Focus

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The kind of work I do (programming computers) requires a lot of focus. There are some projects which require long periods of concentrated work; they need analysis; they have subtle corners requiring careful negotiation; they call for experience and skill, and also a certain kind of elegance. When I see a project like this coming up, I feel a tingling of pleasant anticipation – the thrill of the long distance runner.

You can be so absorbed in these projects that you lose all track of time. You fail to notice the pain in your back, or that your shoulders ache, until you stand up and realise that you have been hunched over the desk in some terrible position for hours. These projects leak into your daily life: you wake up with the solution to a problem, you are still solving equations in your head when driving the children to school, you try to hurry through cooking dinner to give yourself time to check the results of some tests you left running. You become obsessed.

It goes without saying that this work fits badly with motherhood! If you start to lose hours here and there, are unaware of pain, and forget to put on your shoes, then it is quite possible to forget to pick up a child, fail to cook dinner, or book the dentist. Even if you resort to alarm clocks (I have several) to force you to stop work and attend, your mind is elsewhere. You are not having a conversation with another mum at the school gates, you are miming responses while calculating how long it will take before you can get back to your desk.

There are two main classes of people who hate it when I become absorbed in a project at work. The first are my children, who resent not having my full attention. It has been a huge (and ongoing) challenge to learn the skill of shunting my work out of my head at the end of the day, and replacing it with all the things that matter to them. The second are the rest of my team at work, because it turns out that management is rather like motherhood in that respect: you can only do it well when you are not preoccupied. So it turns out that the skills I need for my children are needed to make me a better manager of people too. The tricky thing there is timing: while I can use a cup of tea, or the journey to the school gate a cue for doing my mental shunting around, at work I have to switch my attention very rapidly, even as I turn from my desk to answer a query.

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