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Running on empty

by Michael Nielsen on August 12, 2003

Ever find yourself staring dumbly at your computer screen, realizing that your ďhard workĒ of the previous two hours has consisted mostly of web-surfing, writing and deleting poorly thought-out emails, and half-starting a couple of projects that, upon reflection, you donít actually need to do?

Being very clever, you decide that what is needed is to work harder. You may work late, or at least try to work intensely, fueling yourself with caffeine and sugar. You leave work several hours later, having done virtually nothing effective, and absolutely exhausted. Youíre irritable at home, donít eat well, and have difficulty sleeping, in part because of the caffeine.

The next day is, presumably, unlikely to be a rousing success.

Sadly, the above paragraphs arenít exactly based on hearsay.

Ever find yourself staring dumbly at your computer screen, realizing that your ďhard workĒ of the previous two hours has consisted mostly of web-surfing, writing and deleting poorly thought-out emails, and half-starting a couple of projects that, upon reflection, you donít actually need to do?

Being very clever, you decide that what is needed is to work harder. You may work late, or at least try to work intensely, fueling yourself with caffeine and sugar. You leave work several hours later, having done virtually nothing effective, and absolutely exhausted. Youíre irritable at home, donít eat well, and have difficulty sleeping, in part because of the caffeine.

The next day is, presumably, unlikely to be a rousing success.

Sadly, the above paragraphs arenít exactly based on hearsay. My original thought here was to write out some advice for myself on how to avoid this situation. Given my own limited success, however, it seems that enumerating some tentative ideas would be more appropriate. In any case, Iím not sure how common problems of this nature are. (I suspect, though, that many of us do these kinds of things on occasion, all the time wondering why nobody else seems to have difficulties of this sort.)

ē The first difficulty is recognizing the descent into the quagmire. Itís not clear how best to do this.
ē Once the quagmire is recognized, how to respond? Personally, I find it extremely tempting to take the approach of redoubling my efforts. The cure is usually worse than the disease. It seems to me that there are at least two much better ways of responding. The first, if one is not too tired, is to spend some time refocusing. This can be done by pausing to review and redraft oneís goals for the day and week, focusing especially on the tasks immediately at hand. Often, I find Iíve simply lost track of what my goals are. The second possibility is that one may be too tired to work effectively. At this point, there is only one sensible response: take a break. Get outside. Get some fresh air. Go wander around, and think about whatís good about life and the Universe, and donít come back until youíre no longer tired.
ē Of course, this leaves a question: when are you too tired to work effectively? That depends upon the kind of work youíre doing. But it seems worth keeping in mind that for many people their most important work requires the most mental alertness. If you can do the work with less than full alertness, then chances are, itís not really that important, and you lose little by abandoning it for a nice walk in the garden.

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