Dealing with thought fragmentation, reducing mental waste

I’ve been figuring out how to deal with the mental fragmentation that can come with being the primary caregiver of a nursing toddler.

It was useful for me to let go of wanting to focus. If I think of childcare as a distraction from what I really want to do, I miss out on what I can get from childcare too. Instead, I’ve been looking for ways to make the most of this stop-and-go life.

Kaizen emphasizes reducing waste. What does mental waste look like when it comes to thinking with a toddler around?

I waste energy if I let my mind fill up with mental clutter. So:

  • Appointments go on my calendar so that I don’t have to worry about forgetting them, and a weekly review helps me remember to check the week ahead.
  • Near-term tasks go into my todo list. Tasks Free lets me quickly reprioritize tasks so that I know what to do the moment A- lets me unlatch and slip away.
  • Blog post ideas go into Markor so that I can write them in Markdown and export them to HTML for my blog.
  • Long-term ideas and notes go into Org Mode. It’s been super helpful to have step-by-step instructions and checklists for things I do infrequently.

Waste happens if I prioritize ineffectively. So:

  • Once A- is asleep, I quickly take care of personal and household tasks, and then work on my laptop. I can do phone tasks while I’m nursing her in bed, but laptop time is very rare. If I focus on improving my systems and making more things doable from my phone, the benefits compound.
  • Small tasks with small benefits tend to beat large tasks with large benefits, because of interruptions. I try to find ways to break large tasks down into small ones with incremental benefits. Many things can wait until next year.

Waste also happens if I repeat myself. So:

  • When I manage to have computer time, I slow down and write notes in an Org Mode file instead of trying to speed ahead and do everything before A- wakes up. This helps me resume my train of thought after the inevitable interruption. It also helps me put together blog posts, which means I can find things in my archive, help people, and maybe even learn from people’s comments.
  • If I’m thinking about a question or idea, I jot down keywords. That makes it easier to remember those thoughts and build on them. I scribble these on paper if I’m around A-, so that she can see me writing and so that she doesn’t get distracted by my phone. If a thought looks promising, I stick it in my pocket in case I want to refer to it during phone time.

Waste happens if I do low-value activities instead of high-value ones. It’s easy to get sucked into reading lots of social media or books on my phone, so I work on getting more value out of phone time. I can:

  • write
  • ssh to my web server or backup server, and code or run scripts – hard with a virtual keyboard and no swiping to type, but doable
  • organize pictures and other files
  • prepare an Emacs News summary
  • read e-books from the library, mainly looking for interesting parenting ideas to try or things to learn about early childhood education

Waste happens when I don’t notice, so it’s good to get enough sleep and to pay attention.

Waste happens when I forget, so it’s good to write, reflect, and organize my notes.

Waste happens when we stay too comfortable and when we push too hard. It’s good to work on finding the sweet spot – the zone of proximal development for A-.

I can reduce waste further by getting more value from my time. For example, being interested in making books for A- lets me get more out of reading books with A-. Writing about stuff lets me remember, and I might even be able to help or learn from other people.

This phase is temporary. Next year, A- will probably be more interested in playing with her peers, and she might be independent enough to participate in activities without me. The year after that, she’ll be old enough for school. I want to make the most of this time instead of rushing ahead. I guess that’s part of why I haven’t prioritized night weaning or finding a babysitter. There’s still plenty of potential to explore even with the setup, and it’s fun working with the constraints.

What could better look like?

  • Sleeping more predictably or more in sync: She seems to adjust her sleep cycle earlier if I go to sleep when she does instead of staying up to do my discretionary things, so maybe I can sacrifice a week or two of discretionary time to see if we can shift to using daytime better
  • Written note workflow: maybe snapping a quick picture and then referring to it when I type; maybe doing small sketchnotes that can be cleaned up by an app and included as images
  • Trying out other ssh apps to see which one I like the most, in case that makes it easier to code
  • Trying more things (new food, etc.), which could take a bit of planning

Lots of things to play with!