It’s about 7:45 and I’m finishing up coffee and breakfast in a cafe near my apartment in east Cambridge. I’ve been awake since 4:30. It has been raining all morning, and outside these windows it is a parade of dark umbrellas and shockingly bright ponchos. I am glad to be in here with my coffee and scone.
I used to arrive at school every morning at this time, and being up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning did not seem like much of a feat. For the past couple years, waking up anytime before 8 seemed like a miraculous event, one deserving of some kind of commendation medal. “For Excellence in Getting Out of Bed Prior to Lunch, the Committee Awards on This Day…”
Now my day starts well before dawn, because I have reluctantly acknowledged that I am unable to do any work that is the least bit intellectually taxing after lunch.
I don’t know what happens. Whatever I have for lunch, however much or little I have of it, I become an uncreative, distracted procrastinator the moment the dishes are cleared away. I can still do chores, play games, or even do some light editing work, but I cannot write or conduct much research.
It was killing me how I would deceive myself. I would front-load the day a bit, but I’d always promise myself that I could make up for lost time in the afternoon or early evening. Didn’t make my word-count? I’d get there before dinner. At the very least I’d put together a good outline.
So time and again I’d find myself, at 10 at night, staring at a legal pad with “OUTLINE” written across the top. Underneath, I’d have: “Main argument: WTF happened to video game manuals? This is bullshit.”
And underneath that: “Supporting argument 1: Manuals were cool.”
The rest of the page would be blank. This would represent 12 or 13 hours of “work” in which I pointlessly browsed the web, wrote and deleted several introductory paragraphs, and refused to let myself do anything else because I had not accomplished my day’s goals yet.
If there is one thing of which I am sure, it is that I am consistent in my inconsistency. A few years ago I could only work in coffee shops, one in particular. If I couldn’t make it down College Avenue to one of the cafes, my entire day would end up going to waste. Then, for no reason at all, I stopped being able to get work done there and started to do all my work in my office. Then that stopped working, and I split work between my living room and libraries.
When I was a freshman in college, I couldn’t write a damn thing before 11 at night. My best papers were completed between midnight and dawn, except that suddenly I started missing deadlines because the night schedule stopped working. Suddenly I could only work between lunch and 10 P.M.
I hope my current schedule will last. It’s liberating to know that my workday has a set endpoint, and that it won’t drag itself out through my afternoon and night. I have had problems in the past with letting work sort of consume my life, simply because I never really scheduled breaks from it. I would be tremendously sick of an article I was writing before I’d even finished three paragraphs, because it was pestering me from the moment I turned on the shower in the morning to the moment I fell asleep.
Here’s the dilemma I can’t solve: some days I can’t get a damn thing done. I can tell, halfway through, that I’m not going to write anything usable or have any clever insights. Should that be a signal to walk away, or do I honor my commitment to work for a given number of hours, whether or not I accomplish anything. Because giving up can also become habitual, yet beating your head against a wall is undeniably pointless.
Except that I always wonder: when I have that flash of insight after days of struggling with a piece, is that just a sign that I’m having a good day and things have finally come together, or is it the product of a subconscious cognitive process that’s happening while I struggle through unproductive workdays?
I write all this because it’s on my mind. My approach to the workday gets the job done, but I still feel like I end up wasting a lot of time. I’m just not sure how to improve my efficiency.