Saved by the Bell

It is time.  The book reviews are done.  The office is decluttered.  The books are reorganized.  The files are in folders.  It is time to start writing again.

And I'm terrified.   Yes, of all of the usual things: not having anything to say, not having enough time to say what little I might have to say.  But thanks to Prof. Boice, I now understand that these are not the real causes of my writing block.  (Read, anxiety.)

Rather, I have plenty of time.  And I will have plenty to say.  If only I don't try to push it.  If only I can learn how not to write.  More particularly, how to stop writing at the end of the day.  "But you've had writer's block," you might be thinking.  "Surely stopping is the last thing you should be worried about."

Ah.  Well.  In fact, no.  Stopping is the first step towards writing with comfort and fluency, because stopping means no longer bingeing.  No longer giving in to the hypomania of writing to the point of exhaustion in the mistaken belief that that is what "real" writers do.  No longer writing simply in order to finish as quickly as possible or because a deadline is looming.  No longer thinking that the only way in which I will ever finish my next book is by writing for hours and hours and hours a day--and then beating myself up when I can't and don't.

As Prof. Boice* puts it: "Holding back is the essence of moderation; stopping is central to self-discipline."  And if one doesn't practice holding back?  Not, as I had previously believed, more productivity, but less.  Oh, really?  I still don't believe it.  Just as Prof. Boice predicts: "Impatience and intolerance.  These are the core deterrents to stopping in a timely fashion.  Impatience and its impulsivity reinforce feelings that we are doing something too important to cease and that stopping now will cause us to lose concentration, control, self-worth, and brilliance."  When in fact, if we rush, work beyond the bell, all we get is rushed work.  And more busyness.

(As in that last paragraph, where I was trying to finish that thought before the bell on my timer rang for the first 30 minute session that I planned to spend on this blog post.  Except that I wanted to finish it in a single sitting.  And didn't.  So I started trying to cram it all in.  But the bell rang, so I took a break to put in my order for a new laptop--gotta have the right tools!  Now I'm on my next 30 minute session.  Breathe.)

But it's hard.  It is very, very hard stopping when that bell rings.  Oddly, given that it feels equally hard at times even to start.  Except when I am able to promise myself that I don't need to work all day, just for a little while, maybe even for only 10 minutes, okay 20.  But then I can stop.  Except that when the timer chimes, I typically don't want to.  Even when I didn't want to start.

Go figure.  I have two timers now, one at home for reading and blogging, and one in my office on campus for writing.  I've been using the one at home for a good year and a half now while working on my translation (the batteries that it came with died yesterday, if that tells you anything); I bought the second one this weekend so that I would be able to pace myself properly at work.  Today I set it to a series of six 20 minute intervals, with 5 minute breaks in between.  Prof. Boice recommends making yourself pause every 20 minutes or so to stretch, breathe, and take a break.  Precisely so as to avoid the hypomania of working in extended bursts.

But it's hard.  It's hard pushing away from the desk (or the laptop) when the bell rings to take a break.  It was even harder stopping when the last interval of the series chimed.  I wanted to keep going with the footnotes I was working on.  Just to get a little bit more finished today.  There's nothing wrong with that, right?  But there would be.  I know there would be.

So I stopped.  And sat there for a good five minutes (untimed) and then tried to work a little more (I set the timer for 10 minutes) and then stopped again and sat there, trying to will myself to push away.

But it was hard.  Because how do I know that this practice of stopping is ever going to work?  Wouldn't it be better to keep going when I feel so inspired?  No, no, a thousand times no.  Again, Prof. Boice: "Impatience also builds on intolerances (i.e. fears) about changing familiar habits of rushing and other impulsivities.  In particular, it leads us to believe that stopping before feeling fully ready will be too painful, too awful, to tolerate...  Intolerance also crops up as skepticism about the value of patience in a workplace [i.e. academia] where busyness seems tantamount to importance.  It also crops up as doubt about the scientific methods that show the greater health and efficiency of timely stopping.  If I seem to be warning you against the Devil herself, note that that [sic] my concern is really about the devilishly hard work we make for ourselves--and for others--when we resist timely stopping."

So I stopped.  And stayed stopped.  And pushed away from my desk.  Ah, there's the bell again.  Time to stop....  Okay, this is really hard.  It's a good ten minutes later, and I'm still here.  Trying again.

*Robert Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil nimis (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000), pp. 47-48.

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