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This article is part of a series about how we tried to help our teenage son through his secondary school career, using techniques and practices from the workplace. For an overview of all articles, a good place to start is the introduction (introduction to this article series), where I set the scene and at links to all subsequent articles.
This specific episode is about distractions.
When I was in secondary school, the internet was nothing more than an ambitious idea. The smartest phone I had seen was still connected to a wall outlet through a wire. And as I was a sporty kid, I spent most of my free time on the soccer pitch with other neighbourhood kids, I rode my bike around the block with playing cards clipped between the wheels to make it sound like a pimped motorcycle or took my tennis racket for the occasional grand slam impersonation. All of that made me get up and outside to get away from school.
Today, things are so much different. Kids are no more than an arm’s length away from - well - more or less anything. Our kids are true to their generation, and so they know their way around the internet. On top of that, my son is very much into gaming as well. And that means playing games - a lot - and even trying to develop some stuff himself as well.
Somehow he got involved in an online community, where he started co-developing a new game with a couple of guys from all over Europe: he teamed up with some guys from Germany, Holland and Hungary and somehow picked up the role of graphical designer.
I have a lot of respect and admiration for some of the stuff he started teaching himself. For example, here’s an example of a well he designed from scratch in Blender (I kindly asked him if I could share it here and he was totally okay with it):
Also, meeting up with a remote team on a very regular basis is something that will be a definite asset in his future, as well as the social and teamwork skills that come with it. A lot of good stuff there, obviously!
However, all this awesome stuff came with a risk as well. Playing and building games takes time, a lot of time. And this had an increasingly negative impact on his results at school. In third grade, his grades just simply plummeted. By Easter, all signals were flashing red and without very close monitoring and an extraordinary effort from his side in the last quarter, he wouldn’t have made it that year. After the holidays, unfortunately history just repeated itself. And until today, dealing with this particular topic is the most challenging we still face.
A major complication during the last two years was the pandemic. Schools went remote for a long time. And while I’ll keep that as a separate topic, it is worth mentioning how this was like putting the cat right with the milk. For school, my son was now sitting in front of the same computer he used for gaming the entire day, while we did not know what he was doing the entire time. Not a particularly good situation.
Only recently, we decided that it was time to sit together and talk a lot more, so we would start to understand how he spent his day, how he managed his work and what challenges he faced during studying. Doing that uncovered several issues we weren’t aware of before and helps us and him improve things, one step at a time.
It took us a lot of time, but we realised that we were not aware what our son was doing all day long. Just like us, he had a full day schedule with online classes. He needed his laptop to connect with school, but that same laptop gave him access to all these other things he was more interested in at the same time. We did not communicate enough between us to handle those distractions properly.
That lack of communication also led to a decreased level of trust. As we saw our son’s school results go down, we started a guessing game about the influence of his gaming behaviour and made many assumptions about what he was doing, rather than finding out. That was not a good approach and it even had a negative impact on our personal relations.
We recently changed our approach, putting transparency first again. We agreed that we needed all to understand what is going wrong. And for that purpose, we now have daily conversations about school as well as free time. We talk about the day at school, have short discussions about planning and offer help in studying for tests at school. And while there is still a lot of work to do, the level of trust and our relationships have already significantly improved.
We really hope results will follow too. Any tips on how you fellow community members deal with gaming teenagers are very much appreciated!
Distractions are all around us, all the time. I had planned to publish this article over two months ago, but hey, unforeseen circumstances caused a significant delay for me as well. This happens. And that is exactly why it is important to have mechanisms in place to deal with them.
Constant stream of (new) information
Our world and workspace have evolved tremendously. If we aren’t careful, we are always on. Through all our connected devices and apps, we can be contacted all the time. From my own experience, I still get a few dozen traditional emails every day, I am connected to more than 10 partner and customer workspaces on Slack or Teams, I love getting into the Atlassian Community here every now and then to contribute. We operate a service desk where questions or incidents may be reported. And yes, I do get messages on my smartphone on top of that, both work related as in a more personal context.
To manage that constant stream of information, several practices or methodologies exist that help you get organised and focused. Some of those examples are David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, which offers a framework and techniques for personal and stress free productivity. The well-known Pomodoro technique helps you break your workday into short and intense slices of deep focus work, interrupted by short breaks. While not suitable for all kinds of employee roles, it does stress the importance of setting boundaries and trying to focus when you want to get work done.
Some distractions are not within our own control. When something happens with our children at school, with our family our friends, this has an impact on the way we function. Major, disruptive events in the world around us may have a similar effect, even though we are less involved ourselves. Thinking about current events in Ukraine is just an example of something that touches us all in some way.
Both at home and at work: distractions do occur, so being aware of that is an important starting point. Advocating for transparency is a key thing to reduce the risk that comes with them. That does involve using appropriate tools that make work visible. But it also means open communication and building trust between team members to share what they are working on or where they could use a hand.
That same sense of trust is really important when personal events occur. Showing empathy and flexibility towards employees who are struggling in their personal lives creates a huge willingness to give back.
In the next episode, I will discuss remote work, a disruptive change that hit us all over the last couple of years. While this has totally brought “the future of work” into the here and now, remote teaching has proved to be a challenging event. I’m aiming for March 28th for that!