A waxy red tomato sits on top of our glossy blue canister of sugar. To get the sugar I have to move the tomato. Hot dog buns are on the toaster oven; so they need to be displaced before we make any toast. On my desk in my office there is a stack of papers that I’ve set aside, but the one that gets my attention is whatever happens to be on top of the stack. I move it aside to look for the other thing or the other other thing that needs attention more immediately.

When I was on the writing retreat, the productivity wasn’t just due to collaboration or seclusion. It was thanks to leaving stacks of things on another desk. We had some food and an internet connection, a good phone signal and a choice of two breweries. But these didn’t “stack” — there wasn’t a tomato that I had to displace to get to the sugar. My problem back at the home office is that there are so many things to pay attention to, most of them really good things. But I can only hold one tomato at a time.

So, I need to carve out time, probably early in the morning, when I can deny that I have anything else to do. Accounts and reports and webpages and collaborations should wait until later in the day. I just need to find a way to tell them, to tell myself, that they belong in another room. As I type this, an email jumps into my computer, asking for input on a grant proposal. Maybe a good first step is to ignore it, go to bed, see if my body will settle down and let me get up early to continue to ignore the stack. I can only look at and think about one layer at a time.


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