Last time I was in the doctor’s waiting room I was eaves-dropping on a conversation between two young women, one of whom had a baby which, in their melodic Yorkshire accents, was referred to as t’ baybeh. One young lady, the one without t’ baybeh, was complaining about a mutual friend with an unhealthy obsession with work.
“I were going shopping in Scarborough, Friday last,” she said, “and Miss Goodie Two-Shoes refused to pull a sickie to go shopping with us.”
Before you rush to judgement, this poor young lady did have good reason to feel demoralised in her own work as she later stated,
“’Cause I’m still in trainin’ I only get seventy pound a week. And like, that’s a Friday night, i’n’t it?”
Now I’m still curious what she did with seventy pounds on a Friday night – I can only imagine she was an opera fan. Point is, this lady was illustrating an important truth: she could do whatever she liked with her time and money. There may be other important truths which will reveal themselves to her further down the line, but that is not our concern.
We all have such choices only some of us aren’t aware of them. I never played truant for a games lesson or lied about homework. If I am three minutes late for a doctor’s appointment because the swing bridge was open, I am embarrassed and apologise profusely to both receptionist and doctor. In my mind, any commitment made to another human being is as good as a promise and a promise is as good as… a compulsion.
This means I am a reliable and dutiful person in all things. However, the whole system depends on that other human being. Without them, I am about as organised and disciplined as a very disorganised and ill-disciplined person who has got themselves into a pickle and has done nothing all day. But since I had to complete my education at home on my own initiative and am now trying to work on a similar basis, I have had to get myself together a bit.
The first step in achieving this is to consider oneself a valid authority. The fact of the matter, illustrated by our lass int' waiting room, is that you have been the principle authority all along. When you go to work, you may consider your loyalty to your employer, your colleagues, your clients, patients or pupils but at the end of the day it wasn't them dragging you from your bed, shoveling breakfast into your mouth and frogmarching you to the busstop; that was you.
Possibly I am stating the obvious, but this is a point I have struggled with; that I always was and always will be the be the boss of me. This having been established, there is no magical transition between giving hard-work and co-operation to a project involving other people and giving hard-work and co-operation to some individual endeavour, like writing a book.
I should say a word about the benefits of ritual and having a special place to work separate from your sofa or bed etc, but this stuff depends on the luxury of being able to work regular hours, sat on an upright chair and having enough space to do this away from the places you usually rest and relax.
The next step is to establish limitations.
Most people have some limitations to work within and mine are fairly significant. However, there always lies the dilemma of where they stand at any given time on any given day. Am I struggling to work because I am tired or because I don’t really want to? Cognitive dysfunction and bone-idleness are not mutually exclusive and pain, like any other distraction, can be become very much more distracting when you are not motivated to ignore it. At the same time, working oneself into an early grave can be counter-productive.
The only way to find this stuff out is to test it, every day. I am a person who finds it very hard to sit and do nothing – I think most people are. So I sit in front of the open Word document or an open notebook and do nothing else for half an hour. I do not check my e-mail after fifteen minutes and I already brewed up before I started. If half an hour passes and I haven’t written a single sentence then I pack up and try again later.
Now one basic principle of working with a limited supply of energy is, rather like money, the more you spread out your expenditure, the further it goes. There is a temptation when you get your first clear window in days to make the most of it, press on and if it’s gone within half an hour, it’s gone. However, my experience suggests that if you stop after ten minutes, rest ten minutes, work ten minutes, rest ten minute, then you may as much as double the half an hour you would be limited to if you worked flat out.
That having been said, there are some timeframes within nothing can be usually achieved - three lots of half an hour is better than one lot of one hour, but twenty-four lots of five minutes, whilst increasing your total worktime, is pretty damn useless. A little bit of descretion must be used. However, it is necessarily to decide before you start each session when you’re going to stop and for how long.
Taking rests is as much part of self-discipline as anything else. Even the healthiest people must rest. But we must consider the hierarchy of rests and breaks.
Proper resting involves doing nothing at all; I either lie on the sofa staring at the sky or the fish tank or if I am really well behaved, lie in bed with the curtains drawn and my eyes shut. All this happens in silence.
Unfortunately, this is so boring! I know it is good for me because I feel much better very soon, but there is only so much of this that can be achieved - unless I am so ill I don't have a choice.
So if you have to do something, the trick is to consider which parts of your body and brain you use when working and what activities use entirely different parts of your body and brain. Writing e-mail is not an effective rest from writing novels – occasionally if one is stumped with a particular sentence, writing a whole load of other, completely different sentences can help loosen the muscle, as it were. Generally doing anything on the computer is not restful when your work time is spent staring at a computer screen.
Moving into a completely different physical position and listening to music provides a good contrast, so long as the music is conducive to a restful state. The following advice about music comes from the magnificent Better Recovery Form Viral Illness by Dr Darrel Ho-Yen (the emboldenment is his own);
“All activities do not use the same amount of energy. The golden rule is to ask yourself if you are bored with the activity. If you are not bored, you are interested and the activity is likely to use up a lot of energy. So, it is best to listen to music that you don't like, you will not be as involved and less energy will be used.. Classical, operatic or ethnic music is better than songs with words and emotion [sic.].”
Fortunately the author did not take quite the same approach when he goes on to recommend optimal sexual positions for people with my condition or else we all might have lost the will to live.
Point is that when you are resting with a view to resuming work, there is no point listening to Led Zeppelin IV at full blast. There is no point reading a chapter of a novel or watching part of a movie which you are going to become absorbed in; a bit of sewing or painting, a crossword or similar puzzle which you can pick up and happily put to one side at the end of your break is much better.
However most of all, you must be strict that if you are going to rest for half an hour, you break for the full half-hour.
The last point to make about self-discipline is that you must always leave time and energy to do other things. Because my condition varies so massively, it would be foolish for me to have a rule about not working on certain days of the week; when it comes, it comes and I must seize the day. However, a person can only work to the exclusion of everything else for a short time and when you are ill and experiencing the highly variable moods associated with chronic fatigue, this is a very short time indeed.
Energy used keeping in touch with other people, maintaining my blog etc is almost as important as the energy expended on my work because this stuff facilitates my sanity and sense of perspective, without which I would not be able to write.