I have this romanticized image of what it means to be a productive writer. I’m in a locked room, alone, with the moonlight filtering through a giant window and alighting the spines of ancient tomes beside my work desk. The computer monitor glows. Drone music plays through big headphones. I’m wearing nothing but a big sweater that hits my naked thighs, and thick black socks I’ve stolen from a boy. The chill from the fan hits my legs even as heat swells in my throat. I’ve discarded most human needs, even to be loved, or have sex, or eat. Everything except the need to drink coffee and port, that is, and as I become fused to my keyboard I cast aside even the memory of hunger.
I desire to be one with my work – to become consumed by it (I rank high in conscientiousness on the big 5 personality test, which probably has something to do with this.) Ever since I was a child I romanticized the work. Everything else was cursory. I suppose maybe I’d be married and have children, or buy a house, or go on vacations – but those ideas were shadows on the wall. When I saw myself working, writing, that vision was crystalline. I could pick it up like a solid object and turn it in the light.
But what I forgot was that the room was connected to the house, and the house to a neighborhood. I forgot that the moon shining down on me shone down on the planet. And the same woman who wrote also needed to breath, sleep, stretch, and eat. The problem was that I regarded these as inconveniences instead of things integral to the machine of functioning. But if you work against your biology constantly, you’re bound to fail. I am not a robot – eventually I needed to step away from the desk.
If your work ethic is predicated on the fact that eating, sleeping, and needing to take a break are moral failings – and you will eventually need to cave to these things – can you see how easily you could get caught in a vicious cycle of self hatred?
Should I blame the Puritanical work ethic? Living in a society where sleep deprivation is a badge of honor and people proudly say that they forgot to eat lunch? Thomas Edison abhorred sleep and saw it as a weakness – he worked 18 hours a day, took cat-naps, and slept about 4 or 5 hours a night. The flesh is always derided as ‘weak’ by religious people. Something to be driven like a slave.
But we understand more about the mind-body connection than we ever did, and we realize now that the mind isn’t driving the body. They are one.
And if you drive yourself like a slave, you will get slave work.
If you treat yourself like a partner, then together – mind and body – you may just be able to create something truly great.
Part of your job, if you want to become the best person you can be, is to do your research about what it means to be human. Because the more you learn about being human, the more you’ll understand your own impulses and failings. And often, you’ll see they aren’t even failings at all.
The 8 hour workday was a result of labor unions negotiating with factory owners – it has nothing to do with how much work we can get done in a day or how long we’re able to concentrate. Surveys suggest that out of 8 hour days, most people get about 3 hours of work done. So if you’re doing 3 hours of work on whatever it is you want to do, you’re doing about the average.
Lately I’ve been doing some research about circadian rhythms and how the body acts at different times. Generally speaking we’re more productive in the morning, and more creative at night. So I’ve been scheduling my work around those times. During the night I plan and allow my mind to free associate. During the morning, I write what I planned at night. I know not everyone can adhere to a schedule like that – but the important takeaway is that we can’t defy biology and millions of years of evolution. If we work with it – we get good results. If we work against it, we have to work that much harder.
And the more I understand about myself, the more I understand I wasn’t designed to sit in front of a computer collecting dust. I was designed to live – to become a synthesis of everything that I ever experienced – and transmute that to others. In order to do that I need to eat good food, get enough sleep to dream, take a moment to play with my puppies, take a moment with an iced coffee to stand out on the porch and feel the breeze. Because I have no input, what I output will be crusted over, and worn-out, and retread ideas over and over again.
As I do so, I try to cast away my old ideas of what it means to be perfect.
If we regard perfection as a celestial body – something unmoving and whole in and of itself, then we will never be perfect.
But if we regard perfection as the constant push-pull of different objects acting on each other in exactly the way they’re meant to – then we already are perfect.