Where did my brain go?

I used to have one. A brain, that is. I was very brainy when I was a kid. I still am, but nowadays I seem to struggle a lot more than I used to. I decided to use what is left of my brain to try to find out why.

Fatigue. This is definitely a factor, mental fatigue. I am tired and I seem to be perpetually tired. There is no medical reason for this, so it has to be down to my enivronment, or my attitude.

When I was younger, I used to get things done. No fuss, just high levels of productivity, in work and at home. Now I struggle massively. Since 2010 I have mostly worked from home. In 2011 I had a promotion, working on a different contract within the same company, still from home. In 2012 I moved house. More space - along with more housework and now gardening. I moved to a rural area, plenty of lovely countryside to explore. Yet I haven’t, much. I finish my day at my desk and just want to close my eyes and switch my brain off. I end nearly every day feeling unsatisfied and exhausted.

As a result I decided I had to take a long look at why. What had changed with my work, or, more particularly, with my approach to my work?

As part of some management course I attended years ago, the group of us worked through the Belbin tests. At that time I wasn’t a manager, just a team leader. I scored highly on the “completer finisher” and “monitor evaluator” traits. I thought then this was probably pretty reflective of my approach and personality and I still do. I have developed my leadership skills over the years, so now my chart looks a little different, but those two traits are still up there.

So this demonstrates my basic tendencies. I am analytical, I analyse processes and figure out where they can be improved. I also don’t like leaving things unfinished. However, it has become apparent that my strengths are also my weaknesses. As a team member, I was given the freedom to work to my strengths: I got the complex work, the work that took a long time to complete, because I would see it to the end. My line manager would remove other distractions in order for me to do this. Now I am the manager. I have to do the same for my staff, but I also need to look at how I manage my work.

As most people do, I have a busy job, which could take all my time if I allowed it to. I have to deliver a service for my client, meeting contractual targets. I also have to beat those targets to maximise income for my employer. Recently my employer has embarked on an efficiency programme, for want of a better expression. More automated processes, more standardisation, investment in technology to drive savings. Great stuff, some of them things I have been asking for, for years. All of these things have become “projects”, with (different) dedicated teams running them, all of which require input from me, often at short notice and with tight deadlines. Yes, you may be able to see where this is going…. My time was no longer my own: I lost control of my day. Whatever I planned could be usurped at a moment's notice.

In the end I, and a number of my colleagues, raised our concerns and people started to listen. The latest project, although still requiring my time, has involved me from the start. Conference calls were held, project plans shared, clear timescales and deadlines were communicated to all. As I had said previously: “if my involvement is needed for something that sits on your critical path, would it not be an idea to give me some notice of that”? Lessons learned, perhaps.

As a result of a perfect storm of staffing issues and these projects, my ability to achieve anything vanished. I resented the project work, as I perceived it as a hindrance to my “day job”. Normally I love project work. I like the process review and the ability to deliver improvements. Yet, here I was, hating it. What I actually hated was the loss of control. Up to this point I had mostly been in control. I decided what service areas to focus on, what processes to improve, and I got results. Now I was getting nowhere with things I considered to be important. Or at least it felt that way. At the end of most days my to-do list had just got bigger. I began to feel completely impotent. I caught myself on a number of occasions, sitting at my desk, staring at my laptop, not even knowing what to start next. My decision-making abilities seemed to be non-existent. I think I got pretty close to the edge at one point. I just wanted to scream at people.

I thought about this and decided that it was primarily down to psychology. In my brain nothing has been achieved until it is finished. I am not very good at pacing myself. I have to complete things. I want to finish a book in one go, I want to learn a piano piece in a day, I want to complete a piece of sewing the same day. If I have decorating to do, it has to be completed: I can’t leave something part-done for any length of time, so I work on it solidly. This is not always sensible or practical, I know. And yet, despite that, I am writing this blog post when I should be asleep. In my defence, I have broken the task down a little: writing now, reviewing is down for tomorrow (baby steps)… As another little test, I currently have a kitchen door that I have been working on. It isn’t finished and I am working on it in stages. Walking away each day when I could do a little bit more is hard.

Naturally this mentality spills over into work. When I start a task, I want to finish it the same day. I now accept that I can’t. As a result, my to-do list is changing. I now have headline tasks in Outlook. Yes, it is very basic, but it makes sense to keep things on the same laptop as I use for work, which is a locked down machine. Some things I plan using my iPad, particularly when I feel the need to mind-map, when I use the excellent iThoughts. I am learning to break down these over-arching tasks and my daily to-do list now comprises a reasonable (or necessary) sub-set. For example, say I have a complaint to respond to. This can take a few hours or a few days, depending on the complexity. Previously my to-do list would have said “complaint”. Now it may only contain one small part of that complaint. I have many monitoring jobs to do. Instead of “statsl” on my list, resulting in a compunction to spend all my time on that task, my to-do list contains a smaller, more achievable sub-task, which I believe I can achieve, along with some other small tasks. I get ticks against my list, instead of a pile-up which stresses me out. And the jobs get done over time. Unlearning the habits of my working life thus far are hard, though. I still want to get every overall task finished yesterday, even though I understand that it isn’t necessary. Most things have a deadline at least a couple of days away, enabling me to break them down. Previously I felt compelled to do everything as soon as it arrived: I could never leave things until they were due. Less so now. I do still stress that “something” will come up which means I will not be able to meet a deadline, so I pencil in my personal deadline a couple of days ahead whenever I can.

This approach means I force myself to spend a short period of time reviewing my overall tasks each morning, just to see where I am and allocate chunks of my day accordingly. I am sure that this is a Good Thing.

I am a work in progress, but then I imagine that we all are, and the point at which we stop believing that is the point at which we have lost all sense of reality.