Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Concentration and the absence of concentration

I love working at home. I do. Anyone still toiling in academe will see that lovely phrase 'working at home' and feel their heart rate slow down.

However. Some days you just know, from the beginning of the morning, that this is not going to be a good work day.

Two background facts before I go on: (1) my electricity meter is inside the house, and (2) many years ago I used to edit a magazine, at a time when I was a heavy smoker. I used to do the layout myself -- this is pre-desktop; we're talking galleys, cutting boards, razor blades and paste-up glue -- so I would spend one weekend in four sitting at the dining table designing and pasting up the 40-plus pages. I could sit there and work, without getting up or losing focus, for up to four hours at a time. When I gave up smoking, my concentration span shrank from four hours to 20 minutes and that is how it has stayed. Focusing and staying focused is about fifteen times as hard as it used to be.

So when you sit down to start the day's work and you are two minutes and one sentence into the thing you have to have finished by the end of the day and you hear bash bash bash rattle rattle rattle on the screen door, you just know it's a bad start to the day. Dude from the electricity, come to read the meter. Let him in, let him out, sit back down at the keyboard ...

Bash bash rattle rattle again. He's back. I appear in the hallway just in time to see him trying to open the screen door. (Why do men do this? Why do totally strange men think it is perfectly all right to open your screen door and walk into your house if you haven't appeared instantly to let them in? Women never do this.)

'This thing' (he held up an electronic doodah) 'says you've got another one in there.'
'Yes, it's the meter for the hot water service that blew up five years ago and I've had gas hot water ever since.'
'But I still have to get a reading for it.'
'Oh yes, I know.')

I flashed on the rest of the day, and I just know it's going to be punctuated by delivery men, neighbours, charity collectors, aggressive children from Optus or AGL or Foxtel trying to make me sign 20-page documents in zero point type on my doorstep in the fading light, cold calls from charity callers who will make me feel guilty or market researchers who will just make me feel irritated, and so-called "courtesy" calls (I wonder whether any of the callers understand that this term for their job is dripping with irony) that are in fact about attempting to part me from even more of my money.

In days gone by I would not have minded any of this. When one has focus by the bucketload one does not mind, indeed one welcomes, the occasional interruption. Mostly I'm thrilled to have liberated myself from nicotine, almost 20 years ago now, but aspiring quitters should not be fooled, for the downsides are very real. You will, indeed, stack on fifteen kilos overnight and you will never get rid of them. And you will, indeed, acquire the concentration span of a grasshopper and you'll never get rid of that either.

18 comments:

TimT said...

One of these days I'd like to make up a kind of anti-calling card to give out to market researchers, Mormons, and the like, which states with brevity and simplicity one's reasons for not wanting to speak to them. It would come, I think, with box-ticking options so as to be able to make it apply to specific circumstances.

Armagnac Esq. said...

"When I gave up smoking, my concentration span shrank from four hours to 20 minutes and that is how it has stayed."

I never smoked, mine has always been thus short, if not worse. Perhaps if I smoked I'd have written that novel by now...

Pavlov's Cat said...

Quite possibly! Excellent excuse, anyway.

TimT, I think your idea of an anti-calling card definitely has legs. You could make a fortune. I'd order a hundred, for a start.

innercitygarden said...

My partner answers the phone and puts it down in front of the radio. Lord knows how many Indian call centre workers have become converts to the beauty of listening to public radio.

I'm pretty good at ignoring the door knocking, I can see them arriving and they can't see me. I answer if it's a parcel or neighbour and ignore studiously anyone trying to sell stuff.

librarygirl said...

My concentration span, like yours, was at the 4 hour mark, and also shrank to 20 minutes with the arrival of my first baby 15 years, 3 months and 19 days ago. It has taken me years to accept it isn't coming back....

cristy said...

Yeah Lily's arrival had a similar effect on me - her arrival in my womb not the world...

But oh how I relate to this post. For me, though, it is phone calls from my family that cause me the worst interuption. They talk for ages, despite my attempts to wrap things up, and then ask: how's the thesis going?

Argh.

froginthepond said...

I'm about to finnangle a day's work at home each week. I don't need reality to intrude on my fantasies, thank you very much.

Mind you, that kind of day sounds very much like my workplace can be, so perhaps I should just focus on the advantages of working in one's pyjamas.

Lefty E said...

Sigh.... so true. About the concentration anyway. I was already overweight before I stopped smoking and (curiously) haven't added any.

Today's my home work day - but its combined with kindy pickup, which is a short-day, 3.15. In the habit of lunch w brother too, so it doesnt end up being much time!

I was going to say something else, but its completely disappeared from my mind - see point one I guess!

fifi said...

oh I so relate to this!


Every appliance I own has conspired against me this month and I have had to attempt to work from home and field a thousand annoying tradesman.


I just thought my hippocampus was crumbling...now I know I just need to resume smoking after eons of not....

Francis Xavier Holden said...

aah Prof X is working from home today..

Collective noun for academics: An Absence Of Academics

Lefty E said...

A sabbatical of academics, FXH!

Pavlov's Cat said...

FXH, I haven't been one for eleven years, not fulltime anyway except for three months when Eva Hornung formerly Sallis was on maternity leave, but I still bristle at aca bashing however lighthearted. Here is why Professor X is working from home whenever she gets the chance:

If she is in her office, she is interrupted on an average of once every ten minutes. Sometimes the interrupters are students who can't find their male lecturers or tutors, or who have been made to cry by their male lecturers or tutors. The net effect on Professor X is the same: anything from five minutes to half an hour lost to some male colleague's student and concentration torpedoed for the nth time that day, while said male colleague, in the library or at home, gets on with the research that will get him published and promoted.

Professor X has to give a lecture at 4 pm and it is not finished, so she shuts her door. People knock on it once every five or ten minutes, so she puts a sign on it saying 'Do Not Disturb'. The knocking is undiminished. She replaces the sign with another sign saying 'Which part of "Do Not Disturb" don't you understand?'

To the next student who knocks -- five minutes later -- she says 'Did you read the sign?' Student: 'Oh but I just ...'

'Oh but I just ...' translates as 'It is convenient for me to see you about this incredibly trivial and non-urgent matter right now, rather than in one of your several very accessible office hours, nor yet via email which of course we now all expect you to answer immediately at all hours of the day or night.' This being Melbourne University it has large numbers of privileged students who regard any academic staff member as a sort of upper servant, to be available to them at all times.

Lecture, underprepared, is crap. Most students don't notice, but the best know they have been short-changed. Professor X feels wretched. And exhausted.

Repeat 100 times.

True story, names changed to protect etc etc etc.

skepticlawyer said...

Now I know why my brother (highly skilled craftsman) refuses to give up smoking.

Never having smoked, I didn't know about the concentration bonus.

Helen said...

Nicotine gum, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

Dear Pavlov,
Thank you for that eloquent defence of the absent aca. I've been in my office at least 4 days a week, at least 9 to 5 (except of course when I am in endless meetings or teaching - something which also seems to strike students as you being 'absent') pretty much since January, except when sick, or at the regional campuses we seem to be accumulating like mushrooms. But not today. I'm in bed, working, because I lost my voice doing (see Pavlov's post). I hope today, while absent, to read 4 postgrad chapters and write two lectures for next week. Ah the life of the aca slacka. But at least I don't have to talk to anyone.
T

Pavlov's Cat said...

Yes, T, I thought that might resonate with you. Nurse that voice, ma chère. Stay in that comfortable and uninterrupted chair (in that controlled temperature -- I know that Latrobians also suffer terribly from the weather in that building).

Helen, nico gum would help probably more as a physical thing than as nico per se. I think the concentration crash may be at least as much about the psychological effect of the physical action and the physical object -- even if you don't accept the whole hand, mouth, object, Freud, happy memories of breastfeeding meme (and I do), it's still a profoundly ingrained physical habit suddenly and rudely wrenched away from one. I think studies have indicated that nico withdrawal actually does change your metabolism, which is one reason for the weight gain, but another is the frantic, needy consumption of mints, Life Savers, M&Ms etc as a hand-object-mouth substitute. I took up smoking in the first place while I was studying for my Year Twelve exams (quite late for it, in those days) so that I would stop absent-mindedly scarfing up biscuits in an attempt to concentrate on our (terrible, I now think) Modern History text.

I blame Hitler.

Lefty E said...

Yes, I worked at home Tuesady, and it was great. But then again, I'll work till midnight the next two nights to get these lectures - and an article - done for Friday. Which is what I do every Wed and Th.

Can pretty much really on two 12 hour days per week, along w 2 standard issue 8 hr days, and a slacker one at home - maybe 4 hours. Chuck in a couple of weekend hours marking and its a 45 hr week. It will be more like 55 next semester when Im teaching two courses for the first time, instead of one.

But Im not complaining: academia is a lot more stressful and time-consuming than my old public service job - but a fair bit less so than my old community sector mental health work.

M-H said...

Yes, acas work long hours and usually get scant respect from students, many of whom seem to believe that stupid old saying "Those who can do those who can't, teach." Which of course is what they think acas do all the time, when they're not attending to their precious little selves. There are acas who don't work hard, who duck shove and pass the buck and are generally disorganised and lazy, and they are often charming to boot, so that students seem to idolise them, and despise the hard-working, conscientious people down the corridor.

Just my observation from working in a uni as a non-aca and having an aca partner.