Let’s Get Practical

So the New Year has begun and at the moment I have a pugilist’s spirit towards it. So many years seem to slither out of my grasp and party off into the sunset. I feel it would be good if I could take a bit more of an active stance on this one, maybe get my own way four out of seven days in the week, perhaps. But at the same time, I used to get myself into chronic-fatigue-shaped trouble because of a tendency towards metaphorically rolling my sleeves up, moving into fifth gear and generally throwing bucket loads of energy at immovable problems. When I look out of the window I see an astringently cold, bleak January day. What exactly do I think I’m fighting?

This morning my husband declared that he wanted to make some New Year’s resolutions but he couldn’t quite pin down what they should be. Instead he segued seamlessly into an anecdote from one of the books I’d given him for Christmas. It was the story of the Cambridge Blues Rowing team’s journey to victory in the boat race in ’07. It’s always the case that more rowers train up for the race than there are places in the boat, and inevitably there are moments in the run up when athletes get shelved. In one winter camp, a rower named Jake was told he hadn’t made the grade. This was a bitter defeat for the American, but his response to the news was to train even harder, to have patience and to persist. Over the course of the next few months, things changed in the boat. Other rowers lost their form, got moved around, and so it turned out that Jake ended up back in the boat again as part of the winning crew. ‘So to return to the topic of resolutions,’ I said, once he’d finished, ‘what you’re saying is that you want more focus, determination and discipline this year.’ ‘All the things I lack,’ my husband said, grimly. But of course, like most people, my husband doesn’t lack those qualities, he just hasn’t found the working practice that gives him access to them.

When there’s something that we really want, there’s never any difficulty in marshalling the requisite drive force to go with it. But desire means distance, it depends on not-having, on being thwarted. Nothing looks so enticing as the project, or the person, that remains resolutely out of reach. Alas, once it’s landed in your lap, that selfsame proposition looks completely different. Maintaining enthusiasm, confidence, engagement and progress over lengthy periods of time on projects that absolutely nothing prevents you from tackling – well, that needs mensa level emotional intelligence. My old way was simply to force myself, and believe you me, I was good at that. But let me stand as a terrible warning here: this is not the solution to the problem. This year I have two main goals. First of all, and most importantly, I want to finish my academic book. Secondly, I want to practice my non-fiction writing. And both of these need to happen around my part-time work at the university. It ought to be possible, right?

So, bearing all this in mind, these are, not resolutions exactly, but things I’ve come to understand that I’d like to work on this year:

1. Routine. I tend to prefer writing in the afternoon, but at present, four out of five afternoons are booked up. I need to think about ways to make the morning a comfortable, pleasurable writing time. But I need to begin by prioritizing writing in that space, and not allow other jobs to creep in and squat in the time zone.

2. I’m still recovering from chronic fatigue. For the past year I’ve found it achievable to work in a two-hour block daily. This year, gently, I’d like to extend that to three hours. You can get through quite a lot in three hours.

3. Chronic fatiguers are advised to colour-code their daily activities, with red indicating those that take the most energy, and green those that represent restorative down time. This is actually an excellent life practice, and a good way to get lots of reading done, if I sandwich exertion between blocks of peaceful reading.

4. Timetabling each day is a good practice. I try always to assess how much energy I have every morning, to keep a rolling to-do list and to parcel up the day accordingly. This is a practice I’d like to refine. It means breaking all tasks down into their composite elements, which is also a very useful approach.

5. Beginning and ending the day with meditation is something I’d like to do with more regularity. I also know I need to get a little fitter. I’m intending to take up yoga in the next few weeks. My husband also bought me an exercise ball for Christmas – we’ll see how that goes.

6. The aim of any organization I do is to make the day feel spacious, manageable, and relatively efficient. I’ve found it’s better to get something actually done in an hour and then give myself the rest of the day off, rather than witter about all day trying to do something and allowing myself to be repeatedly distracted. Just trying to pack in as much as I can is a disaster – it squeezes the fun out of everything.

7. Blogging has encouraged me to think that it’s okay to have several books on the go at once. I want to read more French this year, which is simply a question of always have one French novel as part of that book selection. Ditto for motherhood books, of which I still have a ton to get through.

8. I feel much better if I maintain the right mindset. Which for me basically means not letting my gaze extend beyond the computer screen. While I’m just practicing a craft, all is well; when I start to think about achieving something tangible, it all goes horribly wrong. It’s the cue my inner critic is waiting for to leap out of the shadows and start berating me. The closer work gets to a state of meditation, the less energy it takes and the more rewarding it becomes.

9. I have to accept that some days are lost causes for getting anything much done, that life gets in the way, interruptions are par for the course, and not be discouraged by that.

10. Reading isn’t just a pleasure for me, it’s a way of altering my state of mind, motivating myself to write and generally perking up my spirits. I know there are periods when I just want to take things in and be replenished and uplifted. I need lots of comfort books, but I also need plenty of quality writing. On a slightly tangential final note, I’ve decided that I’m going to embark on another modern American classics selection that I’ve called ‘Richards and Johns’. I have to plan to pick up books by men as my instinct reaches for novels by women. Over the first half of the year I’m hoping to read:

John Updike – Rabbit, Run
John Cheever – The Wapshot Chronicles
John Barth – Chimera (if I can prise it out of my husband’s hands)
Jon(athon) Franzen – The Corrections

Richard Ford – The Sportswriter
Richard Powers – The Time of Our Singing
Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road

I think I’ll start with the Updike later this week. That’s the other part of any resolutions of course – ensuring you have achievable goals! At least that’s one I’m pretty sure I can manage.

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16 thoughts on “Let’s Get Practical

  1. I think your goals sound very manageable and practical. I especially like the eighth–sometimes I only see the end result I want and it seems completely unachievable, so I don’t get anywhere. But if I take things in smaller bite sizes it’s amazing how much you can accomplish even when it feels you’re not really moving forward hardly at all. Good luck with your writing–you write so beautifully and intelligently I don’t know why publishers aren’t lining up outside your door! And I like your reading plans. I read lots of comfortable sorts of books, but I’d like to read more really good writing (not at all that the two are mutually exclusive as they aren’t). I have both the John Cheever book and the Richard Yates book on my pile–perhaps reading your posts will inspire me to read them as well. Have a great 2009, Litlove!

  2. Danielle – I especially like your sentence: ‘if I take things in smaller bite sizes it’s amazing how much you can accomplish even when it feels you’re not really moving forward hardly at all’ – that’s exactly what I’m aiming for! You are a darling to be so encouraging about my writing. I would feel better, I think, if I were actually writing something and not just planning writing something, which is all I seemed to do in 2008! And I’ll remember that you have those two books and bump them up the list. I feel less guilty encouraging people to read books they already own! Here’s to quality comfort reading for both of us! Anne and Eva – thank you both for your lovely wishes! A bit more about colour-coding: there’s also orange for mid-range activities, and the idea is to ensure that you don’t overdue the red, and that every day contains a couple of stretches of green. It is quite an eye-opener when you detail out a day. If you have a go, let me know how you get on!

  3. Litlove The Boxer! Now that’s a surprising image! (Rather than sneak a horseshoe into your fist, perhaps you could use a pocket-sized Proust instead, but I digress …)

    “But of course, like most people, my husband doesn’t lack those qualities, he just hasn’t found the working practice that gives him access to them.”

    What an amazing, uplifting line that is! A boon, a balm, a reprieve.

    Good luck with meeting your goals. Hopefully we’ll both take heed of the very sensible advice you’ve given here!

  4. “Routine” is key for me…I do my best work at anything in the morning, and then wilt gradually through the remainder of the day (although I occasionally get a second wind about 10 in the evening!)

    I don’t make resolutions, per se, either, but I can’t help setting some hopeful goals for myself at the begnning of a new year. Many of mine are very similar to yours. I’m working to get more physical acitivity into my life…I enjoy doing yoga, and I love walking, but our winter weather isn’t great for doing that outdoors (certainly my preferred walking space!)

    As far as your reading, might I suggest adding a Richard Russo novel to your list? I counted his Bridge of Sighs as the best of the novels I read in 2008.

  5. Wonderful entry, in part, because of its yes-I-know-what-you-mean-I-feel-that-way-too because..I do. Here’s to slowing it down and ratcheting it up, when needed and as necessary and effective. Happy New Year! And I love your John and Richard booklist. Excellent and unique idea. Hmmmm…

  6. Ah, routine. On a certain level I hate it because there is a part of me that yearns for the wild and unexpected, but in reality I require routine to keep me on track during the day. I like your color coding. My husband has been having difficulty managing his MS fatigue. I wonder if I could get him to try something like this? Is there someplace that has more details about it? Good luck with all your plans. It seems to me if you are even halfway successful at carrying them out it will be a good, productive and sane year.

  7. I love these:
    * But I need to begin by prioritizing writing in that space, and not allow other jobs to creep in and squat in the time zone.
    * …and not allow other jobs to creep in and squat in the time zone.
    *The aim of any organization I do is to make the day feel spacious…

    I too had some thoughts (blog) on how to reorient myself to my life…I won’t repeat them here. A slightly different take on yours…

  8. These are very sensible plans. I like how most of them are about behavior and thought patterns, which will make it easier to get the concrete things you listed accomplished — not that finishing an academic book is an easy goal! But thinking about the structure of your days will surely help get those big tasks finished. I hope it ends up being a great year!

  9. Lokesh – I am still laughing at the thought of taking someone out with a pocket-sized Proust (perfectly possible, I’m sure!). I do like what you say about boons and reprieves – I hadn’t thought of it like that, but it’s a lovely overlay. And this year is all about being sensible; it must show my age that I’m excited by such a prospect… :) Becca – I loved Straight Man and possess a copy of Bridge of Sighs that I am hoping very much to read soon. I hadn’t thought to add that particular Richard to the list, but what a good idea! I know just what you mean about wilting though the day! And this is not the time for long, leisurely walks, I agree. Let me know how you get on with the exercise – I really must ring up a few yoga teachers. Special K – why no, you should do exactly what feels right to you. I do enjoy novels written by men when I read them, so it’s just spreading the pleasure around, not installing an unnatural bias. Oh – thank you and a very happy new year to you, too! I like you choice of verbs there – slowing down and ratcheting up are perfect ways to describe what I do! Cam – I have found it very helpful myself – let me know how you get on if you give it a go. Stefanie – you transgressive wild child, you! ;) I’m sure achieving balance between those two poles is exactly what’s needed for an ideal life. I heard about the colour-coding on a radio 4 program but when I went to the website, it wasn’t available to download anymore. I’ve searched the internet for a written account of it but to no avail. Still, it basically entails according a colour code – red, orange, green in descending order of energetic investment – and monitoring your activity for a few days to get the feel of your daily pattern. Then you set about making sure that each day only has one stretch of red activity and that there is always at least two stretches of green. It reminds you to rest after any event that is strenuous and to parcel your energy out sensibly over the day. It really does help, so the best of luck to the two of you if you decide to try it out. Openpalm – thank you for your lovely comment – I’ve been over to read your post and I enjoyed it a great deal. I’ll return later to day to leave a comment. Yogamum – thank you so much! The colour-coding is really quite effective, I find, and I’m hoping very much to be able to classify yoga as one of the more restful activities. Dorothy – I never kept a single resolution I ever made, so I ended up thinking I ought to do something different. It’s not that I don’t have plans for the year, so I wanted to find a different way to express them. I’ll let you know how I get on with the academic book, but do cross your fingers for me! :)

  10. I initially misread the title and thought it said ‘let’s get piratical’. Imagine my surprise. Anyway, thank you for the colour-coding idea. I’m struggling with energy levels since having back surgery and tend to peak too soon during the day. Good luck with your academic book. You have such a engaging writing style that it is bound to be a successful project.

  11. Catherine – LOL! Perhaps I should do a piratical post; it sounds like quite a lot of fun :) But I am so sorry to hear that you have had to undergo back surgery, which I have always heard spoken of as painful and slow to recover from. Do take care of yourself and my very best wishes for a full and speedy return to health. And thank you for your kind words – much needed moral fibre for me in them!

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