Things I could do when I couldn’t focus, paid-work edition:

  • Attend meetings.
  • Make useful contributions in meetings.
  • Take notes.
  • Review email.
  • Answer email.
  • Field tech support requests (“I can’t print!” “Would you tell me what you see on your screen?…”).
  • Annotate tech support tickets and mark them completed.
  • Update project plans.
  • Skim trade mags.

Things I can do when I can’t focus, grad student/summer 2020 edition:

  • Walk, unless there’s a heat advisory.
  • Read a book, unless it’s something I want (or need) to remember.
  • Review my email, now mostly mass-mail.
  • Read social media.
  • Play solitaire.

The former set can easily consume days, and contributes to the organization. The latter… is feeling more and more sparse as the summer progresses.


I think, for me, there’s a quality to decoding — reading, playing cards — that listening (to podcasts or audiobooks) and/or watching (movies, TV shows) doesn’t engage. I don’t “get lost” in the audio-visual the way I do in print. Or digital solitaire. (Digital? Because who wants to shuffle cards? Not me!)

Maybe that’s also what made those paid-work activities effective autopilot for me — decoding others.

Now there’s just me.

And decoding myself ain’t autopilot, either.

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