Monday, February 21, 2011

Disconnect while working? What an idea.

I find myself repeatedly drawn to articles on time management and frequently come away with the same conclusion: turns out I’m actually doing pretty well already. Compared with some of the problem cases described in the story, my time management system is functioning fairly impressively. Reading through the suggestions these articles usually include, I often find I’m already doing a lot of them – or have even better ones.

But, of course, reading self-improvement articles on topics at which we don’t necessarily need to improve is not so very unusual. Lots of people with positive eating habits and a good weight management plan read diet articles. People who operate successful businesses read articles about how to run a successful business. Experienced runners scan articles on how to establish a regular running routine, at least I do. And most likely there are other fairly well-organized people like me who still read any article they come across on the topic of time management.

So most of what appeared in this one was already second nature to me. Make the kids’ lunches the night before? Done. Organize a set of dinner menus for the week and then base your shopping list on those menus? Got it. Sort mail as well as the paperwork the kids bring home from school as soon as it comes in the door rather than letting it pile up? Absolutely.

There was one pointer in this article that rang a distant bell inside my head, though. It said to disconnect from the Internet whenever you’re working on anything that doesn’t absolutely require Internet contact. This was something of a revelation to me. I’ve already been working hard to disconnect from the Internet at times I’m not working – evening hours, weekends – and am relieved to see that practice beginning to take the form of a habit, as I learn to check my email at the beginning and end of the day on Saturday and Sundays and assume I can stay away from it the hours in between, just as on weeknights I now try to stay off line from about 6 to 9 p.m.

But disconnect right in the middle of the workday? That seemed almost counterintuitive: being connected to the Internet is part and parcel of my workday. I need to receive and send emails, check facts, research people and events. How can I do my work if I don’t have constant Internet access, I asked myself?

Yet right away it seemed obvious: How can you do your work if your wireless is disconnected? Well, probably faster and more efficiently. Writing does not require being on line, I reminded myself. Look up what you need and then go off and write the article. And yes, email correspondence is critical to my workflow, but not during the writing process. Hearing from my editor what my next assignment is or finding out when a source for a story is available to be interviewed is important, but it doesn’t affect the piece I’m currently working on; it affects a different assignment down the road, one I can focus on fully when I’m done with the story I have currently under way.

And inevitably, once I acknowledged that simple truth, I had to go a step farther and ask myself why it seems so important to receive emails while I’m working. If it doesn’t enable me to get my work done more effectively, then why is it a priority?

Well, I had to admit to myself, because being literally connected makes me feel metaphorically connected. When I hear from my editors, I know my work matters and the assignments will continue to flow in. When I receive emails from friends, I know someone is thinking of me. Even emails about volunteer work or committee participation assures me that I matter, that my presence is wanted somewhere.

But of course, even as I articulate that, I acknowledge how hollow it sounds. My sense of worth, both personal and professional, need to come from something more significant than email. I need to work on believing that friends and colleagues care about my presence based on the evidence around me, not based on the number of emails I get. If not receiving emails during the work day makes me feel lonely, I need to establish a better community of support, not leave my email on longer.

So that time-management article turned out to be a fruitful discovery, simply as a way of reminding myself to reprioritize. As the new work week starts, I will try keeping myself off line when I’m in the midst of a writing assignment. I’ll check back in when I’m done. And I’ll find out whether my fears are valid that I’ll be lonely if I’m not in constant cyber-demand, or whether I can find other signs to convince myself that my presence matters.

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