Wasting Time

Sometimes it feels like the more time I have, the less I get done. I’ve had an erratic work schedule for almost two years now, doing everything from paternity leave in a school which took up five days a week, to doing nothing but evening and weekend tutoring to make ends meet while I write a book and complete my Masters. It’s a strange sensation, not having fixed work hours, a fixed income, a steady schedule to take you through each day. It also ups the pressure at the time I’ve allowed myself to write. With sometimes just a few hours, sometimes a whole day, suddenly I have a word count to get to, deadlines to fill and a blog to write. I set myself deadlines to help motivate myself and encourage me to work, but the problem is that I’m asking my creativity to appear at the drop of a hat. There are days I get 2,000 new words written in a couple of hours, and other days where I have an entire day just to edit and I only get 600 done. I’ve been experimenting with the way I spend my interim time, in order to find out which tends to result in a more creative and productive process.

One of the problems is, I’m not exactly a relaxed person with my time. In between completing my MA, I set myself the target of blogging once a week, entering short story competitions, running three times (at least) a week and spending at least fifteen minutes a day learning French. Once you add in the boring ‘life admin’ of washing, cleaning, gardening, cooking and shopping, that doesn’t really leave a lot to experiment with. Still, I look at things like time spent eating (yes, I don’t like to waste even that), evening pursuits and the odd half an hour in between all this other crap. Of all of the things I’ve filled this time with, I’ve split it into roughly ‘intellectual,’ ‘enjoyable’ and ‘wasted,’ and had a think about the effects each of them had on me.

Intellectual

I decided that this was anything that actually taught me something while I was filling time in between other things. This could be while eating lunch, stretching after a run, having a break, chilling in the evening, that sort of thing. My time filling here included TED talks, radio podcasts about interesting things, reading informative books and articles, and watching documentaries.

I felt so smart. Every day I could give some little anecdote about something I had learned on TED, or I could approach my writing with a sense of purpose as I knew something more about the theory behind it, or I just had a little ‘ooh’ moment when something piqued my interest. The main problem was, it didn’t really feel like a break. Watching a TED talk or two while eating lunch made me feel like I needed another break afterwards so my brain had time to reshuffle things.

Enjoyable

The criteria for this category was anything that I was genuinely looking forward to doing. This could include watching a film or an episode on Netflix, reading a novel (rather than anything informative per se) or going drumming. These worked as a great incentive. Giving myself something to aim for if I managed to finish my word target for that day, or I’d managed to sort a plotting problem out, so I was allowed to sit and do something fun, really meant that I wanted to work hard in order to earn them. I suppose the possible problem with this one was that if it was too enjoyable, I spent too much time actually doing that than the thing I was supposed to be working on, so ended up lowering my productivity. It also sometimes lead to a simple ‘word drop’ because I wanted to get to a certain goal, which I then had to edit, rather than anything decent.

Wasted

This was all the stuff that I consider to be useless. That includes Facebook, Buzzfeed, looking at funny videos, all the stuff that can start off as a minor distraction and end up taking hours of your life. The problems here are obvious. They ‘waste’ your time twice, because you’re not doing anything productive, but neither are you doing anything necessarily enjoyable, and you’re not learning anything (usually). However, it turns out that this mindless time might actually be a good thing. Research has shown that these short, mindless activities often allow for your brain to tick over more important things in the background, so you might end up solving that problem more quickly than if you had used that time in a meaningful way.

The results? A bit tricky to say. It was much harder to stick to the intellectual things, and I think I went less than a week of a TED talk a day. Maybe if I slowed these things down to once or twice a week they might become more meaningful and less of a chore I’ve inflicted on myself. The enjoyable ones worked as a good motivational tool, while the wasted ones could potentially improve my productivity, although they are the most dangerous at spiralling out of time control.

What I did notice is that I never do nothing. I started looking at Facbeook and Twitter while I was stretching after a run so it wouldn’t feel like ‘time wasted.’ If I spend more than half an hour on lunch I get grumpy with myself and can end up spoiling my whole day. Even when I go and experience the lovely nearby parks, I’m doing it by running through them, not by walking through them or sitting, without a book, without my phone. This is the problem with working freelance and trying to be a writer. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. I schedule blog post writing on the train, I take photos to go on my Twitter feed on the bus, my brain never shuts off.

This is where the change is really needed. I was on holiday the other week. A whole ten days in a very quiet area of France, milling about, eating food, having a chat, doing not much of anything. All of a sudden, I had an inspiration for a short story. I grabbed a pen and paper in the car, scribbled down some notes, and wrote pretty much the whole thing on the Eurostar on the way home. That never happens to me. I’ll have a short story competition deadline coming up and I will literally stare at the world, thinking ‘I need an idea for a story,’ for hours, with nothing appearing in my brain. Interesting that when I actually just stopped, inspiration struck.

So I think what I need to add to my schedule is some big chunks of nothing. Time where I don’t saturate my brain with anything at all, but just sit back and watch the world go by. If I can fit it in…

New Year, Same Trousers

This was the first January I’ve managed not to feel guilty in possibly my entire adult life (the exact beginning of this is debatable, but still).

Having said that, in previous years, my guilt was always tainted with annoyance. It is grossly unfair that merely days before the very same media who were shoving cake, cream and alcohol down our necks are suddenly chastising us for being fatties. Christmas and the surrounding months are such a strange time of year – maniacal enthusiasm, sparkly tinsel and the mulling of everything (of which I am most definitely a fan) followed by complete abstinence and endless adverts for gym membership. In this most schizophrenic of seasons, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and constantly lagging behind.

But not this year. At the risk of sounding smug, I actually went for a run on Boxing Day morning. Admittedly, my good deeds didn’t go as far as restricting my cheese and wine consumption that evening, but at least I started out well. What I might finally have achieved (it has only taken 34 years) is sustainability. Because ultimately, that is the issue. I read this week that over 50% of people gave up on their healthy resolutions by this week, with another 20% predicted to fall off the wagon next week. These are not encouraging statistics, particularly given the UK’s standing in terms of obesity across Europe. The most cited reason for giving up was the lack of ‘difference’ it made. For this, part of the blame has to go to Reality TV shows like the awful Channel 4 series that pits fat people against each other, or the endless weight loss foods and programmes we are bombarded with on a daily basis. It’s all quick fixes and fad diets, many of which I’ve tried over the years. I had to stop the 5:2 fast diet because I was so irrationally grumpy on fast days. Not only were they unsustainable, they also ceased to have any effect as soon as I stopped.

My other concern is that they mostly focus on diet food. I’ve long been dissatisfied with the low-fat diet products available on the market. The fact is that if you take the fat out of something like cake or yoghurt, you have to replace it with something. Usually, it’s sugar, or artificial sweeteners. But then no-one is going to tell you not to eat processed food, because they make billions in taxes each year. The world’s healthiest diet can apparently be found in Iceland. Not because of a magic ingredient or biscuits being illegal, but simply because they mess around with their food a lot less. It’s simple – from food to mouth, the less that’s done to it, the better.

That’s not to mention the fact that the main focus is more often than not, only based on diet. Of course, what you eat makes a massive difference, but the impact exercise has on your entire body and mental health just can’t be substituted. So what’s my secret? It is beautifully summed up in a conversation a friend of mine had in the gym:

“You look great. What’s your secret?”

“I don’t eat a lot of junk food and I exercise regularly.”

“Oh.”

Exactly what people don’t want to hear. Ultimately, only a change in lifestyle will lead to any lasting effect on your body.

About seven years ago, I started running. My family was never particularly sporty, so I basically gave up all forms of exercise after PE stopped being compulsory. Also, as I’m incredibly competitive but pretty unskilled, I quickly got frustrated with squash, netball, hockey, or anything where I couldn’t quickly get to a level where I at least had a vague chance of beating someone. With running, I’m only competing against myself. Which I do. Having an app that measures distance and speed, and sends me little encouraging emails, I can easily improve on goals and set targets. Interestingly enough, I haven’t lost that much actual weight. Probably less than a stone. I’m still a size 12. I am however, very differently shaped. Much more toned, leaner and stronger. Also, FYI, going for a long run on a Saturday morning is a great way to pre-emptively avoid a hangover, and makes a Sunday roast not just appealing but necessary to replace lost calories and proteins. It’s also changing the way I see my body. I’m losing the association of lighter=thinner=better. I love that I’m able to run for the bus, play netball with my nieces and nephews and have an impromptu game of badminton without getting out of breath. I finally see what my PE teacher at school was talking about! I am able to see my body as an amazing, strong tool for achieving things, not just something to look good.

For some people, the idea of taking up regular running is about as appealing as pulling out your toenails. And hey, a few did drop off when I had shoes that were too tight. But the boring news is, a healthy, fit and fabulous you will not emerge in three weeks. Or even three months. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, or that it isn’t worth striving for. It’s difficult, it takes practice, but it feels pretty amazing when you get there. If you need motivation, check out this fantastic campaign: http://www.thisgirlcan.co.uk

What are the things that help you feel strong and healthy? Post below!