I want to tell you a story about two events in the last year when it became incredibly hard to work.
In both situations it turned out that I had an emotional fear I needed to identify and cope with.
The most recent event happened this week. I would sit by the computer but it was like there was a force field stopping me from working.
I’m a web developer who works from home and have been doing remote work for a couple of years now. But unlike a few weeks ago I was no longer smashing out work. Instead I was incredibly distracted. I found it very hard to focus. I’d spend hours a day just watching YouTube videos or procrastinating and I felt tired all the time.
The only time I seemed to start focusing was past midnight when my life partner Jen and our 7 and a half month old son would head to bed. Then I’d feel a burst of energy and work for 2–3 hours. It had taken a couple of weeks to get to this point, but things had been getting worse for a while and I knew I needed to up my game.
Because I had to get up at 10:30am for a work call nearly every day I was no longer sleeping in a monophasic pattern. Instead I’d get about 6 hours sleep during the night, work for an hour or so, and sleep again in the middle of the day, deal with home stuff, then work again at night. I’m a night owl by nature so this burst of energy at night didn’t surprise me too much. But my girlfriend hates going to sleep without me and missing our quality time and some of my work was slipping. It was just not a good pattern.
There was a variety of reasons that I could be having issues beyond the sleep issue. I’d been working on 3 different projects for work at once and also taken on two of my own. But I was no longer enthused by my own like I had been. So burnout was at the top of my mind. With that my boss and I have planned 2 weeks off, but that’s not until the end of next month.
There’s the obvious. I’ve got a 7 month old baby boy and loving partner. But we are in Manila, Philippines during the GCQ (General Community Quarantine) Covid19 lockdown. But since having Xavier we’ve been living a relatively isolated life and been fine with it because we are mostly in each others presence. I didn’t feel trapped.
Exercise was a possible issue. But when it’s not been torrentially raining I’ve been doing 5–10km runs and did a 16km run over the weekend and had been doing more squats, dumbell work and stomach crunches. Not to mention holding a nearly 10kg baby a whole lot. So no, that wasn’t the problem.
Health could have been a problem. I did have issues a couple of month ago whereby my dog bit me and I had some major issues which were exacerbated by a strong allergic reaction. The anti-histamines from that wiped me out for a week. But, I’m not taking any medication or have any major infection.
My mental state was a likely issue. I restarted doing the full range of meditations, body scan, mindfulness and also Jen and I started doing more gratefulness thanks. It helped my mood slightly. But I’d still just stare at a screen during the day and the harder I tried to work the less I seemed to get done.
There was the option of the fact we are moving out soon might be affecting me. But we haven’t started doing any packing for that and I’m generally excited because we are going to a larger, more homely place. [Update: Turns out we aren’t moving house]
There is the possibility it could be the work itself. I hadn’t worked on this project for a while and when I left it things were a bit broken and I still wasn’t sure what state it was in. But that’s a challenge, the sort of thing that usually gets me into the flow and a part of this project gave me one of the best flow experiences of the year. I should be excited by it.
I’m fit, I’m healthy, I’ve got a loving family with an active son, girlfriend, dog and fish. I’m meditating, I’m interested. I’m just not able to focus like I used to.
So I tried an unschedule style diagnostic day. In my calendar I noted down everything I was doing during the day. When I got up, what I ate, what we were doing, when I slept. Doing so also meant I’d allocate sections of time just as I was going to start and so I’d block out a time toward relaxing and then lean into it. Instead of trying to push myself and tell myself “You should be working, why aren’t you working?” I instead let myself release the tension. Doing so gave my brain space and let me check in with myself.
This is an issue I have had a few times in my life before. I push harder and harder to get work done and my body fights back. The answer is usually to lean into my relaxation.
It’s not shown on the screenshot but when I talked with my girlfriend at 3:30am as I finished work and was laying in bed our discussion helped me realise what the problem was.
I had noted that during the big chunks of time when I could have and should have been working I was instead worried about what Xavier was doing.
In the previous weeks when I wanted to concentrate I would sit by the computer, put my headphones on and get into the flow. To my right is the kitchen and behind and around me are foam mats on the floor because it’s where my baby boy crawls around, stands up on things and falls over occasionally. It’s his playground.
What was happening was that when in the flow I was so focused on work I didn’t notice what was going on around me. The noise cancelling headphones pumping Enya, The Matrix or something like the Deadmau5 — Chill Mix did the job. Later on Jen would tell me all the things Xavier got up to and I’d missed. Despite it happening within a couple of metres of me.
I didn’t know it at the time, but hearing about all those things I missed triggered some fear response in me that kept growing. It wasn’t until I’d spent the day in diagnostic mode and also leaned into relaxing that I finally could connect with that emotional fear.
As soon as I could identify it I felt it and cried… For about 10s. And that was it. I understood that I was afraid I’d miss my son growing up. I was worried that I’d work so much that I’d not be a father that’s present in his life.
I understood that I was afraid I’d miss my son growing up
A quick talk to Jen showed that was ridiculous. I’m working from home. He sees me all the time and I can turn around at any moment and give him a big hug. Often he comes up to me and wants to be picked up. Plus I can still hear through the headphones when he’s crying. I’m still there when Jen needs to rush off for a couple of minutes to sort something out.
I spend hours a day with him. I know he loves to look at the picture frames in our room. He loves to watch 5 little ducks and he knows a whole lot of words, including his name, Mummy, Daddy, ABC (which causes him to look at the alphabet rainbow we have on the wall), Picture Frames (which causes him to look at the photos in our bedroom), Flowers (a different set of photos, which are in the living room), Maui (our dog), Fishies (the aquarium), It’s raining (makes him look outside, he loves to watch the rain) and he is learning new things every day. Right now he loves playing with the broom, going into the toilet or standing up to look at the fish. He’s got three teeth, puts everything into his mouth, loves to play with cords and cables. He makes lots of noises as he’s trying to talk to us, has nearly said mumma a couple of times, but really knows how to screech loudly.
I know such emotional fears aren’t rational. Thankfully once identified and processed I was MUCH better. Yesterday I did about 8 hours work. Which is impressive given doing more than 4 hours of in the flow work is hard.
I also found that I’d stopped doing the type of meditation where you focus on what your next tasks with work are. I’ll look at the next tasks, briefly review the code and data if I need to and then go rest for a few minutes and work out my plan of attack instead of just plonking myself down by the computer to blindly work. This makes a big difference and allows me to be more precise.
The previous such situation was around the same time last year when Jen was pregnant with Xavier. There was complications with the previous two pregnancies. The first one was spontaneously lost and the 2nd was because Jen was diagnosed with heart problems and the heart medication she had to take interfered. Her two older sisters had died from heart problems. I was worried she wouldn’t even make it through the pregnancy and she was just getting to the point she couldn’t exercise as much anymore because she was in the 2nd trimester.
Thankfully a round of tests at a much better Drs with a proper echocardiogram and effectively an ultrasound of the heart showed she was fine. There was the most faint signal of something, but not the septal wall ischemia we’d been told from the first diagnosis.
Still, at the time I didn’t know why I was barely getting any work done. I just found it harder and harder to work. I tried to push harder and failed. It got so bad that I basically didn’t work for 3 days straight, I was an emotional wreck. I knew there was something wrong and it wasn’t until going for a walk with Jen and talking it through that something triggered and I realised why I was so upset. I cried for longer that time.
Do you or other people you know have similar problems? Got any tips?
I know from watching The School of Life that emotions are hard. But am I just not as strong in the Intrapersonal intelligence as most so it takes me longer and is more detrimental than most people?
I feel like I’m slowly getting better at determining these things and realising the issue.