Washing the dishes

I had coffee with my friend Pete today. Pete writes for the Boston Globe and he helps his dad run a snow plowing company. I was asking Pete about his work, and about how he fits his writing into his day. He started talking about Chris, a friend of his from graduate school.

Chris is the kind of person who, if he has a paper due in five hours that will take him about two hours to write, he goes to the gym for an hour, takes time to have dinner with friends, and then sits down and writes for 2 hours. Chris doesn’t stress out. He does each thing he’s going to do in turn. He doesn’t spend time at the gym worrying about his paper. He doesn’t spend time when he’s writing his paper worrying about whether he will have time to go to the gym tomorrow. When he’s writing, he’s writing. When he’s at dinner with friends, he’s at dinner with his friends.

That’s great for Chris. For me and Pete, that’s not how it works. We worry. It doesn’t necessarily consume us, but for a good chunk of the day, we’re thinking about something that is not the thing in front of us. And for me, that means I’m not really fully mindful of what I’m doing.

Earlier in the week, I had dinner with my friend Deborah, who was telling me about some of the many projects she’s juggling. She asked about my email windows – the two half-hour stretches in my day when I use email. I asked about when she uses email, and she said that she often checks it during one of the many conference calls she’s on during the day. Which means that she’s half listening in for a cue that she needs to respond to something on the call, and half reading new messages that have come in.

I do that. Or at least, I did until September, when we started our experiment with email windows. Even when I was on a videoconference with people I really care about, I would take a second to see what email had come in. And if there was something interesting, I’d scan it quickly, keeping an eye on the video window to make sure I didn’t miss anything. But I missed a lot. Everything from subtle cues to key questions would come up just as I was checking my email, and I’d wind up having to ask someone to repeat themselves. Or worse: I’d pretend I’d heard and try to cover it up.

If you want to stress someone out, there are few better methods than pretending to listen to them. So I’d wind up stressing people out, or worrying that I would, and then, not only was I not really in the conversation, I wasn’t really in the email. When I was bouncing back and forth, I wasn’t anywhere.

And truth be told, I still do it. I just do it less. When my email window opens at 10:45am, I focus on email. I take each email one at a time, open it, decide what to do with it, and then finish with it. Then I take the next one.

I do this to be as fully in the task I’m doing as I can be, so I’m paying attention to one thing at a time. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this “Washing the dishes.”

“There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first way is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second way is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.”

Checking my email is something I have to do, but rather than resent it or think of it just as a task, I focus on it. It is a challenge and it requires discipline, which makes it satisfying, in a funny sort of way.

I have a little light on my desk that turns on at 10:45am, and when it turns on, I open Gmail and get to work reading and replying to emails. My goal is to check my email, but because I’m focused on the task and not the result, something strange happens: I read emails more thoroughly. I notice things I wouldn’t have. And I check email faster. That last one was a surprise, and it doubt I would have become faster at this task if I had set being faster as my goal. Instead, being more thorough and faster is a side effect. Having zero unread emails in my inbox is the byproduct of focusing on one thing at a time.

So now, when that little light on my desk comes on, I have a feeling that I wouldn’t have associated with email before: delight. Not every time. Not every day. But on a regular basis, I get into a flow while checking email, and because I do, I’m better at it, more efficient, and less distracted by it when I’m not doing it.

Chris is great at doing that without any help. That’s great for Chris. But Pete, Deborah, and me, we’re not built like that. We get distracted by all the other things we have to do rather than focusing on the thing in front of us. But with some good tools, practice, and discipline, we can learn to just wash the dishes.

For more on our experiments with focus, check out our Workplace Lab page. 

Nick Jehlen's picture
Nick Jehlen is a partner at The Action Mill