charlie's blog

Sunday, November 16, 2008

locked in work mode

There are three bathrooms in the office where I work. They're all singles, and they're shared by everyone, so I always lock the door when I go in. I do it more or less without thinking: closing the door and locking it happen as one fluid motion. On the other hand, I never lock the bathroom door at home. That is, until this week.

Monday morning, instead of going to work, I went upstairs to my office and connected to work remotely. Donelle was in town this week, and our lunch plans made working from home the best option. At one point during the morning, I got up and went into the bathroom, and after I closed the door, I realized I had locked it. Just like at work: door closed and locked all in one motion, with no pause or real thought. Thursday morning I worked from home again, and once again I found myself unintentionally locking the bathroom door behind me.

I found this really intriguing. I never lock the bathroom door at home, but twice in a week I did it without even thinking about it. I was behaving as if I was at work.

This makes the concept of "at work" seem more interesting than I would have thought. Previously, I had considered "at work" to be a purely physical concept: being at work means being at the office. If I'm working from home, I might be working, but I'm not at work. And when I'm not at work, I don't do work-ish things, like answering the phone with "Austin Digital, this is Charlie", or locking the bathroom door. Or so I thought.

The best I can figure is that there's some kind of "work mode" that my brain gets into, which can be in effect regardless of my physical location, and which is somehow related to the door-locking behavior. I have a feeling that this mode may be related to the concept of "flow", which features in various texts about managing programmers and knowledge workers.  I spend many of my working hours in a flow state. What's especially interesting about this, given what others have written about flow, is that short interruptions actually don't tend break my flow. I don't need 20 minutes to get back into it after reading a short email or answering a quick question.

Getting up to use the bathroom often doesn't break the flow either. Instead, I often tend to feel somewhat disconnected, like my mind is still there at my desk, while my body gets up and heads away from my desk. It's not really that dramatic, but my mind is definitely more focused on work than it is on the act of walking to the bathroom. I'm more or less operating on autopilot, and here's where we get back to the topic at hand: I'm guessing that part of the relevant work-mode autopilot program is "lock bathroom door after closing".

As I try to recall the experience of locking the door at home, this interpretation feels right. On both occasions, I was in that trance-like flow state as I walked into the bathroom - the autopilot only disengaged when some other part of my brain noticed that I had done something that didn't make sense (namely, locking the door). Of course, there have been plenty of other times when I've gone to the bathroom while working at home and not locked the door, but I'm guessing that on those occasions I was less deeply engrossed in work, and was paying more direct attention to the bathroom door.

Assuming I'm right, I think this is pretty amazing: in addition to all the low-level things it has to manage (e.g. regulating my breathing and heart rate), my brain has been picking up the slack even on higher-level issues like door-locking, during the times when my conscious mind can't be bothered. I guess a brain is a pretty handy thing to have.

postscript: If you're interested in the concept of flow, I encourage you to read more about it. For bonus points, see if you can pronounce Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's name as you're reading the article.

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