So, I have to work… harder

I’m doing myself a favor, today, and doing some job-related work. I am usually working on something or another, and today (while I do other things), I’m running some programs on my work computer, so I have less to do tomorrow. And I don’t feel so far behind.

I have been falling behind at work. I don’t like it, and it’s not making me happy. So, I’m doing something about it. Ironically, what I’m doing is the exact opposite of what others are encouraging me to do — take it easy, don’t do too much, take time off for myself, etc. They don’t want me to get too fatigued. They don’t want me to get in over my head. And they certainly don’t want me to work if I’m not getting paid to do it.

The thing is, not working is worse for me than working. Because I’m feeling the pressure of unfinished work, and it’s messing with my head. And I also hate being so far behind. It’s actually harder for me, if I don’t do the work in advance of the week.

Also — and this is key — because I need to take more frequent breaks, and because I tend to get turned around, I can’t really do the old 9-to-5 work schedule of yore. It’s just not enough time. I need to break up my days into chunks of work and chunks of rest, so at the end of the day, my 9-to-5 work day actually holds only about 6-1/2 hours of productivity. It has to be that way, or I get completely overwhelmed and then I’m really behind.

So, I just extend the work I do, and I break it into smaller chunks. I look at the list of things I need to do, and I break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces, and then I do them bit by bit, in my ‘off’ hours.

This makes folks in my household a bit nervous, as they think that I’m a workaholic and “all I ever do is work!” But it’s not true — I’m breaking down all the things I have to do, to remain a viable employee into bite-size chunks that are not difficult to do at all. And when they’re that small — for example, like looking over a piece of code or reviewing some document or previewing some features I’m supposed to add to a program I’m writing — they’re actually enjoyable. And I feel good getting them done.

I have progress to report on Monday morning, and that makes me feel really good about myself.

It also doesn’t exhaust me, like trying to cram everything into my 9-to-5 schedule does. That’s just too taxing. I’d much rather spread it all out, take my time, and be able to enjoy myself while I’m doing it.

Now, if I can just get my family and my therapist and all the folks around me who want me to “take it easy” to understand this and get off my back. What’s worse — extending my “work day” a little bit and actually getting some stuff done and keeping my job… or “taking it easy” in the name of coddling myself, falling behind, and making me a liability to my employer/group?

That’s literally the choice I have. I choose the former. I have to.

Thinking about my developing coping mechanisms, I must say that I’m none too impressed by the people who advocate slacking off and limiting my activities, for the sake of my well-being. Maybe it’s because my MTBIs are in the past, and I’ve developed coping mechanisms to deal with them, as well as healed up from a lot of my most immediate issues. Maybe it’s because people don’t understand the nature of mild traumatic brain injury and they just assume that once you’re brain injured,  you’re permanently and irreversibly screwed. Maybe it’s because that’s how they would deal with things. Maybe it’s all of the above. But if one more person tells me, “Oh, you need to just relax and take time for yourself,” I think my head is going to explode.

Let me set the record straight — I have a tremendous amount of energy, and I need to use it. When it’s not properly directed, through productive activity and/or exercise, I become very difficult to live with, at times dangerously so, and I don’t feel good about myself. I feel like a failure, and I have the diminished productivity to substantiate it. I need to keep moving. I need to be active. I don’t respond well to languishing for long hours. I just don’t. I’ve got what my neuropsych calls “constant inner restlessness” that propels me forward, and if I try to stop it, I’m just screwed.

For me, being active and doing things that challenge and entertain me and produce some tangible result is taking care of myself. It is relaxing. Yes, fatigue can be a problem for me, but when I break up all my activities and go about them in a piecemeal fashion, I can fit naps in between times.

There’s not much in-between gray area for me — I’m either all-on, or all-off, and I’m sick of fighting it, just because other people aren’t that way. Let them walk a mile in my shoes, then decide if I should live my life like them. I’ve been thinking long and hard about the directions I need to take with my life and my work, and what I come back to, time and again, is that I just have to work harder now. Because I’m not willing to give up on the kind of work I do, I’m not willing to part with the learning and the doing and the tangible results I get from my type of work, but I can’t keep going about it the old way — as in, just working during the appointed hours. I have to work smarter and harder. And I need to do it with joy and intention and simply refuse to give up. I may need to make some changes to my approaches — focusing more on machine-oriented work, rather than people interactions… getting away from startups and enterpreneurial situations and gravitating more towards big, established  companies…. But I’m not giving up on my software engineering or technology. It just has too much to offer me.

I understand that my brain has been changed by multiple injuries. It may have developed “wrong” from a very early age. But by God, I just can’t bring myself to throw in the towel, “adjust down” my expectations about what is possible for me. I can’t live a marginal life, sheltering myself from possible difficulty. I need to be out there, engaged in my own life, making my own way in the world. There are lots of people out there who are a lot less smart than me, who are doing okay. There are lots of people out there who have less acumen, less social ability, less determination, and they’re doing their thing.

Why shouldn’t I? As much as I’d like to play it safe and keep to myself in my corner, I realize that this is not true safety at all. If I have to learn by trial and error (which I always do – and there are plenty of trials and more errors than I care to think about), then so be it.

So I fall… But I also bounce.

Now, back to work!

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.

6 thoughts on “So, I have to work… harder”

  1. Question, if I may be so bold –

    Is this a brain injury moment of thinking?
    Consider that people who love you, your NT and most of the guidebooks, folk wisdom etc. say – one thing at a time – could it be that you are ‘stuck’ in your thinking?

    Please believe me when I tell you that I say this only because I could have written what you wrote above. And I have thought some about your work issues – but I have to go to somewhere now and so I will add that later.

    M

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  2. Quick PS –

    Slacking off is not what is recommended – what is recommended is training yourself to focus on one thing at a time in a reasonable way to get it done without a domino effect in your life. If it doesn’t get done then you can consider

    a) did you take on too much
    b) were there too many distractions
    c) can you train yourself to be more focused on the task at hand
    d) can you get help
    e) whatever else you need to know……

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  3. Maybe…

    But you know what? When I remind myself that I’m going to have to exert more focused effort on what I’m doing, it triggers that part of my brain that kicks in my adaptive mode. Check out the “Models of Exceptional Adaptation in Recovery After Traumatic Brain Injury: A Case Series” at http://www.givebackorlando.com/Docs/models.pdf — this is what I’m talking about.

    Exactly.

    I’m not talking about driving myself over the edge, just making more of an effort, which I haven’t been doing, because I didn’t want to “strain” myself.

    Amazingly, also mentally preparing myself for a bit of hard work also gets me going, and it actually makes the job easier.

    It’s a good thing (for me).

    Can’t speak for others…

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  4. A few more thoughts on the subject of recovery, self-help etc.

    Okay – so I think you point out an important part of the problem of trying to ‘help’ or rehab a head injury person. We alone know what’s ‘inside’ of ourselves – both in terms of motivation, effort, desire, etc BUT if the part of us that ‘looks’ inside is busted and gives us a faulty perception (but we cannot listen to others who don’t ‘get’ TBI) then how can we know what is what?

    Okay – so I read through the article by Schutz. A few thoughts here – much of this though I wrote BEFORE I read the article by Shutz…

    When I say that one must change one’s life I am not saying that there is no recovery of skills or functions that may have been lost or damaged in injury. (And for argument’s sake, recovery here would mean restoration of 80% of the skill level that a person have pre-injury.) There is certainly enough data, both circumstantial and controlled, to support the brain’s ability to re-arrange responsibility and duties of functions.

    So here’s the but (and yes, there is always a but…)

    The ‘real world’ is very complex, demanding focus, multi-tasking, visualization, etc etc. But the real world also has tools and systems that allow for certain processes to be automated or managed externally to our brains. (I believe it was Diane Ackerman who said in one of her books that the phenomena of writing was profound because it allowed us to extend our mental capacity beyond our brains). So using those tools is in a way part of how we use our brains and not necessarily a substitute for using them.

    Now TBI knocks out certain functionality, or reduces it – and that in turn alters the whole of the brain. It’s the whole of the brain that we often have no way to measure. We use neuropsych tests as a way to identify areas of deficit – but neuropsych tests focus on isolated skills for the most part – they do not translate into real world functioning very well since real world includes multiple skill sets, some of which may have injury and some which may not. Currently a lot of cognitive rehab focuses on working with patients for a short time on restoring some of the individual functions of memory, sequencing etc and helping people learn adaptive skills and approaches to get around weaknesses. This is problematic because of two issues – both of which revolve around the fact that recovery does not FEEL good.

    1) With particular areas of functionality healing takes a long long time. Functionality CAN be restored but when the brain is ready for it. This is a very very essential reality. Sometimes, frequently, the time for restoring a skill is YEARS after the injury. But it can also be sooner. There is no way of knowing when the brain is ready for a particular functional recovery.

    2) Restoring both specific skills is hard work – for example improving memory skills takes – you guessed it – memory drills – like all that crud you did in elementary school. YUCK! And who has time, and its not fun.

    3) Obviously if you struggle to with restoring specific functional skills such as memory then restoring the ability to perform various real world tasks that rely on memory is also going to be a struggle – and so restoring that functioning is going to take a long time. It may take even longer to recovery a real world function because that function contains multiple specific skills that were damaged – and each time you improve an individual skills (such as memory) you alter the overall integrated skillset functioning. Even worse however is that while you may have a sense of certain skills being weak (such as memory) you may not recognize that memory includes details of things you do quickly and so when you are performing a task under pressure or in a long duration you may be thinking – wow, I am getting this done – but in fact you are making mistakes that you simply do not see. This happens because when you learned skills in the first place it was more obvious to you when you were having difficulty but now your brain has just enough functional skills to fool us into thinking its about effort and not change.

    In truth however your brain is very clever – it’s lazy in a sense – if something isn’t about life or death then why bother with something like planning or schedules? If you are charged up and ready to go why limit yourself to 2 hours of quality focus when you can do 6 hours of work (and skip the quality part).

    Why? Because the planning, the slowing down, the focus, they are the REAL effort. They feel like they are the brakes on creativity and accomplishment but in fact they are the guideposts to keep your from dissipating energy all over the cosmos in a completely randomized (and useless) fashion. Your brain has lost its ability to keep any kind of cognitive homeostasis – so it likes running like a speeding train and then when it suddenly runs out of gas, it justifies becoming a giant slug for days until you restore cognitive gas and feeling guilty push like a maniac again. Up and down, rushing through, missing details, thinking your work is quality and clear as a bell till your boss/wife/friends/the bank says – hey buddy you SCREWED UP AGAIN. And the we get mad – first at boss/wife/friend/bank – and then at ourselves. And we vow we will work harder, we will not make mistakes because we will use a calculator or a notebook or a tape recorder or whatever – but notice how we don’t want to consider that we will plan, set time frames, or do any of the other things that put a stop to our impulsiveness.

    This impulsivity is both cognitive and emotional. And Schutz says this exactly – all of his case studies say the same thing – I have learned to repeatedly slow down, plan, resist the urge to respond to anything without writing it down first.

    ‘If behavior is not planned it becomes purely responsive and impulsive, lacking in thought and judgment; behavior will be unpredictable and inconsistent; life will be stressfully disorganized; there will be poor management of problems that require carefully planned solutions, even everyday things like money management; and there will be greater reliance on old, well established plans, upon which there will be perseveration. If hypothesis-testing behavior is difficult then patients will fail to make proper use of evidence, totally undermining rational, logical action and accurate perception both of the environment and of themselves.’

    In other words if it is too hard (which it is) then we invent a justification and resort to what we know from the past.

    Pushing through and getting it done feels good – see, it works, our brain says. And sometimes it does – or it does for a single element of the big picture. But then the next day we are tired and we make a BIG mistake, or we lose our temper, or we need to take 2 days off from work. Soon our life pattern looks like an EKG, up and down – but not a smooth consistency. But since our brain is only looking at THIS moment it says – this is cool, this works and it resists the deeper level of recovery – because the deeper level of recovery DOES NOT FEEL GOOD – but the result in our lives DOES feel good.

    Our ability to get by is often strong enough to let us fool ourselves – if our impairments were more severe we couldn’t do that. And we get angry because we are so certain that we are knowing the truth. We address the wrong root cause.

    Now I don’t believe that this means ‘limitations’ – at NO POINT would I say that I accept being less, having a lesser quality of life, less utilization of my skills, less effort, less productivity, less anything. Not at all – but the APPROACH must change – and if my approach before was to tackle 5 things at once and like a calliope keep tapping on each one I have to consider that it might not work so well now. Or I might have to simply allot 30 minutes tapping time to each peg. But I have to PLAN my structure – and in that planning I may have to make decisions about what is extraneous, what matters. Ideas, projects, notions, people, etc are to TBI folks what white cat hair is to a black sweater – we just pick them up like magic and they stick to us – and soon we drown in all of our 1001 things and feel overwhelmed. To select the projects that are of value is not a limitation – it is freeing to know that when you say I will do it you can do it.

    Furthermore – and Shutz doesn’t seem to talk much to this – specific skills may ‘return’ or be recovered, there may be new circuitry etc – but this will happen in its own time. Meaning that some kinds of recovery can only happen when your brain is ready. I think this is significant because just as the ‘restructuring of life’ is part of what allows a mTBI survivor to be ‘successful’ – some skills can be recovered through a similar hard effort. Only we can’t say for sure which ones or when…………

    About a year after my accident I took an hourly wage job – I was supposed to be promoted to a managerial position in a couple of months but it was required for everyone to start at the bottom. The job was in a busy, noisy, hectic, environment, there was money involved and a lot of short term memory work. I struggled, I mean I really struggled. I knew that I was having a hard time with it, I just couldn’t learn how to do certain things and I relied heavily on being a nice person. I even got an award for being so nice. Knowing that I was struggling, especially with memory, I developed small little ‘cheat sheets’ to enable me to perform certain tasks. This worked okay – but after two months they told me they weren’t going to promote me because, much to their surprise, I seemed to be having a hard time with basic stuff. They didn’t see it as memory really – maybe I covered it up – but I just didn’t have ‘the right stuff’. This was a pretty rough blow – I was an executive professional prior to my accident and now I was told I couldn’t even do this seemingly simple and structured job.

    I actually found other work after that – much better paying – but when that ran out I returned to this company but in another location. This time the experience was different – I started out with similar struggles. Now this location was even busier than the first, and I really had to pay attention. I worked at it, over and over and over – memory tasks that were so simple and stupid and humiliating and boring.. And slowly my memory improved – without cheat sheets. I literally felt it come back, I had several ‘aha’ moments when I realized I have remembered numbers or facts that had been hard before. This was 3 years after my accident.

    Recently I had returned to a rehab program for some assistance in certain areas. When I told them about this job they were flabbergasted. They said that this kind of job was the worst kind of work a person with TBI could do – exactly the kind of environment they would have recommended against (noisy, hectic, memory demands, fast moving exchange of money). But when I did a neuropsych with these guys they were surprised to see how strong my working memory was (not superstar necessarily but pretty damn good) – especially for a short duration.

    Now I took the job because it was the only work available – but in a way I am glad. I think that if I hadn’t had those demands upon working memory – demands that made me feel embarrassed because it was so hard for me to do while the people around me (with less education and professional skills) were doing it in a flash, hard because it was like trying to walk and falling down every day. But this location had a lot of nice people and they liked me and they kind of worked with my ‘vagueness’ and applauded when I got better – even though they didn’t know my story. This effort was monumental – I cannot emphasize that enough but because it was the only job I could get and I needed to make some money I had to do it. My brain resisted and fought the process – but finally the circuits lit up and functionality was restored.

    I continue to have other problems typical of TBI – initiation and completion of a whole project over time. This affects lots of stuff – a simple one is doing the laundry for example – it gets washed and dried and then it never gets folded or put away. But more often it affects things like writing a paper for school or organizing my files. Recently a very demanding situation occurred and I was faced with a complex organizational task – there was tremendous pressure to get something done. This was a project that I had attempted several times since my accident and at least on occasions I had been unable to make any headway. Now, looking at it I was once again overwhelmed and my brain could not see how it was going to work. But I just kept moving forward. And forward.

    I had lately seen some other improvements in my functions so I felt that I could do this – and I did. I got the job done – well, 99% done I’d say. But this was a project I had started 5 times over the past 5 years and had never been able to tackle. I believe however that my repeated efforts at doing papers and other kinds of work like this had been slowly getting my brain back in shape. But I also know that sometimes now I procrastinate with tackling certain projects because they are almost mentally painful to try and tackle – till I get going I can’t imagine how it will work and that is a skill I always had.

    The key issue here is timing. Your brain has to be ready to be forced – and you cannot tell when that time is – no neuropsych, no psychologist, no person or friend or anyone can tell you. And you cannot know – because it is not that it feels easy – in fact it may ONLY happen if is forced by circumstance – but when your brain is ready is will function with these abilities again. BUT you will have to push your brain.

    So how do you give yourself the gift of time to heal and yet make the self imposed demand to build up the circuitry again?

    And in your case however there are some other issues. For one thing there are multiple accidents and so it’s not that you are 5 years out – you may be 5 years out from one injury that affected one skill set but only 2 years out on another. That will make it harder.

    Now – some quick things about your work;

    Get earplugs and wear them at work/at home/ whenever you are doing focused work. When I used to work for a technology firm we downloaded various genres of music onto the server – everyone worked with headphones on. I used to listen to Baroque music. (After my accident I could not tolerate ANY sound whatsoever – more recently I began to listen to music while doing the dishes for the first time – so maybe this is changing).

    Don’t hesitate to tell people you use earplugs or headphones and explain how they can get your attention and when and for what reasons. Don’t say they can’t talk to you for 5 hours – but you can say that you will take a break every hour for 15 minutes so unless it is critical can they save it for then?

    Ask your boss if you can have a meeting once a month for 10 minutes to review your progress. Don’t rely on your instincts of how things are going. Before the first meeting prepare a couple of simple questions, like – for example: What areas of my work do you think are my strongest – quality, timeliness, creativity, innovation etc and what are my weakest? Then the next time ask did I improve or stay the same. Be clear that you really value the job and just want to know so that you can be at your best. Don’t take longer than 10 minutes.

    Make up rules like:

    I will not say yes to taking on ANY project – work, home etc without 48 hour timespan to think about it. Ditto I will not send any non-factual email for 24 hours.

    I will make a schedule. I will then make note of what I really do. I will not judge myself for this but I will see how they differ and make note of this to help me understand where I might be going off.

    I will post a sign in my bedroom for how many days I go without getting irrationally angry.

    I will take a break every 2 hours for 10 minutes – whether I feel like it or not. During that break I will NOT do anything but walk, breathe, stretch etc.

    I will commit to a regular and consistent exercise pattern, sleep pattern, eat pattern.

    If you make a promise at work to get something done and you can’t do it in a reasonable amount of time (the regular workweek plus or minus a couple of hours) you need to seriously consider this. It is true that some jobs encourage excessive hours – but is the price you pay – in terms of relationships and even potentially losing your job for anger or incompetence – worth the need to play to that standard? Most of the time we fill hours with empty work if we know we have them.

    Last thought – I understand you frustration with docs – but what would you have a doc do? You say ‘we are on our own’ – well yes, because there isn’t anything anyone can do – no pill, no surgery, nothing but the slow boring effort of well practice drills and good planning.

    Don’t confuse ‘strain’ with random efforts or with extreme jags – at no point does Schutz recommend extremes as an adaptive mechanism – what he says are EXCEPTIONAL – meaning these are folks who adhere rigorously to their plan of action. They are exceptional because they don’t go to extremes.

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  5. “We alone know what’s ‘inside’ of ourselves – both in terms of motivation, effort, desire, etc BUT if the part of us that ‘looks’ inside is busted and gives us a faulty perception (but we cannot listen to others who don’t ‘get’ TBI) then how can we know what is what?”

    I’ve been keeping track of what I try to get done in a day, what I sign up for, what I commit to… and what actually gets done. I also keep track of my moods and that checklist at http://www.givebackorlando.com/hepusef/hepusef_cheatsheet.pdf

    CHEAT-SHEET FOR NOTICING HEAD-INJURED MOMENTS
    1. Things I wish I had not done, or things I wish I had done differently.
    2. Things I wish I had not said, or things I wish I had said differently.
    3. Things I said or did that got a bad reaction out of other people.
    4. Things I said or did too quickly.
    5. Things I said or did without being careful enough.
    6. Things I forgot to do.
    7. Things I wanted to do but did not get around to doing.
    8. Things I was told and later forgot.
    9. Repeating myself without realizing it.
    10. Forgetting where I put something.
    11. Getting too emotional.
    12. Wasting time.
    13. Spending too much time on something that was unimportant.
    14. Spending too little time on something that was important.
    15. Being unable to put something out of my mind when I need to.
    16. Making the same mistake I made before.
    17. Taking unwise risks.
    18. Misunderstanding people.
    19. Having trouble getting others to understand me.
    20. When searching for something, overlooking it.

    I’ve printed it out and refer to it periodically throughout the day. I go by objective observations — as well as yes-no answers to my questions.

    It seems to help.

    If nothing else, it makes me think — which can be good… or bad 😉

    It’s all pretty much a mystery, but never boring!

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  6. Do you know of any person who has not wished they had done some things differently? Or did things too quickly (we live in a high speed multi-tasking world that DEMANDS speed) or without enough care?

    Who hasn’t forgotten something, procrastinates, wasted time, repeated themself, or not gotten too emotional or misunderstood someone or not found something that was sitting in front of them?

    So is it frequency?

    Furthermore what about the role of stress? EVERYONE increases those behaviors under stress – so is this a brain injury moment or is this because you are stressed – and is the stress brain injury stress?

    It seems to me the point that Schultz is making is not to just identify that we have brain injury moments but rather to get us to accept that they are problematic and that planning is the way to address them. Planning is schedules, writing out thoughts before speaking, taking breaks, not going to extreme measures. It is this sort of self discipline that mitigates the bi moments – not force of will but determination to manage impulse – dysexecutive function responses.

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