Picking and choosing and trimming the fat

I’ve been taking a long, hard look at how I’ve been living my life for the past 20 years. I suppose that’s to be expected, as I have a birthday coming up, and I’m in a living situation that needs some work. My marriage is good. It’s great, in fact. In spite of everything, we’re still going strong, and the relationship continues to evolve and grow and change and stretch and do whatever it has to do, to keep going. Because, well, we love each other. We’re really well-suited for one another. And we both realize just how vital each is to our individual and mutual well-being.

To do anything less than tend to this relationship and keep it going, no matter what, would be self-destructive. And neither of us – head injuries or no – is that.

But in a number of areas of my life, I need some real work. I have indulged an awful lot of fantasies and schemes over the course of the past two decades, some of which have been mildly disrupting, others of which have completely derailed my progress. I have started – and abandoned – countless little projects, sketching them out and scoping them and putting all the plans in place to make it happen… only to lose focus, lose interest, and end up wandering away to do something else.  And all my hours of planning and thinking and BIG IDEAS just went to waste.

The wild thing is, I just didn’t care, when I let them go. I found that I had almost no investment in actually following through with them. It was the busy-ness that appealed to me. The process of imagining. The activity of dreaming, not taking action, that really moved me. And when I got to the point where it was time to actually do something… well, then I just lost my mojo.

Which is fine, if you just want to twiddle away your life, spinning your wheels and passing the time. It’s fine, if you’re either independently wealthy with a trust fund that’s hermetically sealed and shielded from market conditions, or you’re not particularly invested in keeping a house and home and lifestyle running. If you’re either extremely wealthy or materially indifferent, you can spend your life just jumping from one Big Thing to the next.

But I’m not in that situation. And every day, it hits home a little harder, how much my bad habits of “recreational busy-ness” have cost me. They cost me every day, in fact, in terms of lost focus, lost productivity, lost effectiveness. These aren’t just corporate-speak weasel-words. These are real things. I haven’t been able to complete tasks I’ve promised I’d do. I haven’t been able to finish jobs in the timeframe I said I would. I haven’t even been able to concentrate on things long enough (in advance) to figure out exactly how long they will take will take me to complete. For someone in my kind of job, doing my kind of work, on my kind of team, this is a bad thing.

And it needs to get fixed.

You see, I like my job, and I want to keep it. I need to figure out how to settle in and do the work, already. Quit being so danged fancy-pants and focus on the basics. The fundamentals. The boring-ass stuff that requires a great deal of concentration and focus, but that has to get done. I need to figure out how to just do it.

This has been sorta kinda nagging in the back of my mind for weeks, now. But I’ve managed to just kind of gloss over it. Things at work have been really disorienting, and that has been emotionally draining for me. I get it in my head that this is my One Chance, my One Shot to Make It, and I get fixated on the idea that if I screw this situation up, I’ll be out of work permanently. That crazy-ass one-sided thinking picks up speed very quickly, and before you know it, I’ve convinced myself that one more screw-up is going to land me back on the streets, I’ll lose everything, including my marriage, and I won’t be able to even open a bank account. When my head gets going like that, it’s not a pretty thing. But I go there so quickly…

The thing is, that thought process really keeps me from just doing what I need to do — focus in and get the job done. It keeps me focused on details — and implausible ones, at that — and it swamps me in minutiae that are not only distracting but extraneous and not central to my core issues.

So, what are my core issues?

After watching myself pretty closely for the past year and a half, I have to say that the biggest problem I have, that affects me all across the board is… (drum roll please…)

Fatigue+Distracting Busy-ness+Fatigue+Distracting Busy-ness

Fatigue Cycle

You see, when I get tired, I tend to get agitated. When I get agitated, I tend to want to do something. Anything. Just something to get my restless mind off my agitation and mounting anxiety. And so, I find something “important” to do — like a new project or some ground-breaking discovery — and I launch into that with all my might.

Thing is, I get so swamped in details that my brain starts getting turned around, and I start to fixate on the wrong things. I get consumed by minor aspects of a project, get pulled off on associational tangents, and my thoughts spin out in all directions, picking up speed, the more overwhelmed they get and the more agitated and restless and anxious they get.

It’s really something to watch, objectively speaking.

Subjectively speaking, it’s a wretched downward spiral into the breaking-point zone of my cognitive behavioral swampland.

The more tired I get, the less well I can think. The less well I can think, the more keyed up I get. The more keyed up I get, the more frantic I become, and the busier I get, and the less that actually gets done.

At the time it’s all happening, it seems like I’m just cooking along, making good progress. But I’m not making progress at all — quite the opposite. And eventually I melt down in a shaking, sputtering pile of profanity-spewing wreckage.

So much for my pet projects, my “cutting edge” concepts, my pioneering initiatives.

That all being said, now I’m taking a close look at what I’m really working on, these days. I’m removing a whole lot from my plate — and I’m seeing how many new projects I’ve started, just in the past six months. I also see how little I’ve actually finished in the past year. This is depressing me, as some of those projects are near and dear to my heart. Two of them, in fact, I am still very excited about. And there are a few others that are close behind. I need to finish them. I have needed to finish them for months, now. But it didn’t get done.

What’s more, there are things I need to do for work that haven’t been done properly. Not yet. It’s really bad. My job is to produce, and I all that I have been producing has been promises. My job is to deliver, and that’s been lagging.

Granted, life happens, and there have been a number of things that have kept me busy outside of my various projects. But this is just getting to be ridiculous. Something must be done.

So, I’m doing something about it.

  1. I’m working through all the different things I’ve got going on — personal and professional — and I’m getting more disciplined about them.
  2. I’m making sure that I’m only working on things that actually serve a long-term purpose, like sharpening key job skills, or teaching me new ones.
  3. I’m making lists of the things I’m working on and figuring out where they fit. And if they fit.
  4. I’m pitching out the things I started on a whim — as an effort to do nothing more than soothe my jangled nerves.
  5. For the things that fit, I’m coming up with some new tools — since I’m a software engineer, I’m engineering my own tools — and I’m designing/building a truly good-looking project management program that I can use without pain (the standard-issue ones are so visually unappealing, they actually make it hard to use them).
  6. I’m consolidating what projects I can, and I’m prioritizing them according to:
  • how much I want/need/have to do them
  • how long they’ll take to get done
  • when I originally wanted them to be done
  • when they are required to be done
  • which ones will totally screw me up, if I don’t do them
  • etc.

There’s more, but I need to get on with my day and do some of this stuff, instead of thinking about it all the time.

One thing is certain, I cannot continue to work as I have been — willy-nilly floating from one thing to another. I need to dig in and finish one thing before I start another. I can’t just keep starting new projects as “stress-management” techniques. If I need to burn some energy and work off steam, then I need to exercise, rather than doing more strategizing. If I need to take a break from one thing I’m doing, then I need to take a break from that kind of activity, not that specific activity.

Where I tend to fall down is, I “take a break” in ways that are not breaks at all — rather than resting to let my brain catch up, I drive it harder to get the stress hormones pumping that take the edge of my cognitive discomfort. I tend to push myself even harder, rather than letting up, and my broken brain thinks everything is just fine — simply because I can’t feel the pain anymore.

But it’s not fine. It’s anything but. I’m distracting myself, not restoring myself. I’m adding to my cognitive load, not lightening it. And ultimately, I get overwhelmed. Again. And it’s back to the drawing board… again… with even less self-confidence and self-esteem than before.

So, there it is. Time to prune back. Time to restore focus. Time to get my scattered brain together and make some real progress.

Any time I devote to activities should be an investment, not an expense. I just can’t afford — literally and figuratively — to waste my precious life force, anymore.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

One thought on “Picking and choosing and trimming the fat”

  1. Those are sensible and important thoughts for anyone – tbi or no tbi.

    There is an important point here – that the other day it occurred to me that TBI ‘recovery’ was like some laxative commercial from years ago where they talk about prunes (bear with me on this…) – and they say 1 too few, 6 too many? Same thing with TBI – we want to KNOW what the ‘normal’ way is – how many projects, how much energy, time, how successful, what should I be doing? What we are comparing ourselves to is, however, is some idealized ‘norm’. Everyone takes on projects they don’t complete, gets frazzled, etc. I know someone who has been doing construction on their living room for 15 years. Some folks tolerate chaos in exchange for spontaneity, others prefer order and structure but don’t expand their horizons. Most inventors and scientists and many entrepeneurs can tell you about the 1000 projects that went no where, ditto for novelists, playrights etc. We spin our wheels, we push too hard, we all do this stuff – sometimes it works out sometimes it doesn’t. But when you have a tbi everything becomes suspect, is your behavior tbi induced rigidity or compulsiveness – or is it you? And if it’s you – do you really want to change it?

    The answer can be yes, but I do think people with TBI tend to get hard on themselves and judge themselves, because if they have their life under complete control they will be recovered. I know someone who was married; the man had his problems and difficulties but the woman was productive, creative and happy more than 50% of the time. Yes, sometimes she said she wanted out, sometimes she hated him – he did cause grief – but in the whole the good still out weighed the bad. When he died she really had a hard time of it – in part because when he was alive she kept thinking ‘if only I could fix things and make it perfect’ – and when he was dead she had to struggle to reconcile her sadness and her anger. The bottom line is that so much of living is imperfect but still wonderful.

    One of my frustrations with the TBI rehab services is that they seem geared to informing me of my failing, my deficits relative to a norm and making me psychologically accepting of that. But I don’t feel they see who I am – that’s part of what I think makes Orlando good – it’s more about you are you and what may measure as a deficit is not always a deficit unless you see it as a deficit. That’s not 100% true – it’s not as thought there are no problems unless you say there are but matching a model isn’t always accurate either.

    Somewhere there is balance – somewhere there are some unfinished projects, a less perfectionist approach that gets things done, better focus on what matters but an interest in the world at large – yet, even that balance doesn’t stay – it doesn’t last. Maybe TBI just makes you more aware of that.


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