Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Strategies for Not Working

Writing part-time and working part-time has generally made for a good balance. I feel like I have enough time for writing but am still connected to and invested in my job, which I honestly enjoy. I expected that I would have some difficulty maintaining a boundary between the two; after all, my job is fast-paced and I work from home, so that boundary is really just a click of the mouse on my Outlook account. I worried that my own neurotic tendencies and workaholic nature would get the best of me, and I'd find myself laboring on a proposal when I should be drafting poems.

I've found those anxieties to be warranted, at least to some extent, but not in the way I expected. Not working is easy; not thinking about working is another matter altogether. It comes down to an imbalance in expectations and pressure. No one but myself is holding me to account for my writing, but I'm accountable to a number of people for doing my work. If I don't write, nothing much happens. Maybe two or three of my readers will ask what's going on. On the other hand, if I fail to do my work, I will get in trouble and eventually be fired (and rightly so).

So keeping my morning writing time free of work tasks is generally a simple matter of refusing to open my work email or open the folder on my desktop that holds all my work-related files. But on weeks when work is hectic--when I have too many deadline-driven projects and time starts to become an issue--just focusing on my writing can take real willpower. Reading Keats this morning, my attention kept wandering ahead to my to-do list for this afternoon. It's a frustrating experience that has motivated me to find ways of clearing my head. Here are some of the things I'm doing:
  • Making work lists: I'm being more diligent than ever about tracking projects at work and clearly listing out daily and weekly priorities. I find this helps me avoid some of the mental hand-wringing that happens when I'm worried about forgetting something.
  • Setting daily/weekly writing goals: In addition to the overarching goals I set for myself at the beginning of AWY, I'm trying to come up with smaller, weekly goals to keep myself on task. The hard part here is not allowing myself to get away with busywork -- going through the motions of writing without actually investing myself in it, purely for the sake of meeting the goal.
  • Changing my writing environment: I'm a creature of habit but that doesn't mean I can't recognize a rut when I'm stuck in it. This doesn't necessarily entail huge changes, but small adjustments, like where I sit when I'm writing (since it's spring here in Chicago, I've tried writing out on our back deck a few times) or putting some quiet music on (jazz or blues I prefer -- nothing with lyrics, which are distracting).
  • Righting the pressure imbalance: In other words, doing things like redoubling my commitment to sending out new work to my readers, or asking my wife to demand to hear new poems from me at the end of every week -- anything to balance out the pressure I feel to get my job-related work done.
  • Practicing rigorous focus: Which is not to say I know how, exactly. But I'm trying to find ways to block out all thoughts of work during my writing time. For example, I've discovered that reading aloud, or at least moving my lips with the words, decreases the chances that I will space out. The rest is a kind of mix of meditative practice and sheer stubbornness.
Having listed out these strategies, I notice that I'm still essentially accommodating my behavior to the demands of my work (without addressing what may be real issues on that side of things as well). So I should say another thing I'm doing is communicating more clearly with the people I work with about my capacity to take on new projects and meet the demands I face. To date, they have been flexible and understanding when I cry uncle.

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