Staying smart about things

Keeping my head on straight

I like to think that since I’ve experienced so many TBIs over the course of my life, and in spite of that I’ve managed to put together a life that many people would find enviable, and I’ve come so far in my brain injury recovery, I’m on the good foot permanently. I look at my laundry list of symptoms, and then I look at my life, and I think, “Damn, I’m doing great!”

It’s true to some extent, tut that’s not the case constantly. Especially lately. I have been having a ton of issues with distractability, as well as memory issues. Last weekend, I watched the second half of the last Harry Potter movie, and I enjoyed it. While I was watching it, I was tired, but I was engaged, and I was “actively” watching it, making comments, thinking about what was going to happen next, etc.

And then the next day, I could not remember what movie I had watched the night before. It was just a big blank space, and I could not find anything in my memory to tell me what I had been watching for 2-1/2 hours that night. I knew I had watched a movie, but I could not remember which one. It was just blank. Completely empty. Void.

Then I thought about what I was doing while I was watching the movie, and I remembered lying down on the couch to watch the movie from a more comfortable position, and it all came back to me, one piece at a time.

As long as I can find a way to remember at least part of something, the rest of it is often “tucked away” in the back of my mind somewhere. I just need that access point. And the access point is often not what I was doing prior to the activity I’m trying to remember, but something during the activity.

Normally, things like this don’t bother me, but this time did. I’ve been incredibly distractable, lately — walking into a room to do one thing, then getting distracted and doing something else, and then walking out of the room without doing what I went there to do. It happens to me constantly, and I fault the job I’ve had for the last three years, for making things worse.

My job has been a non-stop parade of distractions, driven by inexperienced individuals who have not been properly trained in time management and office etiquette. They think it’s perfectly okay to interrupt anyone for any reason, and they’d been doing it with me tens of times a day, each and every day that I’m at work. It’s bad. It’s really bad. And the fact that most of my coworkers are in their early to mid-20s and have probably grown up that way, doesn’t help.

The problem is not that I’m old (as old as many of their parents). The problem is that they have no ability to control their attention and their time and their energy, and they have no impulse control. It doesn’t bode well for their futures, but that’s not my problem. My own future is my concern.

In another week, I can start actively looking for a new job. I’m in a very good position — in a job where I am needed and valued, and I have no pressing requirement to leave, other than my own personal career plans. I can take my time and pick and choose from the offerings out there, because I have a ton of experience, and the economy is picking up, and my skillset will transfer across industries. So, that’s a good thing. And as soon as I am done with these deadlines and can move along, I shall.

I really need to pace myself. I have been running myself ragged (literally) for months, now, and it’s taking a heavy toll. I have known that it was catching up with me for some time, but I couldn’t stop, because there were time limitations I had to work within, and I wanted to get everything sorted out quickly.

So, I pushed myself. Hard. Too hard, perhaps. And the result has been:

  • sleeping problems — not able to get to sleep on time, or waking up too early
  • mood issues — blowing up over things and threatening my spouse
  • memory issues — not being able to remember things
  • cognitive issues — miscalculating and misjudging all sorts of things (that I should be able to calculate and judge, like the price of something I’m selling)
  • fatigue — being wiped out all the time and depending on adrenaline to keep me going
  • pain and sensitivities to light and sound and touch

Basically, I feel like I’m walking around in a fog, half the time, but I keep going. I hate feeling like this. It sucks. And I haven’t felt this foggy and out of for some time. The last time I felt this way, I hadn’t yet started seeing a neuropsychologist, and I was just muddling through everything and faking my way through.

Now I’m back to faking and muddling… not making much effort to remember exactly what’s going on around me, because it is so much effort… just turning to other people around me to clue me in about what comes next… not worrying so much about getting everything right, just getting it done. Actually, not worrying so much about that is not a bad thing — I should have stopped with the OCD stuff years ago, because so much of what I obsess over doesn’t really matter in the long term. But my filter for what I should and should not care about is pretty much shot.

I’m too tired and too out of it to pay much attention.

So, all my activity sneaked up on me and is pulling the rug out from under me on a regular basis. I like to think that once I get away from the current job situation and workplace configuration, I’ll be able to restore my ability to focus on what I’m doing. Seriously, the environment of constant interruption has taken a huge chunk out of my ability (and will) to focus. There’s just no point, anymore. There’s no point in even trying. It’s like trying to assemble a model airplane in the midst of a basket of puppies. You get the point. There is none.

So, I actually am starting to feel better, and in feeling better, I’m letting down my guard and looking at the bigger picture and seeing where things are not so great, and where they are really good. Because I’m not so focused on just surviving every day, I am able to honestly see how harmful the situation has been for me — and to get clear about what I want instead. Ultimately, I need a skillset that will not just lock me into one industry and one way of making a living, but is going to give me more opportunities with more (read, “higher”) ranges of salary. I’m headed down that road now, and I realize that I’ve been headed down that road for some time. I’m not just starting out from scratch with this; I’m farther along than I tend to think I am.

And now that I’m taking stock of where I’m at, I’m realizing just how tired I am. I’m exhausted. Wiped out. I’ve been pushing and pushing — and I’ll need to keep pushing for the next couple of weeks. Then I’m done. Out of there. On vacation. And then on to the next thing, the next job, the next opportunity. With hopefully more chances to focus single-mindedly on what is in front of me, rather than constantly fielding interruptions from others.

I just really need to stay smart about things. Not jump at the first chance that presents itself. Not fly into another situation because, well, it’s there and it will get me out of my current jam. I need to keep a level head about things, and sleep is a huge part of that equation. Sleep whenever I can, even when I’m at work. I can go out to my car and nap. I can also take a quick nap when I’m home from work. My spouse doesn’t understand about sleep hygiene and they say “It’s okay” for me to sleep for two hours when I get home… and then stay up till 1 a.m. They are wrong. That’s not OK at all. It’s a killer for me. But they don’t get that. At all.

So, I need to be smart for myself, and understand my spouse’s limitations when it comes to assessing what’s right and what’s wrong. Frankly, they seem to be sliding downwards and becoming increasingly cognitively impaired in certain ways. I can’t put my finger on it precisely, but they are definitely slipping with regard to their judgment, their memory, their processing… in subtle ways that are obvious to me after 23 years of living with them, but won’t get picked up by anyone else.

So, I have to be smart for both of us. It’s a little like being a single parent with a sick child. That’s how it’s been for years, on and off. Only now it’s almost constant.

Add “sole caregiver” to my resume.

All this means I just need to step back and be smarter about how I do things. I started out one of my big projects with a lot of assumptions and plans I thought would pan out, but they are turning out very differently. Rather than get stuck on the disappointments and frustrations, I need to treat this all as a learning experience. Treat it like school. Business school. In the real world. With real opportunities and real consequences, not just some case study or thesis.

This is life. This is for real. And I’ve got to keep my wits about me.

And get some sleep.

I had a nap yesterday, after getting a lot of things done. Today I’m going to do the same. I’m off to run some errands that will get me out of the house and get me around people — and interact. I have a lot of questions I need to ask someone, and there’s a lot of money (for me) that I’m going to have to pay in the process, so I need to keep a level head and be smart. Not go too fast, not go too slow, and keep at them till I get the exact answers I need and know I am making choices for the right reasons.

It’s all learning. It’s all growing. It’s all the stuff of life.


Bad decisions make good stories

Great post from a reader who’s often contributed great stuff — Just in time, too, as I am obviously “Ancora Imparo” — still learning.

And I’m coming up with more good stories.

The short version is, I’ve been talking to a company for about a month, now, about a job, but my hard work with the interviews and connecting with them feels like it’s been derailed by an oversight on my part, with regard to my references. Basically, I listed a current colleague on my references, and I believe they contacted them — at my present job, where people do not know I’ve been looking for another position.

The cat may be out of the proverbial bag, which can really complicate things at the job where I am now. People there are not happy, but they desperately want me to stay in their midst. I know misery loves company, but do I have to keep them company?

If this gets screwed up, it’ll be a bummer. This job is a great opportunity, and they reached out to me, after I had reached out to them about a different job that was more junior and wasn’t a good fit.

The interviews went really well, we hit it off great, and it looked like things were settling in. I had been wondering why they didn’t ask for references, then last Tuesday they did. I was getting home late from a long day, and they were in a hurry to get the info together. Plus, my main computer was down — in the shop from a busted power supply — so I was working double-time on a backup computer after a long and arduous day. I pulled up my list of contacts and ran through it, thought it was all good, and sent it off. I was so sure I had it nailed — I had some really good LinkedIn recommendations on there, too. I thought I had the whole package deal together, and I shipped everything off to a couple of folks at the company, very pleased with myself for getting it all done.

Then, the following morning, it occurred to me that I had listed a current colleague on my list. This is someone who has been both very kind to me and back-stabbing treacherous. This is not the person you want to alert that you’re looking for a different job.

So, I revamped the list and emailed it to the folks I’d contacted the night before. And I asked them to not contact this person, because my job search is confidential.

Well… a day later, I get an email from this person just out of the blue, asking me some question about work that seemed really basic — not the sort of thing they’d even need to contact me about. That got me thinking that the new folks probably contacted them prior to me asking them to not do so. Or they went ahead and contacted them anyway. I’m guessing it’s the former — these folks have been pretty scattered at times and not the most communicative, so my best guess is that they either never saw the second email or they went full-speed ahead with checking everything, and I came in too late to stop them.

It honestly never occurred to me to call the people at this new company and tell them what was going on, so I could head this all off at the pass. For some reason, I thought an email was sufficient. I really dropped the ball on this thing, rushing my work, not thinking it all through, and then not following up after the fact, when things started to look a little dicey.

I’ve been getting a little paranoid about work, anyway. People there are not communicative, and they don’t say to your face what they are thinking. They just hint at things, and you have to go into secret meetings behind closed doors to figure anything out. You have to tend to their fragile egos and soothe their frazzled nerves to get anything done, which is a huge pain. And they’re very jumpy and reactionary, so every little thing turns into a HUGE DEAL.


Anyway, of course, now I’m questioning my basic competence and ability to do anything. If I can’t figure out how to send people the right references, how the hell will I be able to do this job, which has a big communication/project management component to it? What does this say about my fundamental abilities? What does it say about my professionalism? Who am I kidding? What makes me think I can do this job, anyway? The hits just keep on coming, and I have to work pretty hard to remind myself that it was basically fatigue and a combination of frantic factors and being rushed and letting others set the pace of my life, that gave rise to this. I simply didn’t take enough time to sort things through, and I didn’t double-check my work (which is a long-standing problem with me, that I have to really concentrate on fixing, each time it comes up).

And I was doing so well…

Well, if this job doesn’t work out, there are others. I’ve gotten a number of different emails, lately, from recruiters who have some tasty-looking positions available. I get tired thinking about starting the whole job interview process all over again, but if that’s what I have to do, that’s what I have to do. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be, if this thing doesn’t work out.

That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway, to make myself feel better. Deep down, I’m horribly upset with myself for this oversight. I’m trying to stay focused on the idea that life is full of these kinds of situations, and the true measure of my character and ability is not just how I manage to avoid these things, but how I handle them when they come up. It could be that this kind of thing will happen over and over and over, if I take this job. And it will be my job to make sure that the train’s brakes and other apparatus are all working well, so the train doesn’t fly off the tracks.

That’s how I’m looking at it, anyway. Life is full of these kinds of situations, for whatever reason. Whether it’s a momentary lapse of attention or a prolonged failure to attend to vital details, or it’s someone jumping the gun or enthusiasm run wild, there’s always going to be something making situations that much more complex and convoluted.

My job is to manage that and the associated fall-out. This isn’t an isolated incident in my life, by any means, and it’s probably not going to be the last time something like this threatens to derail a process. The main thing is to just keep engaged and not let it get the better of me… to deal with it with calm, collected confidence and carefully navigate through the minefield of modern life. And be mindful. Really think about what I’m doing, and why. And not let others push me to mindlessly rush everything.

Mistakes happen that way. And sometimes what you gain in time, you lose in results.

Ultimately, I’m sure this will make a good story. But for now, I’ve got to see the story through from start to finish.


Keeping up with keeping up

As time goes on, it never ceases to amaze me, how easy it is for me to be pulled off track in all sorts of directions. Distraction is a huge trap with me, and the cumulative effects can be pretty brutal.

I start out knowing I want to get from Point A to Point B. But all around me, there are tons of distractions… Little things I think are important, but really aren’t… Big things that may be important, but are keeping me from focusing on reaching my ultimate goal, one step at a time.

I start out wanting to go from Point A to Point B… but those other things look so interesting… and I end up getting pulled in all sorts of different directions.

And sometimes I never get to Point B. It’s just not good.

So, what I have to do, is just block out everything outside my main goal, and focus exclusively on that. I can’t afford to be distracted, I can’t afford to be pulled off in different directions.

I have to keep myself involved and invested in what I’m doing with myself, so I don’t get pulled all over creation, chasing after this and that and the other thing.

But how? How do I build a proverbial wall around the things I’m working on, to keep focused and involved?

I’m still working on that, but one of the things that works for me, is resisting the urge to go off and do something else, when I feel as though I have just completed a task, and I want to change up the pace.

I say “feel as though I have just completed a task” because a lot of times, I’ll get the sense that I’m done with something, when I’m really not. There are extra details that are left hanging. Loose ends that need to be tied up. But in my constantly restless brain, I get antsy, and I get pulled off into other things. I tell myself I’ll come back to what I was working on later, when I’m more rested and relaxed.

The thing is, when I’m antsy, I tend to get pushed into high gear, which has me frantically doing the distraction-thing (like picking up some other piece of work that’s pretty involved), and in the process of distracting myself from my prior agitation, I fatigue myself even more, and I become even more prone to distraction and poor attention.

Which sets me waaaaay back. It’s not good.

This impulse control business is just nuts… And the attentional issues… oh, please. It’s just too much, sometimes. If I’m not careful, I’ll end up ranging far and wide, thinking I’m being productive… and I’ll get nothing done in the process. It’s a downward spiral of worsening distractions and increasing workload. Crazy. Crazy-making.

So, what I’ve been doing lately, which has been working out really well for me, is when I’m done with a very demanding task which has either upset me or tired me out, I’ll just step away and take a break for a few minutes. Gather myself back in, catch my breath… and then I’ll go back to following up on what I was just working on before. I’ll write up my notes from the experience, highlight the lessons I can find, and I’ll mark any follow-up items that need to be done.

I have to do this right away — or I will forget the things that are important, which need following up. If I wait, I am lost. And it’s no good trying to reconstruct the experience, days — even weeks — later. My brain thinks I can do it, but it’s wrong. I can’t.

I also have to keep a calendar pretty carefully, showing what I’ve worked on in the past. I have to not only keep a calendar of what I need to do in the future, but also keep one for what I’ve done, so I can keep track of the balls I have in the air. I tend to literally forget what I’m working on, and then I get distracted and wander off in all directions.

A retrospective calendar is key for me. Without it, I get into real trouble. And it needs to be in monthly format — with 4-5 rows of 7 squares, one for each day of the week — so it’s more visually meaningful for me.

Keeping up with keeping up is not always easy. And it requires specific tools and techniques:

  • Sticking with tasks until they have been completely followed up on.
  • Taking breaks when I am tired, and always coming back to what I was doing before.
  • Planning my time carefully, with an eye to what I need to accomplish.
  • Keeping a calendar for my past and my future, so I don’t forget what I’m supposed to be working on.

The most important technique of all? Keeping in mind the possibility that I might be forgetting something, and I might be letting something slide… and doing a reality-check to make sure I’m correct. I can check my notes, I can talk to people, I can consult my project list. Whatever I do, I dare not forget that I’ve got things going on.

The main thing is, not to give up. Not to quit. Not to abandon the job before it’s done. And to remember, my brain might be telling me I’m good to go, long before that’s the case.

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