Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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Slowly sailing out of the doldrums

Further to my post last Tuesday about feeling hopeless and ineffectual, I've been doing a lot of thinking over the past few days.

It was actually tychist who provided the vital clue to my problem in her post over on rasfc in the thread where we were discussing whether our writing methods had changed over the years. To summarise (because I'm not sure of the etiquette of quoting stuff posted to a different forum, even if that forum is public) she said that her writing method had evolved at a time when she was extremely busy and had huge demands on both her time and physical energies. And I thought, "Me too!"

And what don't I have now?

Oh, yes, I work, but now I've dropped the OU tutoring I only teach for 4 days a week. Admittedly I have an hour's commute each way and the job is demanding and requires a lot of intense concentration. Also teaching adults means that I have to do 2 or 3 evening classes per week, so I often end up running short on sleep. But it's nowhere near as stressful as working full-time in one's own start-up business whilst bringing up two kids and studying for a degree and yet I wrote productively all through that period.

I'm going to digress for a moment. Bear with me, it is relevant, honest...

I posted the other week about task management and referred to Mark Forster's Do It Tomorrow.

What I didn't talk about then was the bit that has turned out to be vital to understanding my issues with procrastination, that is Stimulus - Response versus Thought - Decision - Action.

The natural way to behave is Stimulus - Response. Something happens, you respond. In terms of work, Forster claims that you shouldn't work this way. He gives the example of A client phones you and asks her to get her some information. You promise you will get straight back to her, drop what you're doing and start looking for what she wants. However, what you should do, he suggests, is tell her you'll get back to her tomorrow, put the task down to do tomorrow and then carry on with what you were doing.

So far, so good. This is all very logical and organised. You get back to the client promptly the next day, she gets what she wants and your other work is completed without interruption.

However... This presupposes a particular kind of job, ie a job where you're largely responsible for creating, organising and scheduling your work. But this is not how I'm used to working. All my life I've mostly done the other kind of job, ie the kind where Stimulus - Response is exactly what is required. For example, child comes in sobbing with grazed knee or a meal for 20 people needs serving at 7 pm or a student gets in a muddle while doing a task. In other words, I'm used to either a fixed schedule, which I know I have to work to (hostel meal times; children's bedtimes; clean clothes needed for school next day; the college's teaching timetable) or it's something that genuinely does require an immediate response (hosteller turns up at the office wanting to book in; child is running a temperature and has just been sick; judging the mood of the class and deciding whether to push on with new work or give them another practice task).

All my life I've been working in response to other people -- and suddenly, for a large part of the week, I'm free to do what I like.

This ought to be bliss; it's exactly what I longed for in the days when I was scampering around from morning till night run ragged as I tried to cope with paid work, looking after kids and cats and housework. Yet now I have these days all to myself, what am I doing? I'm wasting them. So what's gone wrong?

Why could I write when I was busy and stressed and yet don't seem able to now that I have plenty of time? (Oh, and it's not just writing either. I'm just about keeping up with the exercise, but I haven't sat down to enjoy a film on DVD or taken half an hour to sit in the garden and read a book. I haven't taken a day to go and visit a new and different place. I mostly spend the weekends faffing around on the Net and other then the minimum of housework to get by, not very much else.)

I think it's because my mind is convinced I'm still on call, however, because no one's actually demanding my time, I have nothing to react against and I end up in permanent, "I can't settle to do anything because someone might want me and I'll be interrupted," mode. Worse, I feel guilty just at the thought of taking a book out to read under the tree. How could I allow myself to do something so luxurious when I haven't spent a couple of hours running round after other people in order to earn that break?

When there was a lot going on, I became an expert at carving out little slices of time and using them. Because I knew that the time was limited, I had to grab it while it was there. Now it's so easy to slip into, "I've got all day, I'll do it later." And of course I always had a perfectly good excuse as to why I didn't finish stories faster or couldn't get published -- I was too busy! But now it's just down to me, which is a bit scary. (But that's a whole different issue for another post!)

So having pinpointed what seems to be the problem, what can I do about it? Well, I'm not going to fill my life up with responsibilities again.[1] I'm too old to work as hard as I used to do, but I need to work on my mental attitude.

It's not going to be easy to change the habits of a lifetime, even though I know what to watch out for now. I do like the instant gratification of helping someone on the spur of the moment. Only yesterday a colleague wanted help with inserting some graphics into a document. She was apologising for interrupting me. I was only too happy to be interrupted from a routine task. That incident, in fact, was what convinced me that my diagnosis of the problem was correct. However I can get that buzz at work. What I need to do is to get the deeper recesses of my brain to understand that at home, at the weekend, I am not on call. No one is going to suddenly want my services. And that doesn't mean I'm unwanted and unloved. (Today is my birthday and I've had cards and gift vouchers and phone calls.) It's because life has moved on, my role has changed and I'm not Mum to kids any more. So it's up to me to schedule my day -- and if I want to spend it faffing around on the Net, that's OK, but it's not going to get any stories written.

Or, to put it another way, having spent years struggling through the stormy waters of combining work and family and learning how to use the winds to my own advantage, now I'm well and truly adrift in the calmer waters of middle age, I need to learn to row!

[1] Though I am working towards getting a couple of cats. I have found a reasonably local rescue centre with a selection of cats available and I plan to acquire some once I return from my holiday in early July. That will allow them to settle in while we're not working over the summer and get used to their new home before they need to be left for any length of time.

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