Dealing with being distrac- ooo a squirrel

This article exists in two forms. Firstly, you can read it in print in Laboratory News, the nice people that publish a free magazine that has been syndicating monthly ErrantScience content for years now. Or you are reading it on ErrantScience.com.

Now for those reading it in a magazine I can say with some confidence that you are a human being.

Those reading it online I’m afraid there is (according to my stats) only a 90% chance you’re a human.

If you aren’t a human, then you’re a bot and I’m very sorry if this is how you find out. Please reach out to your local Clippy for support in this difficult time. This article is just for humans with rich complicated human lives, filled with work and things that are not-work (like cake and Frisbee).

When I was a young researcher, I was given some advice by my boss at the time that I need to come to work to work and leave not-work things at the door (cake was an allowed exception, lab Frisbee was not).

At the time, I thought he was just telling me hang my coat outside the office rather than on the back of my chair. But what he meant was that being professional meant staying focused on work, regardless of whatever non-work things you have going on.

Over the years, I have begun to realise that this advice, while well meaning, is totally utterly impossible to follow.

Everyone has complicated lives. I’ve yet to meet anyone that hasn’t either got existing issues to deal with or has had personal tragedies or hiccups that have stopped them working for a while.

Sometimes these things are things you can leave at the door and smile through. I’m British, and the only legal answer to the question “how was your weekend” is “oh, fine thanks”, so smiling thinly through problems is in my blood. And sometimes smiling thinly and getting on is absolutely fine and appropriate. For example, I might be really upset that your Frisbee tournament has been cancelled, which while terrible, probably isn’t something that should affect my day.

Sometimes it’s bigger things. Things that you can’t be all British about and you actually need to stop for a moment and reflect and deal with. Things that you might actually need some time off to deal with. Amazingly, not everything can be dealt with online or on the phone, and sometimes you physically need to be places. Or sometimes you just need to not be at work and taking a bit of time for you.

Then, for all the problems in between small and big, there are things that if you are at work in the lab are going to be preying on your mind and constantly use up a little bit of mental processing power. It’s hard to work out ray tracing maths while also wondering if you need to take you cat to the vet today or if you should wait a day.

But whatever the problem and however much it distracts you from work that is totally okay, because you are a human being. Humans have complicated lives and no amount of ‘leaving your life at the door’ wishful thinking is going to stop you mulling over all the craziness going on elsewhere.

If for whatever reason you need to worry about not-work things for a while and get through some stuff then don’t panic. You work with other humans and for humans all of which will have at some time had our own crazy problems. We’ve all been there. It sucks.

Don’t worry, the world is not going to end if you aren’t quite at your normal productivity level. Take it easy on yourself. Working at a little bit lower energy is not going to cause the sudden collapse of your Frisbee-cake hybrid breeding research program – it’s just going to keep you sane.

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