[4] Bubbles of Peace

Are you wondering about the headline ? Not the slightest idea what it stands for ?

Well, I am sorry for that. But once this strange B.o.P. phrase popped into my head, I really came to like it because of its sensual and emotional quality. For me, it creates a relaxed atmosphere and evokes beautiful images of light-reflecting air bubbles within blue water. I mentally hear some pleasant phasing sound as they rise and eventually burst at the surface. B.o.P. also has connotations of impermanence, fragility, and includes an idea of "protected inner space". And therefore B.o.P. became my private code for certain 2009's New Year's Resolutions.

Actually, B.o.P. stands for a way to improve one's personal working experience and quality by cultivating a different mind set. The idea of B.o.P. gradually emerged when I tried to implement the "Getting Things Done" (GTD) method in my daily life.

When looking at my to-do-list every morning, I noticed that it is often difficult to decide which projects to work on and how much time to devote to each of them. Of course, there are those short tasks, such as reading and answering emails, which are best done immediately in order to keep the in-box empty. Then, again, there are urgent tasks with hard deadlines that have higher priority than anything else. But - at least in my happy life as a theoretical physicist - there are also periods where I have quite a large freedom in designing my working schedule. And this freedom of choice can be very tantalizing !

Usually and unavoidably, I am involved in several long time projects at any time. I am struggling hard to keep them all going. And I try, not always successfully, to produce some publishable results out of them. But the fractional amount of time and energy each individual project receives depends on many conditions.

It is relatively easy for me to stick to a project when I collaborate closely with students or other scientist friends. In such cases I feel a personal responsibility to bring the shared project to a fruitful end. In addition, the mere joy of striving with other people for a common goal is a great motivator. But there are also long periods where I have to work alone. And then the distribution of energy to the various projects becomes a problem.

I have tried out some extreme solutions to the choice problem.

Solution A: Just devote all the working hours to only one project at a time, until it is finished. This single-tasking approach sounds simple and effective. However, the human psyche is not programmable so easily. When you continuously work on some theory project for a long time (an adventure similar to an explorative hike in unknown wild territory), sooner or later you will meet some obstacles. You get stuck. You start to feel angry, frustrated. Doubts appear in your mind whether the path you are on is not a dead end.

In such moments it really helps to work on another project for a while, to draw some success-feelings from another source. But on top of the "getting stuck" problem, extreme single tasking has the other disadvantage that all your other projects lie dormant for a substantial period. You will start to forget the necessary details of each problem little by little, in the worst case even loose your initial motivation entirely. And while you are single-tasking your only active project, in the back of your mind you feel the other projects slowly dying.

Solution B: Stop committing yourself consciously to any particular project. Let yourself drift. Start working randomly on various topics and hope that one of them grabs your attention strongly for a long enough time to make some progress. Actually, this solution is close to the spirit of the GTD method, which suggests that the momentary circumstances (in cybernetic language: affordances and perturbations) normally favor one particular tasks of the to-do list.

Well, in my personal experience such complete freedom of choice makes me attracted each time by the project which appears most pleasant at the moment. This is usually the latest one, still exciting with its many unexplored directions and yet free of disappointments. Following the pleasant way each time, all the not-so-pleasant but possibly more important tasks remain undone. Sometimes, the mood-based scheduling method will even fail completely and leave you drifting around for hours. And then, at the end of the day, nothing has been achieved.

Conclusion: We want to see all projects advance at least a small step every (other) day. This can be achieved by a balanced multi-tasking approach. Here, "multi-tasking" means that every project should re-appear periodically in your schedule, separated by not too large time intervals. "Balanced" means that the number of different projects squeezed into a single working day should be modest, so that the mental effort connected with switching between topics remains bearable. Also, we want to be able to focus long enough on each individual topic, in a contiguous time span without interruptions, in order to make a significant progress.

Obviously, there is a trade-off between the above requirements. Everybody will have to find out his or her personal limits. In my case, I found that the maximum number of different projects per day should not exceed 3 and that each contiguous working time unit should only be about 30 minutes long. Since my working day is longer than 3 x 30min, I often spontaneously devote several 30min-units to the same topic within a single working day. But in such cases there has to be a clear break between each unit. And it must always be made sure that all the different projects scheduled for the day will actually be covered.

In order to make such a balanced multi-tasking approach practicable, however, it has to be supported by certain psychological techniques. In the long run, you will only implement new habits into your life that make you feel better. And this is where the B.o.P. idea comes into play.

For me, each 30min-unit is a bubble of peace.

Before the actual unit starts, I make sure that I have optimum working conditions for that particular project. All the necessary material must be available for immediate access. At the same time, all possible disturbances must be prevented: There should be no distracting clutter on the physical and PC desktops. Quiet room, comfortable atmosphere, relaxed body position.

And relaxed mind: Since the scheduling method automatically takes care of my overall project management, there are no more worries lingering in the back of my mind about all the other things I should remember or want to achieve. At the time being, the present 30min B.o.P. is all that counts. Just 30min to focus entirely on a single topic.

But is 30min not way too short to make any significant progress ? In my experience, it is actually very difficult to keep focused for much longer than half an hour. Did you ever try to meditate ? Just focusing on your breathing, without other thinking, for more than a few minutes ? Of course, it is considerably easier to focus on an interesting project, compared with just breathing. In a B.o.P., after all, it is completely OK to follow the flow of your ideas about the project.

But, what makes a B.o.P. more challenging, we want to have at least a tiny progress at the end of the unit, if possible. Since time is so limited, you are really motivated to make the best out of every second. This sounds like stressful time pressure, but I found that you can turn that time limitation into an advantage: You have to keep that very intense working level for just half an hour. After that you can relax. Then you even HAVE TO relax, because a clear break is mandatory after each unit. So, before that, why not try to get something done ?

Inside the bubble, you are protected from the chaos and the disturbances of the outer world. The bubble brings you peace of mind. And each B.o.P. is also like a miniature version of life. A fresh new opportunity. And when it is finally over, a new one will be born for sure ...