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Managing family and work life offers up its own set of challenges as you split your attention, and sometimes your personality, to meet the needs of everyone else. Living in Germany while working virtually in others brings that level of schizophrenia to new heights.

Family life in Germany is great, if you want a particular kind of family life. Anyone who has ever had children in the German school system will tell you it takes some getting used to. From grades one through three your child comes home as early as 11:30 in the morning. Vacations are set every six weeks for one or two weeks off; and up until recently, they had what is fondly known as ‘hitzefrei’ or spur of the moment school closings as of 11:15 am when it’s too hot outside. (They just cancelled that policy this year). Needless to say, quality and quantity time with your children are distinctly possible here.

For a home-based freelancer like myself, I have designed a work life that fits around the children’s malleable schedules. It works well, in part, because the kids finally understand what ‘Mommy’s on the phone’ means. In years past they would holler at the top of their lungs, even if it meant my words, and theirs, would be recorded and heard by radio listeners worldwide. Once they got clear that interrupting me to ask if they can watch TV means the difference between our affording that vacation to Italy or not, they got mum quick. Nonetheless, interruption is a part of working from home and the home office juggle has a certain flavor not found in an office building setting.

Take garden tools. If I am chatting away with a London-based client outside, where the mobile phone reception is best, the neighbor inevitably decides to power up his leafblower. The juggle begins when said neighbor is relentless in his yard grooming, mastering the art of noise for everyone, including London, to hear.

Long before I understood what it meant to work from home, I glamorized the notion of bunny-slippering it to my desk in a java-induced morning shuffle. Not so. The age of video conferencing eradicates all kinds of personal appearance slip-ups. You brush your hair or die. Don’t be fooled. Those pixels that lend a slightly dreamy imagery on the other end don’t hide bed head. Nothing but a good brush out does.

The greatest challenge to juggling work and family life has to be the odd hours that I keep. Juggling clients from California to Sweden, I could literally work 24/7 if I wanted. The trouble is mental burn-out is inevitable if you make yourself available at any hour. So conference calls happen until a reasonable hour; emails don’t get answered after dinner; and I place a great deal of importance on mealtime with the kids. Growing up in a household that ate together only on special occasions, I emphasize dinner talk as the relaxing part of the day for connection and parental correction.

So much of our lives is placed in a bed of urgency. Our globalized world demands so much more of our attention than the olden unplugged days of 9-to-5. Having the juggle without the struggle means inserting slow moments of delight, rumination and frolic into our day.  In my case that typically means a soccer match with my son or a board game with my daughter ~and that mid-week. Life is full of trade-offs. I’ve reached the conclusion that juggling is a life skill we all would do well to master. It’s the struggle part that we can choose to embrace or leave behind.

In which ways can you reduce your workload to feel more joy in your juggle?

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In my travels I have had the pleasure of interviewing some amazing people about their relationship with time. From Bikram Choudhury to Deepak Chopra to Rosanne Cash, I’ve asked them all the same questions.

Now it’s your turn! Take this thirty-second survey to find out how you relate to time. I’ll be revealing the results in a little while so please participate. Your voice counts!

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Doing Two Things at Once

August 3, 2010

This is the one time I must agree that women can task-switch more readily than men. Need a Tuesday funny? This is it!

If you’ve ever been to airports with automated speed walk sidewalks, you’ll observe that about fifteen feet before the sidewalk ends, you hear a voice alerting you to your pending expulsion from it. Not so for real sidewalks on the street.

Photo courtesy of Ohio State College of Engineering

According to a New York Times report, a recent Ohio State University study about texting while walking and the 1000 reported injuries incurred by texting walkers points to an increasing issue of pedestrian traffic safety.  Ohio State University’s Transportation and Parking department is trying to offset the rising epidemic by putting up signs such as the one pictured here.

Or, as I like to say, “You text? You’re next.” That goes for pedestrians as well as drivers.

I can see it now. Sidewalks will soon be equipped with textured flooring just to alert texting pedestrians that a curb is approaching. Or maybe they’ll have recordings of soothing, yet urgent voices like the ones at today’s airports, pointing the way to safety and attention.

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CTV news wrote a piece about Harvard Business School blogger Peter Bregman who embarked on a single-tasking experiment after a series of multitasking blunders. He tried to craft an email while on a conference call with a board member, who asked him a question. When the board member received no response, the situation got awkward.

Peter swore off multitasking for a week.

Here’s what he found.

  • Delight.
  • Enhanced productivity.
  • More patience for the ‘useful things’ in life.
  • Reduced stress levels.
  • More protective of the time he spends.
  • He looked into his personal bank account of time and smiled.
  • No downside.
  • More energy.
  • More focus.
  • He literally saw the leaves on the trees and felt a rush of gratitude.

Slow works.

Time to celebrate!

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Many thanks to my dear friend, Kate Rander, for pointing out a recent article in Time magazine entitled “Supertaskers: Why Some Can Do Two Things at Once“. After reading Alice Park’s piece, I went to the primary source, as I am always curious about what was not actually reported. Here’s what I found.

The University of Utah recently announced the findings of a new study that examined multitasking behavior in 200 students with a median age of 23.6. They simulated driving while talking on a cell phone (and did not fail to mention the phones they used were from Sprint PCS). What they found was that 2.5% of those who performed dual tasks actually excelled when multitasking. These so-called supertaskers performed in the upper quartile when performing a single task so they were already considered ‘special’. Add another task, however, and their performance increased notably. That means they actually thrived under split-attention conditions.

Yikes.

The paper underscores the dangers of driving while speaking on a cell phone (even hands-free) for the mere 97.5% of mankind that cannot supertask. In fact, they even take pains to quote the National Safety Council, which estimates that 1.6 million accidents and fatalities on US
highways were caused by drivers using cell phones (National Safety Council, 2010), 200,000 of which involved crashes with cell phone users who were texting. The total number of accidents and crash-related deaths due to cell phone usage while driving translates to 28%.

Researchers Jason Watson and David L. Strayer go on to say that “inattention blindness associated with cell phone conversations makes drivers unaware of their own driving impairments.” That’s research-speak for “Hey, I am not even aware of my unawareness while gabbing with my pals. I am special. I can do this!”, which is reminiscent of a smoker or alcoholic who says “I can quit any time I want, really. I can handle it!”

The researchers also admit that, in their experience, people tend to overestimate their ability to multitask: “[O]ur studies over the last decade have found that a great many people have the belief that the laws of attention do not apply to them.”

But they do.

The danger I see with this study is that those cell phone junkies who’ve got to get their fix even behind the wheel will use it to label themselves the ‘supertaskers’ they clearly aren’t. They will conveniently forget the study’s warning that “[i]t may be that supertaskers excel at multi-tasking at the expense of other processing abilities.” They will continue to believe the law of attention does not apply to them. Also, did they have to mention the brand Sprint PCS in their findings as a condition for using the company’s equipment? If yes, that’s product placement at its finest, making the findings rather questionable and convenient indeed…

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Did you know your brain has to follow four steps in the same order every time when switching from one task to another? Take a look at this graph. It’s no wonder multitaskers need to defrag at day’s end.