Written again during the wee hours of the morning, when I hit a wall and decided to take a half hour to think about my work habits.
In the "what took you so long?" department, I've started to actually acknowledge something that I came to grips with last year; I work better when I'm alone. Well, that's not quite right. Restate: I work best when I have access to a certain kind of isolation. I need easy access to people, and I need to be around people once in a while, but I also need a space that isolates a small number of distractions I can bounce between.
A good workstation for me - I had this sophomore and junior year at Olin, and the lack of it for senior year might be one explanation why I was So Darn Jittery and couldn't focus on my work sometimes - is having a piano and a computer and a reading-space (desk, couch, bed) all together in a corner so that I can quickly swivel between stations. To this I'd now add "and my drumset!" for the fourth wall of the playpen.
It's occasionally hilarious to watch me work. I have frequent long moments of focused intensity during which I CANNOT BE DISTRACTED HOLY COW because things outside whatever I am working on (or reading) don't even exist; it's like a thick white mist blankets out the world that's not in front of me. This is pretty boring to watch. I'm just doing the same thing for a long, long time.
The hilarious part looks like this: My first year at college I would literally have to run around my dormitory building - in pajamas in the snow, if that's what I was wearing at the time - in the middle of a take-home exam before I could sit down and write and think straight for the next question. When I had that piano-on-one-side, computer-on-the-other setup, I'd pause mid-sentence in an essay, whip around, crash through a couple random chords or a scale, then finish typing the sentence. In high school I'd hop between coding at my desk and sitting on the radiator sketching, reading, or just looking out the window, and then back, in less than 15 minutes. Or I'd throw my chair off to the side and do 10 situps under my desk for no apparent reason (it's not like I've ever had any sort of workout plan - I just needed to move), then get back to studying.
So I need to interrupt myself and mode-switch sometimes to reboot my brain on $ImportantTask. Maybe that's why I had the habit of reading multiple books simultaneously as a kid. I'd have at least 4 or 5 open books strewn around the room, sometimes two or more books simultaneously open on my lap - and I would switch between them whenever I felt like it (which I think was apparently at random).
I remember grownups (teachers, older relatives) asking me, multiple times when I was still in elementary school, "don't you get confused reading all those books at once?" I also remember how strange I thought it was that they would even ask that question. Why would you get confused? Wouldn't it make less sense to keep on pushing through the same book when you hit that invisible wall of can't-do-this-any-more-ness? Much more effective to go, read something else for a chapter, then come back a couple minutes later and continue. They're different books. You can't possibly mix different books up in your head. Right?
The problem comes in when I can't control the way in which I interrupt myself. I am incredibly distractable, and once I start doing something new, I forget the previous thing I was doing. Hence the inconsistently applied habit of placing reminders in places I'll walk smack-bang into; sticky notes on my monitor saying what I was doing before I went to lunch (problem: I may forget to come back from lunch), writing notes on my hand, leaving a text file with "REMEMBER!! YOU WERE DOING THIS!!" up on my screen...
If I have relatively few distractions to pick from (work1 + work2 + piano + book, for instance) it's easy for me to figure out what I was doing. There aren't that many options. But when people start dropping in and giving me an unlimited number of distractions from the outside, I quickly lose track of where I've been or what I should be doing. That's why I work well from home if I'm alone at home (or with people who are doing their own thing in the same room), or if I'm in my room or something. And why I work well in situations where my role is that of a bounce-between, and it's up to someone else to keep a mental stack - like teaching, where I can hop between students and they'll keep themselves in some sort of queue until they've got their problems fixed so I don't have to worry about forgetting some.
Also, I worry sometimes about distracting other people with random moments of music and pushups and running through the hallways with face paint on in the middle of exam period. Having a private workspace fixes this somewhat. I really do like being around other people when I work, though - maybe I just need blinders... ideally there'd be a big red button I could press to bring a Big Magic Shield down around me for "I need to have no external interruptions" time, and then press it again when I'm through with that period and can be surrounded by humans of interestingness without a productivity drop.
A good routine - the one I inadvertently settled into at TOPP, and may settle into here at OLPC as well - is waking early, working from home before lunch, going to the office for lunch and meetings in the afternoon, (there is a part formerly/currently missing that involves Not Being In The Office all through evening, getting sunlight, cooking dinner with friends, that sort of thing), and checking in from home in the evening and cleaning up whatever small or urgent tasks have popped up in the meantime. (And then there is the other missing part involving relaxing before bedtime and then going to sleep.)
Speaking of which, I should get back to work.