Making time – A few days ago a reader emailed me and said that I must be busy, as I wasn’t posting very regularly these days. I replied that I was indeed busy, and it had taken a toll on my Liminality output, both here and in The Workshop. Before that, I had complimented That David Guy on his ability to churn out 2,000 words a day, regardless of quality. He mentioned this in passing in a musing on his site (no link here, because I’m not going to make you sift through 2,000 words for a passing reference—in fact, I’m not going to sift through 2,000 words either, so what follows is a paraphrase at best), saying I was capable of writing 2,000 words a day as well, as I had done so during NaNoWriMo 2004, I just didn’t have the time for that kind of output these days. I smiled when I read that. I appreciated his attempts to cover for me, but I think we both know that what he said was not the truth.
I’ve been telling myself a lie for some time now. That lie is that drop offs in productivity here at Liminality & Co. are due to me being very busy. I believe that this is what is called a “white lie,” in that it ostensibly does no one any harm. It gives curious readers a plausible explanation and it makes me feel better about my lack of productivity, not to mention making me feel important for having so many things to do. Everyone wins, right?
Wrong. There comes a point in life where you are just so disgusted by a lie, no matter what color it might be, that you throw your hands in the air and say, “Enough!” This week I reached that point. I was tired of making excuses for my lack of productivity. I’m not just talking about my creative productivity when it comes to this website, but also to my actual work (i.e., the things I do that put the rice on the table).
Working at home, as I do, requires a tremendous amount of discipline, and for a long time I lacked that discipline. Then one day I decided that I was going to turn things around and I came up with a plan. The basic idea behind this plan was that working at home broke down the spatial differentiation between work and not work, so the only thing I was left with was the temporal differentiation. My solution was to establish specific working hours, and these ended up being whenever I got home from the gym in the morning (usually around 09:00) to 17:00. I also decided that I would not use the internet for recreational purposes during my lunch break, as doing so tended to make my lunch break spill over into my working hours.
I’m happy to say that the plan actually worked, and my productivity increased dramatically. Then there was a break in the routine (I imagine it was due to a trip I took somewhere, but I can’t really remember right now), and when I tried to get back into my plan I had a very hard time returning to my previous level of productivity. In fact, after that break, the plan never worked quite as well again. I started using the internet for recreational purposes during my lunch break, skimming through a collection of my favorite blogs and websites.
This worsened when I decided to switch to the Firefox browser and installed a feed reader straight into the browser. Now I didn’t even have to open up my bookmarks—there was a panel on the left of the browser window with a list of my favorite websites, and all it took was a click of a button to see if any of them had updated. It was debilitating. Now, whenever I finished a section of translation and wanted to give my brain a little break, I would click on the update button and start visiting some of those websites. The only problem with that was that my “short” breaks began stretching out, and before I knew it I had blown a half hour on Fark or at the Asylum.
The whole idea behind maintaining temporal differentiation of work and not work was to give myself something to look forward to during the day. Whenever I felt a little drained, I could say to myself, “Just hang on until five o’clock, and then you can do whatever you want.” It was that same sense of excitement I used to feel when the final bell rang in school and we were let out for the day. Funny how some things never change.
Unfortunately, once the temporal distinction broke down, I found that I would have to work past five o’clock to finish the work I should have finished by quitting time. Yet I had so conditioned myself to that particular quitting time that when the clock flipped over to 17:00, I would grow excessively depressed. My brain would refuse to continue working, and I would end up stopping short of what I had hoped to accomplish that day. This would make me feel even worse, and I would swear to myself that I would get my act together the next day. There were bright spots here and there, when I would really crank out a good day, but most of the time I ended up disappointed with myself when five o’clock rolled around.
Last week I received two emails from the only two people who actually read The Workshop, both of them asking what had happened to the story and wondering if the protagonist was going to make it or not—and both emails arrived on the same day, even. That was the low point for me. That was the bottom of the well, and I was lying in the muck staring up at the tiny circle of sunlight overhead. I had two choices: either surrender to my own ineptitude and let myself continue in the downward spiral, or I could snap out of it.
And snap out of it I did. I sat myself down and said, “Self, I’ve had enough. I am gut-wrenchingly sick of this crap. I just can’t take it anymore. It has to end, and it has to end now.” Granted, it did take me a few more days to actually reach this point, but I did reach it, and last night—after an absence of two weeks—my protagonist returned and the story moved forward. And this was after a very productive day, too. Today was another very productive day, and I feel encouraged by my progress.
There are two major projects I am working on at the moment. One is the translation/abridgement of a history of Korean literature, and the other is the translation of a novel. The literary history book needs to be finished (at least the first draft does) by the end of this year, and the novel is due in March of next year. Both of these goals are still well within the realm of possibility, but it was apparent that they would soon slip out of that realm unless I got my act together.
I translated ten pages yesterday of the literary history book, which comes out to about 4,000 words. It might not seem like much, but it is one percent of the total of 1,000 pages I need to translate, which isn’t that bad at all. The thing is that, having done this for so long now, it only takes thirty minutes (usually less) to translate one page, including all research I may have to do in the course of translating. If I worked an eight-hour day straight through, I should actually be able to do sixteen pages a day. In reality, though, I don’t think I’ve ever broken the ten-page mark, or at least not by much. I’ve certainly never come anywhere close to translating sixteen pages in a day. The fact of the matter is that there comes a point where my brain just can’t take it anymore, and the law of diminishing returns makes it very inefficient for me to attempt to continue translating.
Yesterday I reached the ten-page mark at precisely five o’clock. I will admit that I did futz around on the internet a bit during the day, but I tried to keep it to a minimum. I wasn’t prepared to just go cold turkey, so I took little hits throughout the day. I also started later than usual, as I got home from the gym shortly before ten. Still, I wasn’t operating at 100% efficiency.
Today, though, I cut myself off entirely from the internet. I did check my various email accounts while eating breakfast, but after that the internet was used solely for research purposes. For lunch I got up from the computer and ate my meal in the other room. The result: I reached (passed, actually) the ten-page mark at 16:00 today. I thought about continuing, but my brain had reached the mush point, so I stopped.
I still had an hour before quitting time, though, so I spent about fifteen minutes practicing my Chinese characters, and then I spent forty minutes translating the novel. I thought that I might get two pages (two pages of Korean, that is, not two translated pages) of the novel done, but to my surprise I did three, totaling 1,000 words of translation. Granted, the novel translation goes much quicker because I don’t use a dictionary and I don’t stop for anything, I just translate. I suppose that the why behind this would make an interesting topic of discussion for a future entry, but for now it’s enough to note that it goes quickly—in fact, in terms of output, it goes almost twice as fast as the literary history book translation.
I finished the last word of the current novel chapter and looked up at the clock. 17:00 on the nose. I was psyched. My brain no longer felt like mush and I still had a lot of energy. I stuck to my quitting time, though, to maintain temporal differentiation and avoid possible burnout.
So it looks like I’m back on track with work productivity, and I have to tell you that it feels great. Gone is the stress and self-loathing. But that’s only part of the picture, albeit a big part. I still had to figure out how to increase my non-work productivity. My original plan had a flaw in it, and that flaw was that I sometimes felt so burned out after a day of work that I had no energy left for creativity. In all honesty, there’s not much I can do about that. There will be days when I will feel like creating something, and there will be days when I don’t feel like creating anything. I can, however, create an environment that encourages creativity.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to admit that I have a bit of an addiction. There is a recreational drug floating around out there that some of you may or may not be aware of. It goes by the street name of “Civ,” and currently there are three strains of this drug (I’ve heard reports that a fourth strain is set to hit the streets this winter). I must confess that I am a somewhat regular user of the third and most addicting strain, Civ3. Recently I was delighted to discover the website of a support group for this addiction. It was comforting to know that there were others out there with the same problem, and that they were overcoming it.
Up until last week, when five o’clock came around I was usually tired, disappointed, and stressed out. Having nibbled on the internet throughout the day, there was nothing left for me to feast on in my “free time,” and often all I could think about was taking a hit of Civ3. After all, the Indians had just declared war on the Aztecs, with whom I had a mutual protection pact, and it was time to put the hurt on. Good thing for me I had just swiped the Indians’ last oil resource, rendering them incapable of producing battleships or tanks or virtually any other modern military unit. (Yeah, in case you didn’t know and in case you didn’t click on the link above, Civ3 is a computer game. You can stop having a heart attack now, Mom.)
If it wasn’t Civ it was something else. I’ve talked about another one of my addictions, namely CSI, and how the Orion Cinema Network does nothing to help my addiction by sometimes showing two episodes of CSI a night. Usually it’s two different flavors—these days, for example, Monday and Tuesday are back-to-back Vegas/Miami nights, while Wednesday and Thursday are New York night (only one episode per night). That’s six episodes of CSI a week. That’s like giving an alcoholic the key to a liquor shop after hours.
Whether it was Civ or CSI or some other distraction, I would suddenly realize that it was 22:00 and I had done absolutely nothing creative. The problem is that, even though we usually go to bed sometime between 23:00 and 23:30, my brain pretty much shuts down around 22:00 (which is rapidly approaching as I type this, meaning I need to wrap this up before my brain craps out in mid-sentence). As a result, I fritter away the remaining hour or so before going to bed frustrated and unfulfilled.
I realize that I can’t be productive every waking moment of the day. I realize that I need some downtime where I’m not thinking or creating. My original plan, though, only dealt with the distinction between work and not-work—it didn’t deal with how I was going to handle my not-work time at all. Now that I’m getting back into a productive groove with work, I’ve decided that I’m going to deal with the not-work portion of my day as well, even if it means making some changes and sacrifices.
For starters, I will only be watching one hour of television an evening, no matter how many episodes of CSI (or any other show I might want to watch) are on. Today, for example, I watched CSI Las Vegas (which is the best of the lot anyway) and worked on this entry during the time I would normally have watched CSI Miami. I suffered absolute no ill effects from missing the show, and in fact I’m pretty psyched about having the time to write this entry. I could probably cut CSI out of my schedule all together... wait, what am I talking about? That’s just crazy talk.
The second rule is that I will play no games (i.e., Civ3) before 22:00. I can’t create more time in the day, but I can manage that time better than I have been. To waste time playing Civ during my productive hours is absurd when I could be crushing rival civilizations during my brain mush hours. So far today I have avoided that addiction as well, again giving me time to write this entry. It’s almost silly that I didn’t do this before.
I still had my downtime, of course. I loaded up my feed reader at five o’clock and spent an hour catching up on my favorite sites. Then I did the dishes, listened to some music, and started writing this entry. Shortly after seven I ate dinner, and at 19:40 I watched CSI. Then, as I mentioned before, I worked on this entry some more, and here we are, now a few minutes before 22:00.
I know it’s not always going to be this great, and there will be days that I will fail to meet my goals. I am getting better, though, and I no longer have the “busy” excuse to fall back on. Now, dear reader, you know the truth. Now you know what I was too afraid to admit and what you were too polite to tell me: that my lack of productivity was not because I didn’t have time, but because I didn’t make time. There it is, out in the open. No more excuses.
This is not to say that I’m going to be posting journal or Workshop updates every day (although I do promise to be a little more regular with The Workshop). The fact is that there are some days when I don’t feel creative. But when those days roll around, I’m going to be honest with myself. I’m not going to lie to myself and pretend that I’m busy. I’m just going to tell the truth: that the creativity just isn’t going to happen on that particular day. And that’s OK—as long as it doesn’t grow into a slump.
So there you have it. I will admit that part of this entry was about me being proud of my accomplishments (today, for example, I have written a total of 8,000 words of translation and journal writing), but it was also about stripping away the white lies, shoveling away all the crap, and getting down to the truth behind my lack of productivity. Hopefully now that I have done away with the excuses it will be easier for me to stay productive. Thanks for being patient with me.