Just do it

“There may be some writers who contemplate a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them. … It’s a bad business, this writing.” (Mary Gordon, American writer)

 

I am suffering (again) from what is usually called “writer’s block”. I have things I have to write and I just can’t settle to doing them.

Writer’s block is notorious; it’s a favourite subject for novelists, in a rather incestuous way. It’s a specific example of procrastination – putting off until later what you should be doing now. There are whole shop-loads of books on writer’s block specifically (which I find rather paradoxical) and procrastination generally. I have read them all very carefully and learned nothing whatsoever useful from them. Examples of the advice can be found here, here, and here. Enjoy.

Essentially they all come down to the advice “stop messing around and just do it; just make a start, no matter how small”. Well, if I could do that I wouldn’t be procrastinating. They are also keen on eliminating distractions, but when you’re severely proscratinating, after you have eliminated all the obvious ones, you will create new ones.

Now at this point I know what some of you are thinking. The kinder among you will say we know about procrastination; the only solution is indeed to make a start and just get on with it. He’s said he knows that, so why can’t he do it? Surely he could bring himself to write a word, even a little rubbish one? The less kind will say what is he talking about – he can write this blog, so why can’t he write his book? Shut up moaning. You will have no sympathy with me, you say, while you get on with writing your thirty-six volume autobiography.

On the other hand I have discovered in writing this blog that there are many people out there who are a little like me, but are too frightened to say so. Some of you, sadly for you, are even a lot like me, and are terrified to say so. Procrastination is very common. After many years teaching I know countless students who have left things to the last minute – they only start that essay or report the night before the deadline; sometimes well into the night. They know their behaviour is bad, just as I do, so I really do share their pain. They know that at best it will be a bit rushed and that they won’t have time to put it aside and think about it and check it, that they will make mistakes and miss sources, thereby most likely losing precious marks, and at worst they’ll miss the deadline altogether and get zero. So why do they do it? It’s not helpful to say that it’s because of bad planning and laziness when it happens so often; it’s not helpful to say we should just have done it.

As I have said before, we should also be wary of pathologising everything. Am I being slow because I’m ill, or is it something less sinister? Am I just very, very lazy, or is something more complicated going on? A very few people really just don’t care about what they’re doing, but most of us do, so I think when something happens repeatedly it is at least worthwhile considering possible deeper causes. Looking deep into myself I see:

 

Fear of a deadline. After twelve years of being head of the psychology department at Dundee and then dean, I am exhausted. I still have nightmares about writing reviews and reports and plans and strategies and completing financial spreadsheets, and being sent emails at 5.01 p.m. Friday asking for something FIRST THING Monday, before the 8.30 meeting. Burnout need not be restricted to middle-aged executives: the average undergraduate will now have undergone years of assessment, even before the GCSEs and GCES (or Higher equivalents in Scotland). It’s assessment after assessment – one damned thing after another, for years. Until you can’t take it more.

Milder versions of exhaustion abound. Many studies show that many of us are on the edge of exhaustion, or simply don’t get enough sleep. A period of prolonged rest might be best but not many can take it easy for more than a weekend. So I don’t know what the best way is to cope with deadline fear, and welcome suggestions. However I have resolved to try to deal with the exhaustion and the following might help. I hope that with more energy the fear will recede.

Sleep – I have vowed to sleep whenever possible. I have long thought too much sleep to be a waste of time (we know that some sleep is essential), but what is “too much”? What is the point of forcing yourself to get up 30 minutes earlier if you then only function at 75% efficiency?

Multi-tasking – doing two or more things at once is not effective. I found myself making tea this morning while trying to pack a bag. Not good. I need more mindfulness in my life.

Saying no – partly I commit to annoying little jobs that then have to be done, and which I like to get out of the way before the big jobs. I find it quite difficult to say no when I see the hurt on a person’s face, but I must learn to get over it.

Stop rushing around – leave plenty of time for things. The possibility of saving three minutes by leaving just a bit later for the gym is outweighed by the damage perpetrated by the additional stress of the journey.

Relaxation – I can distinguish between physical and mental exhaustion, although I find they are correlated. The brain uses a lot of energy, and many argue that glucose levels in the brain can be rapidly depleted – so that we have limited willpower, although controversy rages about this subject (see here and here, for example).

Doing if for myself – My fear of a deadline goes hand in hand with being evaluated afterwards. If you don’t hand something in, you can’t get a poor mark, or unpleasant feedback, can you? It’s bizarre reasoning I know but I am falling foul of it. I find that I become lost in things that I enjoy and that aren’t going to be evaluated, so one strategy is to try to turn evaluated things into things we’re really doing for ourselves. We’re doing it to learn, or to write our great life’s work (in my case), and the deadlines and feedback are things on the side – things that might even help us, by ensuring progress and making it a better work. We call this type of approach recasting our thinking. I don’t find it easy: to make it work we have to make ourselves believe it, deep down.

What else is there?

The job is too difficult. I missed this out of the “first edition” of the post, but I don’t know why: the more I think about it, the more important it is. It’s easy to get going on small jobs where you know what you have to do, but much of good writing isn’t like that. Writing a whole book on the science of consciousness, in my case, isn’t easy; the material is complex, difficult to understand in places, and even more difficult to synthesise and evaluate for a reader who hasn’t spent more than thirty years in the area. Sometimes I start work, look at my screen, and I don’t know what to say. Students might start writing a lab report and realise they don’t have a clue about the statistic used or the design of the experiment. No wonder we put our laptops aside and make a nice cup of tea.

Somehow we have to make difficult tasks easier. It’s difficult to do the research and thinking while looking at the screen trying to write the final document, I find, so that means it has to be done before. That means reading multiple sources about a topic, and perhaps making notes, drawing diagrans, even mind maps if that’s your thing; and thinking and organising. All that takes time. I can write a thousand words in an hour, easily, if I know exactly what I’m talking about, am enjoying myself, and have a modicum of focus. If I don’t know (as is usually the case), or have to remind myself, that rate plummets. If you leave your writing to the last minute, so you’re up against the deadline, there often just isn’t enough time. No wonder we procrastinate when facing the impossible!

If you’re doing something difficult and you’re up against a real deadline, you’re a bit screwed. You just have to learn the lesson and resolve to leave research time for the next deadline – plenty of it. Fortunately (although it might be a curse) many writing deadlines are in fact a bit flexible, so if you’re a little late it’s not the end of the world. It’s not good form though so again lessons have to be learned.

Doing research with plenty of time left seems less intimidating to me; all I have to do is convince myself that the pleasant reading in the conservatory really is work. You do though need to be clear about you’re researching and why, which means planning what you have to do and finding out what you don’t know first. You need to read for a purpose, trying to answer a question, and to do that you need to be clear about what the question is first.

The job is unpleasant. Then one has to ask why are you doing it? Let’s think about what “unpleasant” really means. You might be doing a psychology agree, and enjoy it all apart from statistics. In that case if you think the overall aim is worthwhile you have to contextualise the problem – relate the subtask to the whole. You can’t understand behaviour without understanding how we should study behaviour. I think mostly though we confound the unpleasantess of jobs with their difficulty – I don’t really think that writing a book on consciousness is an unpleasant task, I’m just finding passages of it difficult at the moment. Students would enjoy statistics if they found it relatively easy. In which case see above.

Perfectionism. I can’t bear the thought of seeing something with my name on it that isn’t perfect. But the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect; in fact unless you are peculiarly gifted the first draft will be far from perfect. You are more likely to produce something imperfect by leaving it late and little time for checking and revision. And the first draft might be rubbish, but it’s easier to turn a thousand words of rubbish into something better than start with no words at all.

Too big a task. This is an important factor in my fear, and of course is easily solved by splitting it up into smaller tasks – as small as it takes to stop being daunting. Splitting large jobs up and listing the components takes time, and there’s always a concern that you’re wasting useful time carrying out useless tasks – that you’re just engaging in just another distraction activity. But spending time working out how you’re going to do a big unpleasant job and then doing these small chunks is much better than doing nothing at all related to your most important job.

Something immediately at hand is more immediately satisfying. Note I’ve said immediately twice: it has to be instant and easy gratification relative to the big job. If you’ve split a big job into lots of little jobs then you can have the instant gratification of ticking them off your list as you complete them. Some people suggest turning off your internet connection, using special software and apps to cut off temporary access to distraction, or smashing your router on the floor, but I will still manage to find something else to do. That washing is piling up, or perhaps needs sorting. Better to deal with the root cause than use gimmicks. (Believe me, I’ve tried them all.)

 

I will try my own medicine and report back. Meanwhile I hope this help ssomeone else. Please feel free to comment or contact me.

 

(Note to readers: I’ve revised this blog a few times as things occur to me. No more. This version is final.)

 

UPDATE

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.