The Relentless Pursuit of Attention

In theory, I should be in Las Vegas right now, celebrating Tony’s 40th birthday and revving into the festivities of 360 Vegas Vacation IV. In practice, I’m at home, in the first half of a six-day vacation from the day job, using that time not to vacay but to catch up on all the stuff that’s been piling up since, literally, Christmas.
Piling up, and in a sense, serving as a canary in the coal mine. Because a significant part of this six-day extravaganza involves the consolidation and the transitioning of stuff that’s occupied time on my calendar but to no good long-term end, while things that ought to be on that calendar (lookin’ at you, exercise!) keep slipping because other fires flare up worse than the morning after a midnight run to Taco Bell. I haven’t been feeling well lately (not Taco Bell’s fault, to be fair) and the number on my scale has been creeping upward, which is a sign that I need to make some structural adjustments. Happens every five years or so, actually, and it’s happening now. Accordingly, much curation of the to-do list has been unfolding, which has occupied time now to free up time later. A normal and healthy activity, to be sure, so I’m not complaining, but one that — when you’re in the middle of it — feels as much of a slog as flying through O’Hare.
The last six weeks witnessed a haze of mile-marker posts:

  • I spoke on Health Data Analytics at the educational conference of the Illinois Association for Healthcare Quality in Naperville, IL. My old friend Tony H. is the president of IAHQ; he spoke in Michigan when I led the Michigan association’s conference, so turnabout was fair play. Plus, I had the chance to see my NAHQ colleagues Sarah and Karen, which always makes me smile.
  • I spoke on the subject of risk management in publishing — framed as a discussion encouraging emerging authors to look to small presses rather than the agent market — at the UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay, WI. The UT folks did an excellent job, and I enjoyed the serenity of St. Brendan’s Inn on the Fox River in the heart of Packers territory.
  • The Get Published! 2017 conference in Holland went well. Four panels, each of which was followed by a craft workshop. I led one panel and participated in another, and I co-led the day’s general-fiction workshops. The event, sponsored by MiFiWriters, has not failed to impress me, two years running. They do an excellent job with the conference.
  • My friend Duane undertook a brief excursion to Grand Rapids — he was here, I think, for less than eight hours — to clean out his storage locker. He now resides in Corpus Christi, TX, which means that he drove from there to here and back, just for an hour’s worth of packing. Yikes. But he and I had the chance to sit down for coffee for 90 minutes, which was nice. He’s the guy who pushed me into fiction writing, plus he’s just a fascinating human being, so connecting in person, albeit briefly, warmed the shriveled cockles of my soul. (Or something like that.)
  • Caffeinated Press is moving: We’re relocating to a different suite in the same building. And we’re partnering, at least in the interim, with the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters, which lost its space in the bookstore at Wealthy and Eastern.
  • Most other things on my plate have been on track. Tony and I are still podcasting. GLCL is still doing the Writers Squared events. Life continues.

Given all my driving back and forth to the far side of Lake Michigan, I reactivated my XM Radio subscription. Turns out, I really enjoy the BBC World Service. One special report, about people who poorly adjust to fast-paced professional working environments, proved enrapturing because of the arguments made by one of the research scientists interviewed for the segment. In short, she said that the biggest problem most people face isn’t being too busy in the sense of having too much work, but rather of having too many competing demands for attention that creates a second-level need for time to orchestrate and prioritize these demands. In other words, it’s not that employees are given 60 hours of work in a 40-hour week, but that we’re given 40 hours of work but because each stakeholder for a unit of work isn’t transparently aware of the priority queue for the other units of work, the employee must work 60 hours to get the 40 hours of tasks done. That extra 20 hours of non-value-added effort results from the need to coordinate competing demands for simultaneous attention while addressing what’s important vs. what’s falsely urgent.
I can certainly relate, says the guy who has spent probably one-third of the total writing time on this post, so far, dealing with feline demands for affection. Including Tiger, the outside cat, who has figured out that if he sits on my air conditioner and meows loudly, that I’ll come outside to pet him. In true Pavlovian fashion, he slaps that button like his furry little life depends on it. But I digress.
For a while, I started to second-guess my work-estimation skills, because every time I agreed (or did not agree) to take on some project due by some date, I figured that I’d be fine — plenty of flex in the schedule to accommodate — but more often than not, timeframes slipped. In retrospect, and after listening to that BBC segment, my thinking has recalibrated: I did plan effectively. What I didn’t consider, however, was the relatively recent (“recent” being, oh, the last 18 months or so) explosion in demands for my immediate attention when such attention isn’t truly required, flowing from both the increasing complexification at Caffeinated Press and the changes to my portfolio at Priority Health. I haven’t built enough slack time to extinguish all these myriad fires, yet planning for the fires means I won’t have time to devote to the work unless I just plan to do less than I can actually deliver. Chicken, meet egg.
I don’t think, looking back on things, that the problem is that I’m inherently too busy, although I know I’ve complained about it in the past. I think the problem is that a small tail of people who want what they want, when they want it, and the noise they make in demanding it, tends to suck the much of the oxygen away from everything else. Right now, it’s a particular author I’m working with, but a few weeks ago it was a colleague on a volunteer project, and a few weeks before that it was a friend, and a few weeks before that it was a stakeholder at work. So if on Sunday afternoon, I were to plot my week in detail (which, as it happens, I always do), that plot only lasts until the first time I get sidetracked by someone demanding my attention through behaviors that, in some cases, are … astonishingly bold. And then the plot unravels. But the work doesn’t go away, so I have to re-plot, this time with more to do in the same amount of hours. Rinse and repeat, until either I have to take a six-day vacation to catch up or some item on that to-do list explodes out of control.
Claims for attention can adopt an interesting ethical flavor. Assume I tell someone that I will do some activity on the first day of each month. Further assume that the other person prefers that I do that activity every Monday. The middle ground really isn’t semimonthly; one person’s preference wins, the other’s loses. Generally, the person whose preferences win is the person who must perform the act. So the other person must accept that his or preferences will not be satisfied, and one would hope, to do so with grace. When, however, the other person engages in aggressive or passive-aggressive bullying in order to get his or her preferences satisfied, the outcome is usually conflict. Which blows up. Which consumes unbudgeted time to resolve.
This six-day “vacation” is proving helpful in that I have some time to address a few outstanding big-ticket items, mostly for Caffeinated Press. That’s good. And I’ve had a bit of mental space these last few days to reflect on the systems (people, process, technology)  that must be in place to manage demands for immediate attention, which is also good. Between the transitions at GLCL, a logistically complex summer at CafPress and a triple-digit queue of magnitude-and-impact studies at Priority Health, the summer is going to be jam-packed.
But given this current catch-up and curation exercise, I nevertheless look forward to it.

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