Getting stuff done has taken on this mysterious quality to me. I do it when I have to. I write 20-page papers when they’re due. But it’s never quite the way I imagine it. At this point, I’ve nearly convinced myself that checking email/twitter/tumblr is necessary to the process. I’m never so wrapped up in my work that I forget a meal. Far from losing track of time, I watch it like it needs my attention to keep moving forward.
I find myself romanticizing what grad school must have been like without all the distractions. Concentrating was easier back then and everything had this kind of rosy color to it. Or not. In a room with just my books, I will get distracted staring out the window and thinking about something or someone.
Here in the middle of Summer where I don’t even have deadlines that loom and threaten to undermine all of my best procrastination techniques, I’m floundering. I repeat all of the very best advice. I know that creativity requires a lot of discipline. I feel like I used to be much better at this. I imagine my favorite writers sitting at their desks, but does Joyce Carol Oates really ever waste time waiting for someone to reply to a text? If she does, then I don’t want to know.
I cut myself some slack, because there in the early pages of Infinite Jest, which is without a doubt the most impressive and complex piece of writing I have ever encountered, is the line, “That concentrating intently on anything is very hard work.” That someone who wrote a 1000 page book with an additional 100 pages of footnotes would write a sentence like that, is all I need to know to stop pretending that this is easy for anyone.
I revisited all the very good advice I have heard too many times. This time I got stuck on the one about breaking your goals down. So I went home and tried to figure out how to do that. My first attempt failed. I focused on the work I wanted to complete and not the time involved. I need a deadline looming! I thought about how I write those research papers. I set a schedule of writing two pages every hour and I stick to it as if failure will result in a dementor attack.
So I downloaded the SelfControl application on my Mac and set it to block access to all of my favorite sites for an hour. I set a timer on my phone so I would know when the hour was up. I picked a task. And I worked for an hour. I still had those pesky windows and thoughts to distract me, but I figured that if I was going through all the trouble to block out other distractions, then I wouldn’t waste my time with the few I had left. When the hour was up, I returned to the internet to find that nothing had happened. So I set the clock for another hour and went back to work.
I’m sure this isn’t the way Joyce Carol Oates does it, but I’m no JCO! She has said that you should write for your own time and not a departed world. I will take that to mean that I should not just write for my own time, but also as a person of this time. And this time provides more distractions than ever. Lovely distractions that add a lot to my life when I mange them correctly.
I found that I can get quite a bit done in one hour of concentrated work, but what is more important is that I felt like I was moving in a direction and making progress on projects that are important to me. I think there’s a myth that if you’re doing something that you want to be doing, then it shouldn’t require any discipline. I find this to be false. Working on something for an hour, though, I think it becomes pretty obvious whether it’s worth your continued attention or not. After an hour, I was more excited than ever to keep working.
One hour at a time is not just a good way to get started. It’s also a good way to keep going. I know and repeat often that happiness is found in contrast, but it is not always easy to get the levels right. Sometimes the extremes work for me, but other times I need to write just two pages and not conquer the world. I have to balance my own impulses for creativity and practicality. I have to stop comparing myself to Joyce Carol Oates!