There are two things that writers and engineers have in common, and that is the fact that they can only do their real work with a certain amount of focus. That level of concentration is not only impossible in most jobs, it’s contrary to the job description. Protecting someone else’s mental bubble of focus does not come naturally in our culture. It’s something that parents should be thinking about if their kids are still in school. It’s also something for couples to think about if they’re struggling financially or feeling stuck at work.
Protect each other’s thinking space if you want to move ahead in your careers.
If you like to read, you may have noticed that many people see an open book as some kind of social signal. “Oh, you must be lonely, so I will kindly rescue you from the terrible fate of having to read that book.” I remember trying to cram in a chapter of homework at a day-long social event, when a steady stream of people found me sitting on the floor in a back hallway next to the janitorial closet and wanted to “keep me company.” Writing is the same. Look like you’re concentrating hard and typing rapidly, and some perfect stranger might well come up and try to strike up a conversation.
It’s certainly no better in most workplaces. Ask any engineer how they feel about having hour-long meetings scattered throughout their schedule, breaking their time up into brief segments. Um, are you paying me to design things or are you paying to chat with me about why my design isn’t finished yet?
See what it’s like for most little kids in school. Even when they’re still trying to learn to read, even when they’re still clutching their pencil stubs and poking out their tongues when they laboriously scrawl out their numbers, the rest of the household is usually in full mayhem mode. The TV is on. People are talking. Food is being eaten. Pets are running around. Sure, it’s good to be able to learn to tune out background noise, gradually. It’s a lot to expect of a tiny child. It is no surprise to me at all that so many kids struggle with attention deficit. They’ve never seen full focus in action! Not a single person in their life actually focuses on anything!
I have had the privilege of babysitting a few kids who had been diagnosed with ADHD. Interestingly, I find that they are able to sit and focus and concentrate and get their work done. They’re usually smarter than average, after all. They just need to be able to sit within someone else’s larger and more developed thought bubble. I would sit at the table with them and balance my bank statements, write some email, maybe do some cryptograms. That’s the type of Level Two thinking that they have to use to read or do their math. The room would be quiet, my pets would take a nap, and suddenly all the worksheets were complete.
But then mine is a tranquil house, a house organized around the premise that we protect each other’s thinking space.
My stepdaughter was salutatorian of her school. This came as no surprise to anyone who knew her. When she was ten, she started setting her alarm clock so she could get up at 5:30 AM and do extra homework. Her idea. “You can get so much more done,” she said, and if she worked ahead then she could watch cartoons when she came home from school.
That’s the thing. It isn’t that a room needs to be quiet around the clock. It only has to be quiet for at least one two-hour chunk at a time.
I guess the other thing is that we have to have a mutual regard for each other’s mental space. Not everyone does.
A lot of families have a nerdy kid. Almost without fail, that child is teased relentlessly about it, by relatives as well as peers at school. This type of kid gravitates to us, because we find it endearing and we will listen attentively while they spout on and on about dinosaurs or whatever their pet topic is. This is the vibe of the future engineer/mathematician/academic, our type of kid. We were the same way at that age, and so were our little friends, many of whom went on to earn graduate degrees.
Why on earth don’t parents appreciate their nerdy kids? They have no idea what they have.
I think any child could really do that well academically. The main difference with the sweet little nerds-in-training is that they’ve somehow figured out how to generate their own concentration bubble and get into it in spite of the bedlam of a family on a weekday evening. Almost all children are completely deprived of this energy their entire academic lives.
Quiet time isn’t just for thinking, of course. It’s key to High Quality Leisure Time, the missing piece of many marriages. Everyone needs a solid block of HQLT, and yet whenever we try to indulge in it, someone else will come along and try to disrupt it on general principle. We imagine a cat peering at a human in a bathtub. WHAT are you DOING in there?? People are classically annoyed with each other for having an interest that they don’t share, especially if it involves taking off on the weekend and spending time with others. There’s less of a need for that when we can reliably get our daily dose of HQLT at home.
Ours is a home where we respect naps, usually cross-species group naps. This is a place where it’s safe to sit down and read a textbook for fun, or frankly read any book for fun. We’re able to resolve financial or strategic issues together because we aren’t constantly annoying each other by interrupting each other’s HQLT. We have this reserve of dignity and respected space for private thoughts. It’s also no mistake that my husband is working on an idea for his fourth patent application. We can do that here.
The thing about protecting each other’s thinking space is that the more you give, the more you receive. You both benefit. Every hour that your partner spends quietly doing something important or interesting (or not) is an hour of serenity for yourself. Protect each other’s thinking space, pause for breath, and watch what happens.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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