Emptying the mind

It’s been a while since my last blog. Who would have thought that being self-employed would mean being so busy? I have been trying to focus on what’s important: my goals in taking early “retirement” from the full-time job have always been to increase my reading, thinking, and writing time.

But we live in a world of distraction. Distraction makes procrastination very easy. I even know of academics who have been encouraged by their “line managers” (what a repellent phrase) to “multi-task” their administration and research. I’m not sure at what level they’re supposed to multi-task – reading a paper while giving a lecture perhaps? – but we know that multi-tasking reduces efficiency: it just doesn’t work. Doing two things at once has a cost (which is why even speaking on the phone while driving increases the chance of an accident, let alone texting and driving). It also increases stress. And we know that doing important, creative work requires focus – you can’t carry out great research while students back their essays. I even have my doubts about one of those great sacrosanct beliefs in academic life that great teaching and research must go together: good teaching requires time, and research requires time, and you can’t be doing two things at once (see above).

I have tried to simplify my life, for peace of mind both for being mentally ill, and in order to be able to think more clearly. I have just been reading Timothy Ferriss’s excellent (if lengthy) Tools for Titans, and it is obvious that I am not alone in pursuing this strategy. Physical clutter is distracting – some of us even find it distressing. Mental clutter is just as bad, perhaps worse.

And how much mental clutter we all must have! How can you live in the moment when you are worrying about what you did wrong this morning and what you have to do this evening? How can you write well when your mind is on the telephone bill?

So here are some of the things that I’ve done to reduce mental clutter.

  1. Write down as much as possible. First I carried out a brain dump of everything I had to do, everything I was worried about, and everything on my mind. This task took a while, and I kept adding to the dump over a few days.
  2. Make structured lists. Over the years I have experimented with several types of list and time management systems. Now someone with an obsessional personality has to be careful of lists – they can easily take over and become an obsession and a distraction in themselves. I recently tried a complex system of email folders with tasks for doing today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, this week, waiting for, and so on … (I am familiar with Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done system and implement a simplified version of it. I have tried dedicated software but am aiming for a simple solution.)
  3. To do. Currently I am using Apple’s Reminders, with several types of list organised by location and time. I am trying to keep it simple. I have tried complicated systems and apps and remain to be convinced that a to do list can be bettered. The important thing is that nothing gets lost, and that I know everything will be dealt with by the deadline. I don’t want to have to think about peripheral things.
  4. Removing distractions. Social media distracts us and increases mental clutter. I can’t go as far as some and remove myself completely from Facebook and Twitter, and I don’t want to delete all my email accounts (and I don’t think it would be a good idea for future employment possibilities). But I don’t need to check my email every hour. Emails generate emails. I have reached the fabled “Inbox zero”, partly by moving things I can’t do now to an appropriate folder. (Actually as I write it is Inbox 1.) There are some emails I can’t do anything about just now, either because they refer to future events or because I need to do something to be able to answer them – they are moved to a “Waiting” folder. I do feel bad about several emails in my “Weather” folder that I plan to get round to when I have time. These are questions about or suggestions for or things to add to my British weather pages (http://www.trevorharley.com/trevorharley/weather_web_pages/britweather.htm). I do feel a bit bad that people have gone to the trouble of writing to me, and I always thank them, but it’s not my day job, and my time is very limited, so I can’t process them all at once. Recognising that we have limited time is a big part of the fight. WE CAN’T DO EVERYTHING. And that means MAKING CHOICES. (Apologies for shouting these statements.)
  5. Meditation. Everyone says meditation is good for clearing the mind and improving mental focus and clarity. I though with my monkey mind find the process very difficult, and probably as a result find the benefits – so far – limited. I will persevere though. I am using Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace site; I like the structure it provides and the implicit coercion. My jury is still out on meditation.
  6. Mindfulness. At all other times I am trying to be mindful of what I am doing now. If a distracting thought arises I try to push it away or if it is something I need to pay attention to add it to my list. It is easy though for obsessive people to get obsessed with clearing our minds, so we are for ever writing down minor thoughts. We all also occasionally at least need to plan what we’re going to do: living in the present doesn’t imply drifting.

Interestingly, as I was half way through writing this blog, the following landed in my inbox and caught my eye (I know, I know):

http://calnewport.com/blog/2016/12/18/on-digital-minimalism/

Finally, we should think about whether it’s even a good idea to strive for an empty mind. Life isn’t that simple. Things are always cropping up, and surprises are always happening. Rather than avoiding shit we must learn to respond to shit in the right way. The more I think about it, the more important I think this point is: we will never achieve a perfectly empty mind. It’s our responses we need to change.

Have a good Christmas and New Year everyone. It’s a difficult time of year for people with mental health problems – if nothing else it’s so dark in the northern northern hemisphere. So just hang on in there.

I’m mad, but so is BT

My blog on dealing with a typical British industry, BT (British Telecom), their surreal behaviour, and incompetence, and its toll on my mental health.

I’m going to take time out from writing about writing and madness to describe my difficulties with BT (British Telecom, the main telecommunications company in the UK – they provide the lines, but other companies can also provide the calls, which is altogether a rather bizarre situation). It is relevant to my blog though because it’s been such a distraction to me, and has taken up a large amount of time I could have spent much better doing worthier things. The problems have become something of an obsession – I find myself thinking about it a lot of the time, which is never a good sign for someone with mental health problems. At several points I have felt like giving up, but then thought damn it, if not me, whom? I suspect my difficulties in dealing with a big company are not unusual, but most don’t have the time or energy to pursue the culprits.

I think BT is fairly typical of British (perhaps most western) companies (and the public sector, including education) today: it’s too big, it outsources too much, it uses overseas call centres, and generally making it difficult for the individual customer to get anywhere with it. Its online system seems designed to sell, and not much else. The big managers, who make the big money, insulate themselves as much as possible from the customers, or “clients”. They probably have no idea what’s going on, and probably don’t want to.

It all started innocently enough just under year ago when BT phoned me, right out of the blue. Now I will swallow my pride here, and admit that it all serves me right for breaking my vow of never answering the phone to an unknown number, let alone never making a decision during a phone call. But the chap was very persuasive and informative: did I know that BT fibre optic “Infinity” broadband (very fast broadband, up to 80 mbps), was available in my area? I didn’t, and I was pleasantly surprised, because I live in a Scottish village pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so I had been expecting to get super fast broadband sometime around 2269. Furthermore, said this helpful and cheery chap, BT had an offer on, where they would give me BT TV on a special introductory offer for something like £10 a month for the first year. It would save me altogether £30 a month or so compared with what I was paying Sky just then. I was a bit incredulous: you mean I could get Sky Sports and Sky Cinema too? And all my other usual channels? I quite like Sky. They have a good range of channels and everything just works (most of the time). Yes, he said, you will have everything you have now, but it will be £30 a month cheaper. AND you will get UHD (4k) TV? Really? YES! Wow. What about Sky? He said BT would deal with Sky and sort out everything – I wouldn’t have to do anything. So I agreed. Emails detailing the contract were promised and an appointment with the engineer arranged for the near future. And BT would sort out EVERYTHING!

The engineer arrived the next week and set up the fast broadband with a new router and BT TV. Oh no he said, BT won’t sort out Sky TV; who told you that? You’ll have to speak to them yourself. BT would only take over Sky Broadband. But I had never had Sky Broadband – I’d always been with BT! Funny BT didn’t know I was their own customer. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 1. I told the engineer I had never received the email contract, and he said he would have to send it again. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 2.

Eventually he got my admittedly rather sophisticated television working with the set-up. Everything seemed to work and off he went. I started to explore the channels. It turns out there’s hardly anything to watch in UHD. But more importantly, where were Sky Movies and Sky Sports? I only had Freeview channels. Oh you have to order those separately said BT. I THOUGHT I ALREADY HAD. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 3. But to be fair the price was as stated. But what was this, BBC News channel in standard definition? Where is the high definition version? It turns out that Sky beams everything down to you from their little satellite, while BT just sends the special stuff down the line, and picks up the Freeview channel from the air (confused yet?), and in my area I couldn’t get BBC News in HD. No one had explained that to me before. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 4.  Talking of explanations, where was my promised contract? Needless to say, it never arrived. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 5. But the good news was that I now had Sky Sports and Cinema. Or rather, I had Sky Sports 1 and 2, not all the Sky Sports channels, including Sky Sports News. Turns out these aren’t included, and the cinema package was similarly crippled. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 6. And even worse, the channels I did get were only in standard definition, which is nearly as bad as watching black and white. It turns out that BT don’t provide them in HD. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 7. So much for providing every thing I had before with Sky; I consider this PIECES OF BT RUBBISH No. 6 and 7 together to constitute mis-selling. I am tempted to use stronger words. If I had been told this at the start I would have put the phone down after ten seconds. So it was a good job BT hadn’t closed down my Sky contract after all, and that I had kept my Sky Box connected. But instead of having a perfectly satisfactory Sky contract, I now had a perfectly satisfactory Sky contract,  fast internet, and a perfectly unsatisfactory BT contract, and I instead of saving £30 with faster broadband, I am paying £50 more than I thought I would be.

And don’t get me going on the television box. I never did get the knack of the forward and rewind, but this might have been my clumsiness. It did keep on crashing though, which wasn’t me. It’s the software, not the hardware, and it will probably improve with time. I still consider the functionality to be PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 8.

Months passed. I seethed inwardly. I thought about complaining but as my regular readers will know, I was very ill, and had enough on my plate, as my gran would have said. After all, in the great scheme of things I haven’t been left without emergency cover, and I did have fast broadband. And TV. Two TV systems in fact, one though I never used.

But as the bills mounted up I seethed more and more, and then one day, I got a Sky Q box. And it worked just fine. Tidying up the wiring I decided I had had enough, so I packed up the BT TV box. This is crazy, I thought, so I went to the BT site to work out how to make the point that I thought service hadn’t been that great. I also wanted to find out when the BT television contract ended. The only thing I could find on their site was phoning someone up, or an online complaints system. So I filled in the complaint form.

At this point, if they had just said we’re very sorry, there seems to be some misunderstanding, and we’ll let you off your television contract a month early, I’d have been ecstatic. But they didn’t. They didn’t even understand what I was talking about.  PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 9.

From now on things become increasingly surreal. One has to be careful here because it turns out that the BT complaints system is nothing more than a glorified out-sourced call centre, and some people think you can’t criticise call centres based in other countries without being a racist. I have no great objection to call centres as long as they work, but the problem is that usually they don’t. I find I often have difficulty understanding what the person is saying, and they certainly don’t seem to understand me. (I don’t think that’s a racist thing to say, but these days, who knows.) I do feel slightly aggrieved that British Telecom outsources these jobs to non-British people, but that’s globalisation for you. I also feel sorry for the workers in these places: presumably they are poorly paid, crammed into a room, and spend hour after hour having to deal with irate people. No, it’s the senior managers who deserve our wrath.

I remember reading an article in the press by a BT manager saying that their Indian call centre was wonderful but some of their customers were disgustingly rude. There is no excuse for rudeness but I can see why people get so upset. I bet the head of BT doesn’t try to resolve their problems by going through their call centre. I don’t think it’s a sensible way to run a complaints system – and certainly it shouldn’t be the only way. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 10.

So the first response was an email back saying that they were very sorry my equipment wasn’t working, and did I want an engineer to come out?

What? I replied saying that wasn’t the real problem. I hadn’t made myself clear. I repeated about the mis-selling.

They replied saying they’d been trying to phone me …

I replied saying my hearing isn’t that good (particularly with foreign accents on the phone, and in any case I prefer things in writing, so could they please not phone me). I repeated again that the main problem was one of mis-selling, and also cancelling my television contract. They’d told me when it ended, but I could get no one to confirm in writing that they had cancelled it from that date as I had asked. The person said they’d need to transfer me to a different department. What, I thought complaints dealt with things when nothing else worked? PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 11. The other department would email me.

Oh no they didn’t. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 12. A few days later the phone started ringing. Guess who it was? So now I add to my list of issues that they phoned when I asked them not to phone. Guess how they tried to respond to this? You’ve got it. Let’s add poor customer service to the list. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 13.

So someone was meant to write back. And they never did. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 14.

I left it a while and then complained that they had never answered, through their strange complaints system again. The response was as you never CALLED back. What? PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 15. This person gave a lengthy apology in a very tiny font saying that BT values their customers and that people had been spoken to. Don’t they realise how annoying being told this can be when they hadn’t yet done a thing to help? This person said they had revised my complaint and identified that I had issues with BT TV. Yes but not technical issues; they didn’t address at all the point that it did nothing that I had been told it would be, and that it was working out to be more expensive, not less. And you can’t get Sky Movies and Sport HD, I reminded her. Yes you can! she (I think) replied. NO YOU CAN’T I said. Oh no, not in HD, she eventually conceded. And still no one had confirmed that they had cancelled my television contract! PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 15 (and I’m almost tempted to make this double rubbish given they deny themselves).

So I decided to try what seems to be the only thing that works these days: tweeting in the public arena. Again, I feel sorry for the poor individuals who are paid to reply to my rants. But at least they respond!

So then I get a bizarre email saying they are sending out an engineer. I never asked for an engineer! How on earth is an engineer going to sort out mis-selling? Their complaints department seem incapable of understanding what the problem is (another issue I have with overseas call centres). I feel sorry for this engineer. There is no easy way I can see on the email of telling them I can’t be in that time (other than phoning). PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 16.

I email again, and guess how they respond – yes, you’ve got it, by phoning me again. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 17. I admit I get a bit irate at this point. I keep on saying that now I just want the email address of someone to talk to who understands English, but that is clearly too much to ask for with BT. The one easy thing they could they never attempt to do. By this point my blood pressure is soaring, I have dozens of emails not addressing any of my substantive points, the phone is ringing, the Twitter people seem perplexed, I am still paying £50 more than I used to, an engineer is coming out to sort out a non-existent technical problem, and the managers are still drawing their obscene salaries. And I’ve started obsessing about all this so it is really getting to me and not doing my recovery any good at all.

UPDATE: I think I’m getting somewhere with my Twitter campaign. They want me to send them my telephone number. And then a couple of hours later, I get a message back saying … they’re sending an engineer out tomorrow! I wonder about the ability of their complaints staff to read simple English. Or perhaps I don’t write simple English. Or perhaps now they’re just having a laugh. PIECE OF BT RUBBISH No. 18. I despair. I just want somebody sensible to talk to.

The engineer phones to confirm his appointment the evening before. An excellent idea, I explain the situation to him, and tell him not to come. He is very good. BT GOLD STAR!

If anyone can reduce the above to under 140 characters, please let me know. And if any of them are reading this and feel bad enough about themselves to do anything about it, here is a reminder that my email address is trevor.harley@mac.com.

FINAL UPDATE: I emailed the CEO, and his complaints department sorted it out the next day. BT GOLD STAR! But it shouldn’t have been so difficult. I just wanted someone to talk to. After a while the complain took on a life of its own because no one could be bothered to listen properly.

Commitment and commitments

Some people seem to have more time than others. There are only 24 hours, only 1440 minutes, only 86,400 seconds available for all of us each day. Yet some make more of those minutes than others; they make their minutes count more than the rest of us.

Such a perfect day – how often can we say that, even on those rare days when we are fit, well, and happy? I usually finish the day with a profound sense of disappointment, feeling that I could and should have done more that day, which means that I should have done things differently.

I have just finished reading Mark Forster’s Secrets of Productive People: 50 Techniques To Get Things Done. I enjoyed it a great deal, and there were several thought-provoking points that stuck with me. I must admit it wasn’t quite what I expected from the title; I was hoping for an analysis of how really productive people actually spend their time (see below). Nevertheless Forster’s books are ones I would recommend to anyone interested in time management, productivity, writing, creativity, or generally living a better life.

I was particularly struck by this quote:

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”- H. Jackson Brown Jr.

I must admit I thought I hadn’t heard of H. Jackson Brown Jr. before (it turns out that he is author of Life’s Little Instruction Book, which was a bestseller in the early 90s), but I am now sure that I have seen some of his homilies on calendars and tea towels (“Drink champagne for no reason at all” strikes a particular chord with me). Of course the meaning of the quote is obvious and indisputable, but it really brings home how some people seem to have more time than others. There are only 24 hours, only 1440 minutes, only 86,400 seconds available for all of us each day. Yet some make more of those minutes than others; they make their minutes count more than the rest of us. I accept a few people appear to need less sleep than others, but most of us need around seven to eight. Currently I seem to need seven; any less and I notice I really don’t function at all well. Saving on sleep is a false economy (sadly).

So that means I have 17 hours left after subtracting my sleep hours left every day, and let’s assume that a very successful person has about the same. But even the hardest working person must eat, exercise, shower (occasionally), dress, travel, perhaps shop occasionally, keep the house maintained, clean, pay bills, maintain social and family contacts, and so on. I outsource as many of these as possible, and try and cut back on non-essential activities, but there are limits on what you can do. You might be able to prepare two meals at once, but try going out without dressing. Please, yes try it. And maybe you can multitask a bit (although being mindful means to me that when you shower you focus on the shower and enjoying the water, not thinking about something else). So you end up with considerably fewer than 17 hours a day. I also find hard work, including writing and reading tiring, and there’s a limit on what I can that pushes the limit even lower.

Ah, but some will say, the people named in the quote were geniuses: they need less time to get big things done. Maybe. But what makes a genius? Thomas Edison observed that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”, and the latest psychological research shows that he wasn’t far wrong. Success in anything takes real commitment. We now know that although native talent has a role to play in success, above a certain level of intelligence and ability, sheer hard work and the number of hours put in matters much more than most people think. Where do these hours come from?

Are you happy with what you get done? If not, then the key point that struck me after reading Forster’s book is if you want to do more of something else, you have to do less of something you’re doing now. What are you not going to do that you’re doing? I know it seems obvious, but on reflection it struck me as profound point: if I want to do more reading, writing, and thinking, I need to stop doing something else. What?

I probably do less “inessential” stuff than many people. I don’t watch much television; I don’t go shopping; I don’t play computer games; I am fortunate enough not to have to mow my own lawn; and I count writing this blog as work. I’m not addicted (I think) to email and social media, and although I enjoy food and cooking, I don’t spend too long on it, particularly since I’ve gone on my new “diet”, and I don’t spend as much time napping as I used after making substantial lifestyle changes to fight depression. What else can I give up? Perhaps it’s time for a time audit, but they’re quite a lot of effort and I doubt it will show I waste much time. My vices are reading the opinion columns of two newspaper, but that doesn’t take long, and keeps me informed, and occasional shopping on Amazon and iTunes.

In spite of all those I still feel I have too much to do and not enough time to do it all in. I am not alone: most of us feel overloaded all the time. You might be one of lucky few who think they haven’t got enough activities to fill their days, but if so you’re probably not reading this article. We should be trying to drop things from our lives, but often we take on new stuff. We say yes to things that interest us, or yes to our managers (perhaps we have no choice), or we want to write another book or take up a new hobby. These are new commitments. But we start off already over-committed! So every time we take on a new commitment, we have to ask which of our current commitments are we going to drop (or reduce) to make room for the new one? I want to get back to playing the piano. So what should I drop that I’m currently doing, when I already feel under tremendous time pressure?

So if you want to take on something new, or find more time, you first have to choose something to drop something you’re currently doing. Obvious perhaps, and easy to say, but much less easy to do.

Over-loading creates other pressures. Most people I know say they’re drowning in a sea of email. Many have hundreds (at least one chap I know is almost proud to say that he has thousands) of emails in their inbox. That’s obviously inefficient – I bet if you’re one of these people you’re wading through the same emails day after day, and often miss important, job-critical commitments. It involves handling the same piece of virtual paper more than once, often many times. And exactly when are you going to deal with the backlog? Most people say “one day”, but one day rarely if ever comes. (My favourite email tip is one I learned about some time ago – perhaps from a previous book of Forster: never answer an email the same day that you get it, unless the consequences will be really terrible – or, I suppose, unless you’re conducting a romance by email.)

Every successful person I have read about swears by their routine. I’ve talked about creativity and routine before. It’s a little tedious, perhaps, doing the same thing at the day after day, year after year, but successful people make time for their perspiration by sweating it out at the same time, every day.

Managing time is even more difficult for people with mental illness. Illness steals time. The unfairness of it all burns, but I think it has just to be accepted. We will never get as much done as “normal” people.

Finally, I am still very interested in my original idea of how some people to get so much done in a day. I would really love to interview an assortment of politicians, Nobel prize winners, Silicon Valley success stories, and business magnates, to find out what they do differently from me. Publishers and agents: if you want to commission such a book, please contact me! If you think you are particularly successful in life and have tips to share, please post a comment below or email me at trevor.harley@mac.com.

True grit

Cheviots from Carter BarIt is easy to get out of the habit of writing. In spite of my blog a few weeks ago (Nulla dies sine linea – not a day without a line, first said by the painter Apelles of Kos, but which applies just as much to writing as painting), quite a few of my recent days have sadly passed without a line.

I can attribute this failure in part to what remains of the day job (especially marking, a task that I particularly detest but which is one of the most important things that academics do, and which requires time and concentration), but I know thats a feeble excuse. I should have had plenty of time. I have just found it difficult to find an independent working routine that suits me.
All the data shows that we work best when we follow a routine. Depressed people function better when they follow a routine that imposes some structure on our lives. Finding a good routine is good. In fact to be creative you might need one. If you look at the lives of highly creative people they all have very highly structured periods when they’re working – routines bordering on rituals (hence the title of one my favourite books on the subject, Mason Currey’s Daily rituals, a book I’ve talked about before in this blog). One of the most popular rituals is to get up early and start writing, stopping around lunchtime, and then taking the rest of the day “easy” (including do those low-value, distracting tasks such as email). I can see the advantages of such a schedule: you get your words under your belt first thing. I always feel better about the day after I’ve written at least a thousand words. But life is not so simple for a depressed writer: my medication (even though I’ve really cut back) really interferes with my morning. I feel tired on waking around 7.30, and it takes me a few hours to get going properly. Maybe one day I’ll be able to cut out that final Quetiapine, but I still can’t really imagine waking at 5 am, because I can’t imagine going to bed at 9 pm. I love midnight too much. And in any case I’ve talked to a few depressed people who say they can’t really get going until 10.30 or 11.00 am.
Let me take yesterday as an example. I woke at 7.15, and rushed to get out before my preferred two hours easing in time, leaving before 9 for gym at 9.30. At least exercise makes me feel better overall, and has the advantage of waking me up. Then I had a few errands to run, and back for coffee at 10.45. I did some useful reading while drinking coffee. Then as rain was forecast for later in the day, I did a few garden jobs I’d been putting off. Then I had my Primal living lunch (yet another type of diet, or rather lifestyle, I’m trying out). After that there were some “real work”-related things I had to do, and particularly several pressing emails to answer. That left me pretty tired, so I had a short nap. Then it was 4.45. I had a few work things to do again, and some washing to sort out, which took me to 6. That left me two hours of creative time, by which time I felt horribly guilty about not doing enough earlier.
Sound familiar? That’s how my life often goes. I can’t point to anything and say I shouldn’t have done it, so what else could I have done? Now you unlucky souls in a 9-5 job are probably thinking “lazy f*cker, he should have my job to see what can be done in a day”. But I “work” after 5, and all weekend, and most holidays too. And as I’ve talked about before in this blog, if you look at how much real work can be done in an hour, it’s surprisingly little. My own measurements suggest I cant do more than 35 minutes an hour over 8 hours without hitting the wall. This figure of 3-5 hours of real work – deep work – a day is consistent with what Cal Newport says in Deep work, with how highly creative people schedule their time in Daily Rituals, and how much deep practice can be sustained in one day (a discussion of which can be found in Duckworth’s superb book Grit, which I’ve just finished reading). Passion and perseverance are tiring.
So I am still searching for the perfect routine, the perfect ritual, the perfect day. And of course every day is different: some days I don’t go to the gym, some days there are other things to deal with, and some days it’s Christmas. Nulla dies sine linea says nothing about stopping writing just because it’s Christmas (but I have).
So one reason why we don’t we stick at what we want to do is finding the time to do real work. It’s difficult enough for the best of people with the best of intentions. Those of us with mental health problems suffer additional burdens that eat into our time in addition to the time-killing side-effects of medication.
Being mad really does steal your life.

The daily schedule of a depressed writer

 

wood pigeon

It’s not easy being depressed, and it’s not easy being a writer. Being a depressed writer is worse than the sum of the parts. I often wonder why I bother; why not just go for the easy life of staying in bed all day long, which is often what I most often most want to do? Instead I struggle to make time for my writing.
It does mean that for depressed writers there is the question of how can we best arrange our time to facilitate writing? Of course it’s a problem all writers and creative people share. One of the best books I have read recently is Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work by Mason Currey (2013). Unusual creativity comes from unusual people living unusual lives. It is quite difficult to discern a pattern in the most creative lives. Have a look at this nice graphical representation of the daily routines of a sample of creative people (including creative scientists):

https://podio.com/site/creative-routines

With all sorts of caveats, and with many exceptions, the pattern seems to be get started early, exercise, relax. I’m not being prescriptive: until I cut down my quetiapine medication I was incapable of getting started early. And when I was Dean I had countless 8.30 and 9.00 am meetings, which really got in the way of getting deep work done (see my earlier blog on “Deep work”). There is robust evidence that some people are morning types and some evening, and if I were going to be prescriptive about anything, it would be to work out when you have most energy and feel best, and do your most creative work then. So of course there are many exceptions to this general pattern of writing first thing: some writers can only really get going at night after a few martinis. (Amazingly though Ernest Hemingway always started writing at six in the morning, even if he had been up late the night before with hard drinking, and worked until about noon.)
For me it ‘s good though to get the writing out of the way. I can never relax until I’ve completed my writing goal for the day. Another problem with starting late is that I never know how a writing task is going to take until I’ve done it. I’m writing a book on consciousness at the moment and I’ve set myself the target of a thousand words a day. It preys on my mind until the target bar in Scrivener (my currently preferred book writing software) reaches 100% for the day.
It is worth spending time on working out what is the perfect day for living the perfect life, in the sense of maximising quality time to get what we want to get done, done. It’s obvious that routine is important; routine crystallised to the point of ritual in many cases, as the title of Currey’s book suggests. Routine does bring its own problems for living – routine is the enemy of spontaneity, unless we schedule some hours in which to be spontaneous, which almost defies the purpose. But when on a creative burst, writing a book with a deadline, I need routine. A rigid routine or else I will not get it done. This routine means being tough on myself as well as other people. No exceptions.
I do wonder how some people manage to get so much more than me. I struggle at the moment with work, let alone writing. I try and free up as much quality time (for reading, writing, and thinking) as possible by outsourcing things like cleaning and mowing the lawn. I’m lucky that I can. How do people with children manage? But there are some days when I am so depressed that I just want to sit and cry and stare into space. Fortunately these days are much rarer when I’m writing; perhaps the sense of purpose writing provides helps us lift my mood. But one of the most depressing things about being depressed is how much time is lost to being ill. It is tragic.

Deep time

sunset

 

I have just finished reading Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world, by the writer and study guru Cal Newport. The idea is a very interesting one, and although after you’ve read it you think “that’s obvious, I was trying to do that anyway”, the book is very clearly written and the case well argued. I recommend it.

Deep work is work that advances our meaningful goals. One could quibble in saying it’s not always obvious what’s meaningful, but I know deep down which goals are worth while pursuing and which are superficial. As far as work is concerned it’s writing, and that’s probably true of most academics (and most writers). Not all writing is deep: books, papers, and lectures (to some extent) are, but a report on what I’ve been doing recently isn’t – it’s just something I have to do. Deep goals need deep work, which is demanding and involves concentration, effort, and time. It involves, using the psychologist Csikszentmihályi’s term, getting into a state of flow. You don’t make much progress on writing a book unless you put aside some quality time, which means time free from distraction, and get on with getting those words out.

The problem is that distraction is all around us, even when we try to do deep work. The other day I noticed that my Kindle said “15 minutes left in book” (the book was Deep work in fact). So I sat down and tried to finish reading it, measuring how long it actually took. It took over 45 minutes! I kept on getting distracted, looking around me, my mind wandering, checking a few facts, standing up to stretch and wander around.

And writing is so much more difficult than reading. At our desk or laptop we are usually always connected to the internet, and what a distraction that can be. Checking email, looking at Twitter maybe, checking our messages, looking at Facebook, checking the news to see if anything interesting has happened in the last five minutes, checking a fact on what we’re writing and then getting distracted by another link – none of these distractions were around when Proust was writing. It is easy to start writing with the best intentions and then discover an hour later we’ve only managed a sentence. We do know that Arsenal haven’t bought a new striker and that Emily’s cat slept on the duvet last night looking cute.

So clearly some discipline is necessary when we’re trying to do deep work. Newport argues that we can learn to work deeply, just as we can acquire any other skill. We might be able to work deeply simply by resolution and determination. Some of us might need to log out of Twitter and Facebook to make it that much more difficult to check them. Some of us might need more drastic medicine and to switch off our internet connection or router. Some might even need to burn the router. Newport is against even checking facts as we write, putting them aside to dedicated time later.

Even when we can do it, deep work is tiring. When I was writing my book Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science, I think I was pretty disciplined. I would sit at my desk in the morning,, starting at 8, and from the hour not stop until I had written 500 words. On average these 500 words would take me 35-40 minutes. Then I would stretch, stand up, go to the loo, make coffee perhaps – and very quickly the top of the hour and come round and off I’d go on the next 500. I found this regime absolutely exhausting.

Newport argues that it’s not easy to do much more than four hours real deep work a day, and that’s my experience when writing Talking the talk. I doubt if I could do four contiguous hours; I would need a coffee break at least – time to catch up with the news and checking those facts. And often our jobs involve work that is necessary but not necessarily deep, so we need to reserve some time for shallow work.

It all sounds very obvious, but in practice it’s fiendishly difficult to do, for me at least. Now it’s time to check my email again.

A brush with death

Just before Christmas I nearly died.
One Saturday I was feeling fine – rather stressed, but physically fine. Sunday morning I couldn’t urinate. Sunday evening I was in hospital. Monday evening my temperature was soaring, my pulse racing, my blood pressure falling through the floor, and I wasn’t breathing well. I was in a stae of severe sepsis – what my mother calls “blood poisoning”. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the stage I reached has a mortality rate of 50%. Fortunately I recovered; my infection responded to the antibiotics, and I had wonderful care at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. Recovery was slow, and I still don’t feel completely well.
It turns out that there is nothing like nearly dying to focus the mind on what you should do while you’re living. We’re all going to die sometime; if I’m lucky I might have another 40 years or so, although how many of those will be quality years is unclear. What should I do in the next 20 – 30 years? What do I need to do now so that when in the future I am on my death bed I will be able to lie back satisfied and think “yes, that was a worthwhile life”?
It wasn’t just this near death experience that made me think about the meaning of life, although it has focussed my mind on it. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with how I should live my life, and how I should spend my time.
Someone once said something like “No one ever said on their death bed ’I wish I had spent more time at the office’.” (I think it was the American rabbi Harold Kushner.) I suppose though it depends what sort of office you’re talking about. Hillary Clinton might well end up saying “I wish I’d spent more time in the Oval Office”. It depends on your job in having an extremely good job: I am an academic, a Professor of Psychology.
For many years I even said “I don’t make any distinction between my work and my life”. My reasoning was that (most) academics are pretty much working all the time. You go on vacation (or “take annual leave” as it has now become) and you read a psychology book – are you now working on holiday? You think about a problem in the bath, answer a student email while sipping a glass of wine at midnight, you read a short article Christmas Day while waiting for the turkey to cook – you see the problem about defining work, holiday, and non-work.
Unfortunately some of fun, for me at least, has gone out of the job, caused by increasing bureaucracy and attempts to quantify academics’ time with the noble aim of ensuring that the public aren’t being ripped off. Of course the public should be able to sleep safe in the knowledge that university dons are earning their pay, but you, the public, can rest asure that there isn’t a widespread problem: we aren’t on holiday for half the year, because there’s always research to do, new teaching to prepare, PhD students to supervise, and administration to catch up on. A recent article suggests that many academics work considerably more than 50 hours a week. And now we have to account for our time, by filling in forms and keeping track of what we do. Mechanisms with names like TRAC determine how government money is allocated on the basis of these timesheets. Workload models proliferate, mostly giving us 1768 hours a year to account for – even though we might work more than 2500 hours! And they all suffer from the problems above: what exactly is an academic’s work?
For these sorts of reasons I no longer think that my work is my life. And certainly my job isn’t. The life of an academic has changed over the last 30 years, largely for the worse I think, and it is now full of countless meetings, evaluation, meetings, and forms to fill out. I don’t find that part of the job much fun (and I doubt if I am alone).
So now I do distinguish between my job and my life. It’s still a great job and better than most others. And there are still many parts of the job I love (writing and teaching enthusiastic students, for example). But after a brush with death I cannot find meaning in my job alone.
The mortgage has to be paid, but is it possible to do so while living a meaningful life? And where is this meaning to be found?