And so much for the "lazy days" of summer. Summer 2012 was a blink. I look back on it and I can barely discern early August from mid-July and they both closely resemble the entire month of June, at least in my head. I look at the calendar and I know logically that it is September 26, but I can't help but wonder, how did I get here?
What do I have to show for the summer?
I look north out one of our upstairs windows, across the rooftops to the honey locust trees that line part of 97th Street. The tops are turning yellow already. No doubt they have had a stressful summer, which for them probably started in April. Or maybe March, when 20 out of 31 days saw temperatures above 60 degrees, a string of warm weather that never really seemed to end.
Nature seems fixing to get into fall early this year, a natural bookend to a ridiculously early spring that saw crocuses up in March and all of our backyard bushes leafy-green by mid-April.
In particular, though, I look back on the past six weeks. Work ruled, and rest was hard to come by. One day after another seemed to slip away in an endless string of emails, phone calls and meetings. I'd go in to the office with a plan to cross 10 things off my to-do list and immediately upon arriving I'd find 12 new tasks. So I'd get 10 done and still be two behind for the day.
I don't know about you, but after several weeks of working uphill like that, I felt deflated and defeated. I couldn't get enough done at work to feel good there, and yet in my efforts to do so tasks at home and for others suffered. I didn't get as much work for Patch done as I wanted, for instance. And I felt like I was losing ground in the battle to stay informed and moderately well-read. There were days when I didn't have time to read the paper, scan a news web site or watch television news. I had no idea what was happening.
Some of the work burden was lifted last week when a major annual conference for which I'm responsible finally happened. Now, no more conference planning, at least for a while.
Those things I can't control. The conference happens and it has to be dealt with. But in my despair about task lists spinning out of control and being uninformed, I started thinking back to times when I didn't feel so frazzled, so overwhelmed by everything to be done. What was it about those times, I wondered, that made them seem less frantic? I was able to identify a few key differences between then and now.
1. In the past I had fewer distractions. Compared to some people I know, I hardly watch any TV, hardly spend any time on Facebook and hardly spend any time texting people. But since I got this iPhone, I do more texting, e-mailing and Facebook watching than I ever have. In terms of TV, some evenings I felt so fried all I could to do was sit on the couch and stare at a White Sox game or a movie. It was like checking out mentally was the only way I could re-charge. My goal is to be less tempted by the wonders of my "smart" phone and more engaged with the people around me and the tasks at hand. I also need to stop using the TV as a mental crutch.
2. I realize how distracting my work e-mail and instant messaging are. I could be typing one e-mail and be totally sidetracked by the little notifications telling me more important messages were bombarding my inbox. Then colleagues were finding me on our corporate instant messaging. Everyone needed something – a "quick question" answered, some instant copy for a marketing e-mail, a decision about this or that. When everything comes in with that little red "Important!" exclamation point, how do you sift through and find the truly important items? Of course, it all matters to some degree, and it all has to be dealt with. The difference for me is that there is so much more of it now than ever before. On a "normal" day, I get 200 e-mails in my work inbox before lunch. About half of them I can delete with a cursory glance. Of the other half, maybe 40% require responses immediately, while the other 60% can wait until later. The problem is "later," after lunch, I get another 200 e-mails, with the same ratio.
3. I spend way more time communicating by e-mail and instant message than I do person-to-person over the phone. Ninety percent of the people I deal with daily for work are in some other city. Our communication culture has evolved to the point where many of those people prefer to do business via e-mail, not over the phone. They can get e-mail on their smart phones wherever they are, they can have multiple e-mail conversations going at once and they can share documents. The trouble is, sometimes it ends up taking more time to discuss an issue by e-mail than it would to simply pick up the phone. I've resolved to be better about calling people and asking to be called back, as opposed to e-mailed.