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Sometimes I Can’t Choose What I Work On

I just watched the TV show Numb3rs for the first time on Netflix and really liked it. But most importantly there’s a quote from the mathematician character that explains how I often feel about thinking and work:

Charlie Eppes: Please understand, sometimes I can’t choose what I work on. I can’t follow through on a line of thinking just because I want to, or – or because it’s needed. I have to work on what’s in my head. And right now, this is what’s in my head.

— “Uncertainty Principle.” Numb3rs. 2005.

That’s exactly it. Whatever my brain wants to work on, it will focus on and analyze to hell. And often that  intense, laser focus means some very unique, interesting results. But it’s a struggle to have any control over what my mind decides to be brilliant at, which is frustrating because everything else is a dim blur. For all of the other things that my head finds boring right now, even including last night’s obsession or this morning’s deadline, I’m a complete idiot. It’s roughly like trying to do mental arithmetic with big numbers while on a roller coaster in a stadium full of people yelling out random numbers.

Or to put it another way, it’s like I’ve got an irresponsible genius toddler and an well-meaning idiot adult competing for brain share.

Most people don’t get that. They don’t understand that I can be 10x more intelligent and productive when I’m in the zone, and that if I can’t get into the zone, my work is unbelievably slow and yields mostly crap. Most importantly, they don’t understand how difficult it is for me to change my focus. It’s one of those things that I’ve been working on my entire life, and yet I’m still far below average. I’ve had to learn to organize my life as much as possible to handle that lack of control. For example, I try to put things that have very strict deadlines, or that need to be done regularly and consistently, in the hands of other people. That’s a reason why I really need to run my own business–it’s difficult to have that kind of freedom when someone else is your boss. It’s easy to assume that I just don’t “like” working for other people, but I can and have. It’s just that the quality of my work suffers profoundly in that environment.

Another strategy I use is to give in to wherever the flow takes me. I find that as soon as my brain gets locked onto a problem, I need to ride that as long as I can. Often if I can just take notes on everything I’m thinking, all the really difficult problems get solved, and at a later date my “stupid” but responsible brain can organize it and turn it into real work. And to top it off, just looking at the notes I’ve made can often trigger a return to the zone again for that problem.

In order to safeguard those high-productivity periods, I need to set aside dedicated “no disruption” time. A single brief interruption can unravel all the work I’ve done. For that reason I like to allocate days and times when I don’t respond to email or phone, and don’t check Facebook, for hours or even a full work day. It can be difficult to maintain but the productivity gains are spectacular. Even for people who don’t have difficulties in focusing, this strategy can lead to better productivity.

Most people don’t share this difficulty, but I’ve found that in some of the areas that I’ve worked in–including software development, professional writing and dance–where creative thinking is a major component of the job, there are a higher number of people with similar issues. As I’ve discovered, on the manager’s end, learning to lead a group of creative people that often includes this type of worker can be its own challenge, too. Luckily it’s a problem I know how to handle.

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