get to work. I had an ambitious task list. In addition to writing a book, I had ambitious plans for this site. I wanted to buckle down and take my photography class that I signed up for on Udemy ages ago (I got through enough of it to know what the dials did and then stopped). I also planned to start a business and also pick up freelance work that would enable me to become a digital nomad.
Big plans after leaving corporate life
That hot August day, I created a grand schedule for how I would do all of these things. I was the boss, and I could set up the schedule any way that I wanted to. I would not multitask, but rather focus on one task at a time for different chunks of time. In this new phase of my life, I would only monotask.
Dear Reader, it did not go well.
Re-Learning How to Work
I worked hard, but I did not work well
There’s a number of reasons why I stumbled in my first few months doing this—the length of my task list, for one—but the biggest part? I no longer knew how to work. I mean, I knew how to juggle competing priorities and put out fires and answer emails and chair Zooms. If you’d asked me, I would have told you that I worked. Hard. But I had I had lost the feel for deep work. I had burnt out.
What’s more, as a denizen of the digital age, I’d also surrendered my attention span to the dopamine rush of notifications. There was always something new to check, and my life would be diminished without this new bit of information.
Deciding not to multitask was not enough
Alas, so it wasn’t enough to decide to stop multitasking—a big step, certainly, but it alone did not do the trick. I needed to re-learn how to work and how to monotask, and it proved a much bigger challenge than I realized.
But not an insurmountable one. This post is for you if you’re finding yourself pulled in a million different directions, especially if it means that you do not have time for the work that’s most important to you. I’m sharing it in the spirit of someone who struggles with this as well, not as someone who has it all figured out. I would love to hear your strategies for what helps you monotask and focus.
Multitasking is garbage
Let’s face it—we all know by now that multitasking is garbage. Human minds cannot switch tasks easily, and when we try, we get distracted, stressed, and, worst of all, don’t actually get the things done that we meant to achieve when we started multitasking in the first place. I call this bright and shiny. As in, I bright and shinied today and have a big pile of nothing to show for it.
Everything is always on fire, all of the time
I don’t know about you, but I attended a lot of seminars about the importance of monotasking at work. They all had good tips, and I would leave energized. I tried lots of ways to block off time, only to have it highjacked by an urgent request from someone, somewhere, who actually really did need the information, because everything is always on fire, all of the time.
The bright and shiny ruled the day, even when we hated it.
A never-ending cycle of busy
Our modern workdays consist of Zoom meetings, action items from said calls, emails, Slack messages, Teams messages, another Zoom meeting, and yet more action items. Oh, and the major thing that we were supposed to get done that week. No one likes it. We all know that it doesn’t work, but we can’t seem to break the habit.
And then there’s our phones
And I don’t need to go on and on about technology and how everything moves so fast. After a day of nonstop busy, we numb ourselves with our phones, the bings and bongs and urgent news alerts leave us with the attention span of a squirrel on the cocaine.
We just burnout. Or, rather, I burnt out.
Stolen Focus and Saving Time
Earlier this year, I read Stolen Focus (affiliate link), by Johann Hari. This work, a call to action for all of us to work collectively toward regaining our focus by enacting large-scale solutions to the hold that technology companies have created for profit (his point is that on our own, we can’t overcome the challenges to our focus from apps and the general digital landscape). Hari’s right, I think, in that this isn’t something that we overcome by willpower. His call for common-sense regulation of the uses of technology makes a ton of sense to me, and I imagine it would resonate with you, too.
Jenny Odell’s latest, Saving Time (affiliate link), seeks to wake us up to the fact that our adage “time is money” is a made up, a recent invention in human history that arose with the invention of capitalism. We aren’t, in fact, productivity machines. We’re people, living on a planet we’re destroying in order to serve our distorted conception of time.
I want my focus back
I don’t know about you, but I want my attention back. I want my time back. I recognize that freeing myself from the clock and winding back my focus to the time before I ever saw a smartphone or heard of the internet isn’t within my control. However, I do want to work on these things that are within my control.
Stumbling upon something that helps, while updating this website
Since last spring, I knew that Wonder & Sundry needed a pretty big overhaul to become the site that I want it to be—a place where people like you can come and explore what it means to live a life full of wonder. It’s my hope that what I share here are ideas that inspire you to explore what a wonderful life means to you.
While the ideas here in Wonder & Sundry may appear to come from all over the place (there’s a “sundry” in the title for a reason), I see them as part of a whole. But to make that clearer, I needed to spend some time organizing and re-creating how this was presented.
I found the time, but I needed to re-learn how to work
I didn’t have the time last spring to devote to this overhaul, nor did I over the summer, or while I was traveling. However, I did have time this late winter/early spring to devote to overhauling Wonder & Sundry, but I needed to learn a few things in order to actually get it accomplished.
This is a story about how I figured out how to actually get something done and what it’s taught me about work, focus, and the critical importance of monotasking.
I knew how to organize the project
While the technical skills to update the site were something that I needed to learn, I actually have a fair amount of experience in organizing and executing technology projects from my old job. I was a business delegate embedded in a technology team to create an internal online tool. My original role was to work with the technology team to refine the business requirements and to serve as the point person, but at various stages of the project, I acted as the business analyst creating the tickets for the developers.
All the roles
Now, I was the client, analyst, and developer all in one, but I figured that I could use what I’d learned to help organize my project. I took a weekend and wrote out a detailed list of requirements for what I envisioned for the site. I then broke it down into actionable tickets and set about executing.
Organizing the project certainly helped, but it wasn’t enough
That certainly helped with monotasking and focused time, but it wasn’t enough. Even with breaking everything down into chunks, I still felt completely overwhelmed by the amount of work I had to do. I chased rabbit holes and got distracted, and I would start working on one thing and wind up wasting a few hours on something else. Oh, and I would have my phone handy and would spend a lot of time checking the all-important social media apps to see what my friends were up to.
In other words, Dear Reader, I was very, very busy, but I didn’t actually get much done. I was discouraged and felt like a total failure. I’d created a huge mess, and I began to fear that I just didn’t have it in me.
I did have it in me, Dear Reader. I just needed to re-learn how to work and how to monotask. I needed to regain my focus.
The answer was Zoom meetings
The answer, believe it or not, was Zoom meetings. If you’d told me that Zoom meetings would help me find my focus, I would have asked you if you’d like to purchase your very own piece of the Brooklyn Bridge. But here we are. Everything has a purpose, I guess, even Zoom.
A creativity group introduced me to this concept
I’m a member of Companions in Creativity, an online creative group coaching community run by Elin Lööw. Creative Companions is wonderful, and if you’re looking for gentle support for your creative work, Elin’s group may be just the thing that you’re looking for. I’m writing about Creative Companions here, because we have these incredible one-hour coworking sessions over Zoom three times a month.
The structure of these meetings couldn’t be simpler. Show up a little before the top of the hour, share with the group what you’re working on, and then set about creating for fifty-five minutes or so. We stay on video (mostly), as a way to remain accountable to one another. Once the hour is up, we then share how things went.
Dear Reader, I love what I call “Creativity Hour.” I’ve written book chapters, blog posts, and more during those times, and the time always flies by. The gentle accountability of my fellow creatives on camera (even though I cover up the Zoom screen with my work), keeps me in my seat and focused. I put away my phone, so the bings and boops don’t get me, and I put other work away so I don’t get bright and shinnied.
These Zoom meetings are magic.
The primary focus of Creative Companions is our creative work and developing a creative process that feels good and is sustainable. The coworking hours are an important part of that, but that isn’t the primary reason for the group’s existence.
Caveday’s primary reason for being, however, is to promote focus and monotasking through gentle accountability. And they do it over Zoom.
I found Caveday through an ad whilst mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, and it stopped me in my tracks. Wait . . . I could have more “creativity hours”? Yes, please! I signed up for a trial.
Caveday to helped me regain my focus
When I signed up for the trial, I decided that I was going to use it to help me stop going down rabbit holes and to actually get the update to this website done. During my two-week trial period, I signed up for four hours of Caves (one 1-hour sprint, and one 3-hour sprint) each weekday, four days a week (I left Wednesdays open). I had high hopes, but I was prepared to be disappointed.
Monotask with Caveday
For my first Cave, I decided that I would work on designing a section of my site that could serve as a template for other pages. Before signing on, I put my phone on Do Not Disturb and hid it from my sight. I closed everything else on my computer except for what I needed for my task. I silenced notifications on my computer.
When I signed on, the Cave Guide welcomed everyone and encouraged us to change our Zoom names to include where we were in the world and what we were working on. We had a little ice breaker in a breakout room, where I shared with a very nice young guy from Atlanta my plans for the next three hours, and he then told me his plans. We wished each other good luck. Back in the main Zoom meeting, we did a collective little ritual, called a “thunderclap” to get us into focus, and we set out on our first sprint of three.
Focused monotasking instead of bright and shiny
For the next fifty some odd minutes, my only responsibility was to work on a section of a webpage. I hadn’t given Bright and Shiny any where to flash its distracting beacon, and so I just focused.
Dear Reader, in that first hour, I got so much done that I was stunned. The same happened for the next two hours. We would have a little stretch, a silly activity, and a break in between our sprints, working at about 50 minutes at a time. By the end of the three hours, something that had bedeviled me for weeks finally felt surmountable.
And, I actually felt good at the end of it
What’s more, I personally felt accomplished, in control, and calm for the first time in ages. What was in that Zoom meeting? I thought.
My next Caveday session went even better, and I became a Caveday superfan. I signed up for three months before the first week of my trial was up, and I haven’t looked back since.
Something I’d struggled with—working all of the time and not getting anywhere—had a solution. I didn’t have to work all of the time. I just needed to focus and monotask when I was working.
I got it done!
Updating Wonder & Sundry still took longer than I would have liked. But it got done, and it got done much faster than it would have and the end result is much better than it would have been without the focus I achieved with Caveday. I’m now using it to write blog posts and work on my book. I’m getting more done in less time, and, best of all, I feel better doing it.
Because I’m getting so much done, I feel better switching off, putting work away, and doing something enjoyable with the time that I’m not working.
How Caveday works
Caveday reminds me of the best part of studying in the library. You get to be around other people who are working quietly. However, no one drops a book, coughs, or opens a candy, and someone’s loud friend doesn’t come bursting into the quiet area. Caveday is quiet.
Sign into a Zoom meeting
Basically, the concept of Caveday is super simple: You sign into a Zoom meeting. You agree to put away your phone and other distractions, and monotask on one thing at a time. Cave sprints range from one to three hours long, with a little ice breaker and closing mini-celebration. The three-hour caves feature breaks every fifty minutes or so. While it’s optional, most people stay on video during the session. This provides some gentle accountability and helps those with ADHD who benefit from body doubling.
Cave Guides bring their own unique spin
Some Caveday facilitators make a game out of everything—one named Christian has a different silly theme each cave. One day last week we were archaeologists digging up ancient civilizations and/or dinosaurs—did we successfully unearth an artifact during our sprint?
Other Cave hosts are more meditative in their approach, and others still help us to just get down to business. Interaction with other “Cave Dwellers” consists of optional ice breakers where we introduce ourselves, say what we’re working on to help with accountability, and answer a question posed by the Cave Guide.
Caveday’s a loose community
I’ve enjoyed meeting people from all over and seeing a few familiar faces. People do everything in the Cave from work on their dissertations to packing for trips. People join from their offices, because Caveday helps them to get more done in their jobs. For those interested, there is a Circle group available for getting to know fellow Cave Dwellers better.
Some days, though, we don’t feel so social, and, on those days, it’s perfectly OK to leave the camera off and not join in the group activity.
Want to stop multitasking and regain your focus? Try Caveday!
If you use my link, you can get a full month of Caveday, with unlimited caves for $1* or a huge discount on your first three months (disclosure: I get a commission if you take advantage of the offer, but I’m only sharing it with you because I am such a superfan).
Caveday works. It really, really works (gushing Sally Field reference intended).
This is a story of how I re-learned how to work
I’m writing this now during a Cave session, well before the due date I set for this post. This is the only thing I have out, because I’m monotasking. I’m focused and calm. Bright and shiny may not have left the building, but I’ve remembered how to ignore it. You can, too.
I’d love to hear from you about what works for you in the comments.