The difficulty of sustaining things (Part 3)

Last night I was Skyping with an old friend. We were late because my day had not gone to plan, and we talked about the year to come. I said that I needed to improve my performance on work and referred to the fact that last year I hadn’t put in the amount of hours needed to make progress. She is also a freelancer, so we discussed our hours some length before I realised that I had just negated all of my own proclamations about the industrial paradigm for work. ‘Working hours’ is an example of exactly the thinking that I’m trying to change, but like the Flintstones’ cat, it leaped in the window behind my back.


What I really meant about 2019 being unproductive on the PhD front is that my energy was going into different things. I want to keep the focus on the energy, not the product or the hours logged. If I can get the energy right, everything else will follow.

There are three things that I think about:

1) How to raise energy
2) How to stop losing so much of it to bad and stupid things
3) How to direct it.

Raising energy

I experience creativity as a physical feeling, there’s an urgency, a forming sense of action that I have inside. If it’s something that’s a long time coming, where I’ve prepared internally for a while and have (consciously or not) already put in a lot of work, then the initial impulse can be very strong and I feel like I need to act on it now, and when that happens I usually do act immediately.

I drop everything to catch the wave because I want to train my system to know that when it gives me that energy, I’m going to use it. Then maybe my subconscious will begin to trust me and we can work together.

But sometimes the idea is not well-formed, or I don’t have what I need, or I’m just tired. Then there might be lots of false starts where something rises up and doesn’t achieve escape velocity and it dies back again. It’s easy to feel discouraged here.

I get tired far more easily in my fifties than I did in my twenties. I never seem to grasp this, though. What I find is that I don’t think I should have to rest, but I do, and usually I have to rest for twice as long as I think I should. All sorts of science about sleep has come into public awareness in the last few years, but I’m talking about more than sleep. I mean rest that is an actual break from everything possible, a real step-down in energy expenditure and a step-up in nurture. When I’m tired, I rest until I’m restless and getting antsy. It’s a skill I’ve learned through getting it wrong and ending up miserable and toxic to others around me.

Energy is all about heart. If my heart is in something, then I’m tapping into a much larger energy pool than with my ego or intellect alone. Sometimes this happens with an idea or project that is deeply personal and specific to me. But more powerfully, I find that doing such work as leads to a deeper sense of connection and community with others brings far more energy than doing work alone. There’s just so much more to draw on.

I think of myself as a tide pool attached to an ocean. I’m not looking to hoard energy for myself; I’m looking to bring as much of it through me as I can because this nourishes me, and at the same time I want to disseminate it to others in a way that nourishes them. I want to be a conduit for more good things.

How to stop losing so much energy (to bad & stupid things)

I don’t mind if that conduit thing sounds cliché. Energy moves in and out of us all the time; none of us are closed systems. It’s a mistake to think that we can just ride the waves of whatever is happening in our lives or communities without gaining and losing energy. That seems like such an obvious thing to say, and yet half of what I read on Twitter is people reeling and expressing dismay on Twitter about other things they have read on Twitter. Emotions spiral in company. For a long time I couldn’t go online without leaking energy faster than I could replenish it.

We can also draw energy from the exact same connections, though. We need one another, and we need to communicate. It’s impractical to just shut off all stimuli in the same way that it’s impractical to just stop eating. I like to use internet blockers for online leakage, and for leakage in real life I simply cut out things that are stressing me out whenever I possibly can. If I can’t cut them out, then I’ll point them out to myself by writing about them so that I remember to account for these losses when I’m planning what I can and can’t do.

This is not to say that energy shouldn’t sometimes be contained. I like to give ideas some isolation, some time in darkness and silence to develop mass and therefore gravity and therefore an energy of their own. I don’t want the outside world to intrude on this very vulnerable thing that I’m growing, and sometimes I cut myself off so that I can hear myself think.

Finally, the world is always crying out with need and distress. Sometimes there’s so much out there that’s desperate for help, and I feel like I can’t do nearly enough and don’t know what to do, decision fatigue sets in and then I end up doing nothing and just feeling exhausted. If it seems like this is starting to happen, I try to take on at least one concrete act, however small, to respond to the distress calls I’m hearing. It helps me keep going instead of collapsing inward in despair.

I don’t have any answers here, but this whole problem is something that I’m working on actively. I do find that simply identifying the things that drain my energy and the things that replenish it is a useful exercise that needs to be repeated frequently. Personally, I’m replenished by running, walking in nature, growing things, working outdoors, and hanging with my kids. If I’m doing a lot of those things then it usually means something’s draining me in some other part of my life.

How to direct it

When I was young, it was really difficult to contain and direct the creative juice—it was all over the place, all the time, messily. Now I am better organised, but it’s more difficult to raise energy in the first place. Learning how to organise myself in a dynamic way has made a big difference to me in recent years. I don’t subscribe to any system, but I have a loose method. Notebooks are really good for keeping track of things that aren’t quite there. I use Evernote as a hold-all.

Directing energy includes some of the ideas I’ve been talking about above: I strike when the iron is hot. I contain the amount of time I work–so this post is being rushed through squeezed between two other things–because if I wait to have enough time, I never will (and because working in a hurry helps to short-circuit perfectionism). I let myself rotate through tasks so that I weaponise my own procrastination. For example: I’m supposed to pay bills today? Hah! No chance. I suddenly need to work on this piece of code. I’m supposed to work on this code? Nope, planting vegetables. Everything gets done, but I try to minimise the amount of fighting with myself that I have to do. That way I’m saving energy for when I really need it. Sometimes there’s no choice but to do the thing you don’t want to do and to do it right now; but sometimes there is.

I might have more to say about this last one another time. I have to go pick up my teenager twenty minutes ago, so I’m going to close this. Being late leads me to my final point: ultimately, energy is lossy. Think second law of thermodynamics. Heat death of Universe. Mysterious disappearance of odd socks. It’s all the same.

People love to quote Samuel Beckett: ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’ to the point where is has become motivationspeak, a 10,000 hours of deliberate practice slogan about continuing to strive for success, and thus completely missing the point of the original work. The point is futility. The point is you can’t win. Nobody can.

Well, so what?