Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Wisdom of the Body

I went to bed last night around 10:15 pm. For the first time I was consciously abiding my bedtime. I thought for sure I would be getting up at my usual 5:00 am and get a jump on the Saturday.

But instead the dogs woke me up, banging their tails on the wall and stuffing their cold wet noses under the covers. Huh . . . where's my phone? The phone was not beside the bed. I dragged myself up, peer at the bathroom clock in Mr. Magoo fashion, and see that it was 6:20 am. The phone was in the bathroom. The Silent switch was on, which means that the alarm would not have sounded. I gave the phone a scolding look. The phone winked its light innocently, as if to say, "Hey, buddy, don't look at me, I just do what I'm told."

So . . . how could I simultaneously be anticipating getting up early, and at the same time do all the things that guarantee I wouldn't wake up? The possibilities are:
  1. I just made a mistake, nothing more.
  2. My subconscious, knowing that I was slightly down on my sleep, pulled a fast one on me and engineered my "forgetting."
  3. Tiny elves dragged the phone to the bathroom, used a block-and-tackle to raise it all the way up to the countertop, read the online help, and figured out how to mute the phone.

The first explanation seems a little odd, since I've been doing the same set-the-alarm routine for the last two weeks without fail. And the third explanation is obviously outlandish, since elves are lousy at reading directions. So I'm left with the something in the middle . . . somehow, I "accidently-on-purpose" didn't set the alarm.

I am not inclined to make a big deal of it. I have been reminding myself that the Schedule is not about having absolute control of one's time. (Maybe certain OCD folks use it that way, but that's not my goal.) If anything, my Schedule is just the opposite: the superego has been ordered to stop over-controlling. I have recognized the very real limits of space and time. I am paying attention to reality now, instead of my own delusional notions of what ought to be.

In this case, I will defer to the body. The Body needed more sleep. The Body took what it needed. Why should I complain? Instead of seeing my body as an unruly subject of my domain, defying my will, I should recognize it for what it is: a force of nature, a temperamental god, one that delivers miraculous bounty with cyclical regularity, and which also, occassionally, requires appeasement.


Friday, January 12, 2007

The Computer-less Vacation

Another one of my resolutions for the coming year was to (gasp) actually take Harry's advice and take a real vacation. By real vacation, I don't mean my usual notion of vacation, where you stop going to work but you just use that time to "catch up" on things around the house. That might be a useful change of pace, and relaxing in its on way, but that's just time off. That's not a vacation.

In order for it to be a vacation, you have to vacate. You have to go somewhere else. As trite as it sounds, you really do need to "get away from it all." In the past I never found the idea of travelling vacations all that appealing, because travel requires lots of planning, has its own kind of stress involved, and is expensive. The things that usually entice people to travel -- new food, sunny beaches, shopping, site-seeing, and all the other images that cruise lines and credit card ads like to flash at you -- have limited appeal for me.

The only reason I want to go someplace else is to completely, utterly disconnect from my working life. It's the same reason I went and lived in the woods of West Virginia in near-perfect isolation for eight months -- I need to remember what it's like to alive apart from my work. And that will mean leaving the computer behind.

I can probably count on one hand the number days in the last three years in which I did not touch a computer at all. That's not necessarily bad . . . but I sense the potential for other capacities to atrophy, when so much of life is lived inside the Box. When my kids wander into my study, and want to get my attention, they know they can't always drag me away, so they ask to do things on the computer themselves. "Let's make numbers," they say, climbing into my lap. So I pull up WordPad and let them peck at the keyboard, while I kiss them on the top of the head. I dread the day when I will be the one coming into their rooms, trying to get their attention off the screens . . . I would like to live with them in a screenless world for as long as I can.

So I'm thinking Colorado . . . I see mountains in my future, and bike paths, and streams and lakes, and hikes in the daytime, and books and fires at night, and the ghostly haze of cathode rays dispelled by sunlight.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

(Don't) Sacrifice the Body

I haven't said a thing about how the regular sleep and exercise mandated by The Schedule is affecting me. I have a bedtime of 10:30 pm, and I get up at 5:00 am. I have 30 minutes a day devoted to exercise; I alternate between running or elliptical machine with strength training.

First, I have to confess that the timing of the sleep has been challenging. I have been rock-solid on getting up at 5:00 am, which again is a surpise: most people complain that it's hard to have the willpower to get out of bed in the morning. I have the opposite problem -- keeping the regular bedtime. Either I'm still going full-steam by 10:30 pm and don't want to stop, or I'm exhausted by 8:00 pm and fall asleep with my son for an hour or more before I finish the day's routine. I have yet to work the whole day through and then promptly tuck myself in at 10:30 pm.

And yet, just like with the other parts of the Schedule, I am feeling the effects in spite of not observing it perfectly. I am generally more awake. My body is definitely happier for not being routinely asked to go all the way to its limits. It's not a James Brown I-feel-good kind of good; it's just the absence of a certain pain and stress that I had accepted for so long. I feel five pounds lighter and half an inch taller.

I am not, in fact, five pounds lighter. I took to weighing myself daily, after I shower. 152 pounds. I didn't really set out to do this; my weight is fine. But that's the power of having a routine; if you do everything at the same time every day, it becomes a lot easier to have the consciousness to do other things regularly. It's mostly curiousity: will the exercise affect my weight?

The exercise, too, is having an affect. Again, not as much as one might hope, but certainly noticeable. I don't feel as good as the men and women on cereal boxes and athletic equipment catalogs look like they must feel. But, just like with the sleep, something is different. It's like a subtle rattle that you always heard in your car has suddenly gone away; something that was wearing on the edge of your consciousness is suddenly not there.

Looking back, I realize that my Protestant work ethic and world-renouncing Albigensian theology have given me an adversarial relationship with my body. I resented the limits my body put on me, and beat it up continually to get back at it for imprisoning me so. Now I feel like detante has been reached, and Reagan-style "peace dividends" are starting to be issued. It's not exactly that I've made friends with my body; I just stopped fighting it so hard. The Middle Way, truly.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

On the clock

I started following my new Schedule on Monday . . . my 37th birthday, which is either appropriate or ironic, depending on how it goes. Here are some things I've already noticed:
  • My overall awareness of things is improved. I had expected to be perpetually distracted by the clock, and thoughts of "gotta hurry." But actually, it has been a context that has heightened my awareness of all kinds of things. The schedule is tight enough that there really isn't a lot of room for unconscious activity. Half an hour is not a lot of time, and if you start to reflexive check email, answer email, read the funny pages, shuffle off to the refrigerator, etc. you're half-hour is quickly gone. So I find myself making fewer of those unconscious decisions, which I suppose is a good thing.
  • I was making unconscious decisions? Really? Once you're in a fixed time structure, you immediately recognize every impulse to do something else for what it is: an impulse. I really hadn't realized how much of that was going on in my life. I thought the problem was that I botched the big decisions: compulsively working on one thing when I ought to be doing another. But I also see a lot of "noise," in my behavior, too: little unconscious non-decisions that probably detract from my focus and effectiveness.
  • Inefficiencies become annoying. It was always annoying to not be able to find your slippers, and spend a couple minutes shuffling upstairs and downstairs looking for them. But now it's not just "a couple minutes" that are being lost; it's my writing time that's getting lost. Because I have recognized the fundamental zero-sum game of time management, I take those losses more seriously. I start thinking about Fly Lady tricks for starting the day faster. In other words, I start to respect the moment . . . which sounds like meditation, no?
  • Facing reality is easier. I am finding it a lot easier to be candid and honest about my schedule. Before making commitments, it's a lot easier for me to say, "Yes, that's reasonable," or "No, that won't work," or even "No way in hell" when pressed. This was, of course, the fundamental goal, and it's working. I would add that it's not working perfectly; I am still catching myself agreeing to do things I can't possibly do. But I would say that it's at least 50% less than before, and my awareness of the other 50% is almost instantaneous. This will take practice, but I know it will work.
  • Old karma is the worst karma. With my newfound awareness, it's a lot easier to avoid picking up new karma, new mistakes that have to be rectified. But I am still haunted by old karma as well: all those old obligations that I had unwisely made are still lurking out there, asserting themselves. That customer who was waiting for a job to be done before Christmas is still waiting, and probably less patient than ever. I recognize, now, that what undid all my previous attempts to live a more sane life was the old karma. I would resolve to have more realistic commitments, but still fall right into the same trap trying to ward off old commitments. You have to get right with everybody, not just yourself. It's a lot easier to deal with that stuff now that I've enlisted the support of those closest to me: my wife, and my boss.
  • I don't feel like myself. Working by the clock has left me feeling weirdly disassociated. Even when it's working, and things are going well, you would think I would be pumping my fist and feeling good about it, feeling good about myself. But instead my identity is sitting on the sidelines, saying, almost literally, "Who is that guy?" I had not realized that I was so identified with my bad habits. I guess, to some degree, I must have liked being that guy who works all night and collapses in a heap . . . even as I recognized it as destructive behavior. When asked how it's going, I say, "I feel like a manic depressive who's taking his medication." I'm doing much, much better, but it doesn't feel like me yet. But I'm sure that will come in time.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Time slave

I made a schedule for myself. It was the sort of thing I never expected Excel to do for me:

The process of creating it was involved. I'm a consultant, so my work schedule has the potential to be extremely varied. Sometimes I don't leave my house for a week. Sometimes I'm out of town for days at a stretch. Even the most basic decisions, like having a regular bedtime, can be challenging: what about getting up extra-early to get to the airport? What about SKS meetings that run late into the night? How do you account for special occasions?

I always marvelled at the studied craziness of Talmudic law, and how certain Jews would make convoluted arrangements to respect the letter of the law while still achieving their desires: setting timers to turn on ovens during the sabbath, or raising pigs in Israel on raised platforms so they are not "on the land." Yet when I tried to make my own schedule to contain my life, I found myself splitting similar hairs: can you rearrange the schedule? When can you rearrange the schedule? Can you move stuff out more than a week? Who gets to decide if the spirit of the Schedule is being maintained?

It seems like such a simple thing, a patently boring thing: every day I want to sleep, write, exercise, and work the right amount of time. Should that be so hard? And yet when I show the schedule to my friends and family, usually the first reaction I get from people is, "Oh my God", spoken in the same tone as "O my God, you're not actually going to wear that thing," or "Oh my God, what were you thinking when you bought that." I think everyone feels the same claustrophobia when they see the Schedule. A few people, the ones who know me and understand my struggles, will generously say, "I'm really impressed." If nothing else, it demonstrates commitment.


Monday, January 08, 2007

In Slavery is Perfect Freedom

So, when you're a workaholic and you've hit bottom, what do you do? Probably the greatest thing the recovery movements have accomplished is that they have drilled the first step into the collective psyche of the culture: "Admit you have a problem. Acknowledge that you are powerless over the addiction and seek help." Or something like that. There's a "higher power" in there somewhere, too, but without flipping to Wikipedia I know the geist of the process: surrender.

So I did. I called my boss and told him that I was compulsively working. He took exactly the right tone: "Well, you could just not take a vacation. I don't think that's the very good option, though." I called the client, told them I couldn't deliver on time. They accepted it . . . actually, I lot easier than I expected. I managed to get through the second week of my vacation with a minimum a job-related strain: a few phone calls, a specification document, nothing too taxing.

I met with Harry for lunch later that week, and we talked about our goals for the coming year. I told Harry something you rarely tell your boss: "I want to work less this year." He knew what I meant, which is the measure of what a great manager he is. He was struggling with work balance issues himself, since running the business and selling the services was still the work of two people instead of one. There were some things we could immediately agree on: schedule a real vacation, one where you pay money to go away for a week, and don't take the computer. "If you were in the Himalayas, we wouldn't have to have this conversation. You'd be on vacation, and that would be that."

We disagreed somewhat on the systemic cure. "I remember once," Harry said, "on a Dr. Phil episode, there was this girl who was always late to everything. Fifteen minutes late, two hours late, but always late, to absolutely everything. I thought Dr. Phil would tell her that she was obsessive or something, that she couldn't stop before something was finished, or something like that. Instead he told her, 'I think your problem is arrogance. Whatever you happen to be doing right now is more important than anyone else in your life, and that's arrogant.' I was stunned, it was so unexpected. She was a nice girl, sweet and soft-spoken ... but I think he was probably right. He went after the psychological motivation that made her that way. He treated the disease rather than the symptom. That's what you've got to do. You've got to figure out what it is about your thinking that makes you overcommit."

"Yes," I agreed, "but knowing what's wrong with you, and changing the way you act, are two entirely different things." This wasn't merely rhetorical, but scientific fact; researchers have studied the process and saw that conscious understand and decision-making really were in two separate parts of the brain. People with damaged decision-making centers could recognize pro and con for any decision, but could not bring themselves to act on it. Addictive personalities showed similar symptoms: they usually knew exactly why what they were doing was destructive, but they couldn't stop doing it.

"I know where it comes from," I said. "I've done the whole self-knowledge thing long enough to know. But I've tried to think differently for the last ten years, and it hasn't worked. I need to act differently, and trust that the thinking will follow. And I don't think I can act differently on my own. I need to give up some control."

As I drove home, I knew what I would have to do. I would have to make a Schedule, with a capital "S". If I couldn't trust myself to make the right time-management decision in the moment, I would have to take away right to do so. I felt like a fugitive driving to the police station to turn myself in. The heaviness of dread was miraculously suspended from a single wire of hope, whispering, "Thank God, at last, it's over."


Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Respectable Addiction

Over the holidays, I was visiting with my parents in the mountains of North Carolina, and even though I was supposed to be on vacation, I was logging in remotely to my computer to continue programming on a project that I hadn't finished. I had lots of excuses: the project needed to be completed, I needed to deliver on my commitments, I was enjoying working on the project anyway. But my wife would just smile sadly and give me a look that said, "I'm not going to contradict you because I know you'd argue, but you know that can't be true."

I started thinking about those checklists for alcohol addiction, and matched it to my working life:
  1. Do you hide how much you work?
  2. Do you lie to family and friends about how much you work?
  3. Do you work at inappropriate hours?
  4. Do you work alone?
  5. Do you binge work to the point of being sick?

And I had all the usual excuses the alcoholic has: but I'm still doing well at my job! My family is generally happy! There's nothing wrong with hard work! I can stop any time I want to!

But I can't. I have tried to mend my ways, probably as long as I've been working, and I've never been able to control it for more than a week or two before falling into the same patterns:

  1. Overcommitting on a project, promising to deliver more functionality or hit a tight deadline that can not reasonably be met in the allotted time.
  2. Once overcommitted, I start stealing time to cover up the shortfall. I steal time from sleep, from family, from other clients, from other organizations.
  3. Sometimes I overcome the deficit. The work is done, the client is happy, but I am exhausted. More often, the deficit continues, and becomes a string of missed deadlines and postponed appointments.
  4. Through it all, I keep lying to myself and others: "Oh, it's only a few more hours. I'll knock it out." "I really ought to be able to finish this in the time that I have." I modify the official record of my billing time, so it looks like I was steadily plunking along instead of cramming it into an all-nighter.

The same patterns emerge in the rest of my life. My work for the SKS follows a similar pattern: overcommitment, frantic binges of work, missed deadlines, inconsistent focus, and sporadic effectiveness.

None of this is new information. Anyone who ever worked with me understands this pattern. Every boss I ever had encouraged me to change the pattern. But I was intelligent, and hard-working, and in spite of the limitations on my capacity, I was making money for my employers. They accepted my inability to manage my time as a management challenge, and left it at that.

I'm not as bad off as many. I'm not an executive working 80 hours a week and a total stranger to his kids. I'm a consultant who works 60 hours a week and who is constantly overcommitted and stressed out.

I have hit bottom. I can't go on like this.