How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Work*
May 13, 2014 § 1 Comment
* I have never learnt how to stop worrying.
* There are times when working feels like squeezing blood from a stone. Those times will always be with us. I am in one now.
But I have to admit – having this recent “if I don’t look at it then it doesn’t exist” moment with a project made me realise that, strangely enough, I seem to have managed pretty well with the twin demons of self-loathing and procrastination (they combine forces to form the ultimate move – FEAR OF FAILURE). It’s a bit of a surprise.
I was talking about it with friends and colleagues on social media, and they suggested that I share any tips and hints I’ve found that work for me – so here you go. Nothing particularly original here, but they just might help. And distract me from what I’m meant to be doing? Yes.
1. No step is too tiny
Genuinely – I tend to work to 2 year plans, which helps me stay on target as a freelancer. Each of those is broken down by year, month, week and day – at the beginning of every month I draw up a list of 10 goals – at the beginning of every week those goals get divided up into tasks – at the beginning of every day into tiny steps. No one can ‘memorise an opera’ – but ‘hum through pages 10-25’ is achievable. On bad days I write ‘answer two texts’ on my daily planner. I know that we all know that a journey of 1000 miles behinds with a single step but that perfectionist, cynical part of my brain (so, my brain) is always furious at me that I didn’t write an entire album in a single afternoon. Well, fuck it – while it was being angry and mocking I wrote two albums and an EP – so who’s won that argument?
2. Incorporate your doubts/procrastination into your work
I learnt this one as a doctoral student (still not finished yet) and it’s total genius. All those “I can’t write this, I’m so fucking stupid, what am I even doing?” thoughts? You write them into whatever it is that you’re doing. For every line of a research proposal, or an essay, you have “URGEJHRG I CAN’T WRITE”. If all you can think of for sentences is “well, I guess that we could describe gender as I DON’T EVEN KNOW” then write that. It gets the words to flow, it gets the ideas out there, it exorcises your doubts and criticisms – and it gets whatever you’re writing written. Filling a blank page is the hardest thing – edit later.
3. “And snap! The job’s a game!”
When I was little I got super good at mental arithmetic – because I decided that every sum I did correctly was the number of pounds in my mental bank, which I could spend on my ideal house (in my mind) – swimming pool, opera stage, stables, pink glass walls, magical unicorns, the lot. It was stupid, but it kept part of my brain busy with daydreaming and let the other part get on with the work. Even when the reward was imaginary it still felt like a reward, and that was the important thing. Foolish as it sounds, I do the same thing now with word count – as the word count goes up I get more money to spend on travelling – and during breaks I get to pretend spend the money on designing perfect holidays. Before you judge me, just try it – you might be surprised at how well it works.
And for projects which are really terrifying – telling yourself that it’s not real – that it’s a pisstake, a joke, a deliberate attempt to fail – can really help. When that voice says “you’re going to fail, you’re shit” and you can reply “I know – I’m planning on failing – this IS shit” – well, it tends to shut it up for a while and let you get on.
4. Beat the clock
I know that some people have found the Pomodoro method very helpful – but this is my version. My laptop shuts down at 40% battery (cheers) – so I go out without a charger and race the computer – who gets to finish first? Also helpful: places to work that close at certain times, making arrangements to meet people and trying to cram in as much as possible before they arrive.
5. Up the competition
The main reason I work in the British Library is not because of their books, as much as I need them for my research – it’s because I need the competitive edge. Sitting in the middle of hundreds of other researchers, all hard at work, makes me want to work to keep up. Secretly, I imagine that I’m beating them…somehow? And I don’t want to waste time on facebook, because that would be letting the side down. Same thing for hipster coffee shops with everyone on their Macbook.
6. Distract your body
I drink a lot of coffee because it’s the best taste in the world and, also, addiction – but also because it gives me something to do when I’m working. If I’m working late at night it’s herbal tea – or, if I need to get out of the house – a pint in a noisy pub, drunk in little sips. Giving my hands and mouth something to do (ahem) seems to take up some of the excess energy that would otherwise go into intrusive and objectionable thoughts. Same goes for foot tapping, playing with piercings, doodling with a free hand, making odd faces, twisting my hair. Chew your pens if you want to – drinking straws are great for that. It’s like giving a noisy puppy a chew toy – get it to stop bothering you and you can get on with your work so much better.
7. Work to a rhythm
Generally, I find it almost impossible to work to music – music is so much of my work, and my brain goes into automatic learning/analysis/joy mode. But, for whatever reason, it makes an exception for some pieces/albums, and those ones get played almost constantly for the background rhythm. Again, it take responsibility away from me, and places it elsewhere – I’m not really typing, I’m just keeping pace with someone else’s beat.
8. Have another project, or five
This is the heart of it – always have work to distract you from the work you’re meant to be doing. One type of work leaving you stumped? Cheat on it with more work – sexier work. And work never looks so sexy as it does when you’re meant to be doing something else. Turning your projects into something illicit and thrilling stops them from being work, as such – and I find that excitement for one project inevitably spills over into the others. If you don’t typically work on more than one thing at a time, try it – something you’ve always wanted to do, but felt you didn’t have time for – a hobby you always wanted to take up. There’s that adage, that if you want something done you give it to the busiest person – and I think that works on a personal level.
And that’s how I’ve written this blog post in twenty minutes when I should have been writing a proposal.
And that’s how the proposal is almost finished, because I didn’t want to do my press releases.
(I wrote most of the press releases whilst avoiding the proposal.)
It’s an endless cycle – but it’s an exciting one.
And shit gets done.