Looked at from just the right perspective, there is an interesting challenge to managing limited energy. Instead of always beginning at the beginning and plowing straight through (not a very sophisticated approach, but one that does the job), a little more strategy and finesse are required. Thinking about this also requires energy—and practice. For the first time in a long time, I need new habits for managing time, priorities and tasks. It takes an effort to see this as one of the good problems to have (which it is) and it’s taking time (way too much) to get the knack of seeing and living it that way.
The biggest challenge is separating the important from the urgent—and my nervous system tags a lot more things as urgent than truly are. Michael, for example, can get a phone message and take days to a week to return the call, depending on the topic and what else he’s working on at the moment. That’s not ever been in my repertoire, in part because it costs me less than it costs him to talk on the telephone in the steady state, and in part because he is more content in his own thoughts than I am. If someone is trying to reach me, I want to know what it’s about, what to do about it, to get it on my list, do it and cross it off my list. It’s more than a little bit neurotic, but also fairly harmless—when the energy exists. Some of these small neuroses are now luxuries I don’t get to indulge any more.
Merlin Mann and all the time/productivity bloggers (am I supposed to call him a guru?) preach doing what’s important before less-important but urgent stuff, and that’s my new goal. It’s hard, given how I’m wired. On the other hand, it’s not optional right now, if I want to continue to do what’s important to me. This means ignoring my email in-box at times to concentrate on getting out the next draft of the chapter on which I’m laboriously struggling. Writing this chapter is one of the hardest things I’ve done lately and it’s not going all that well so far. It takes about four or five hours to revise it and it’s hard work to buckle down at something that makes me feel incompetent and to ignore the siren song of cleaning up my email in-box or completing small tasks that can get crossed off, which carries its own sense of psychological achievement.
Finding the right balance, as always for me, is the tricky part. Living my values is hard when I have to make so many choices. The most important thing is the people, and now it’s actually seeing the people that costs the most: I can work quietly at home all day without needing a nap, but going out into the world and seeing people wears me out, and fast. I’m not going to stop staying connected to the people I care about, nor stop investing in the people around me, from my mentee to students to friends. But I do have to make more choices now than is comfortable. After those choices are others that aren’t of the same import and are also uncomfortable: my inbox is more full and cluttered than it’s been in years. Several mailing lists that I truly enjoy have had to be chopped out of my life. (Well, ok, in truth, not completely chopped; their folders get more and more full of unread messages and one of these days, there won’t be much choice but to delete the contents wholesale. But for now, I’m maintaining the illusion that I might get to add them back sometime soon.) Tasks I’ve always just been able to say “sure, I can do that along with everything else” have to be jettisoned now.
There’s a real sense of loss associated with the paring down, and as I’ve written before, for some parts of it, a sense of being freer. This experience is going to change me—has already changed me—with effects that will extend far beyond the time this recovery is going to take. Some of the habits I’m changing are good changes and I’m unlikely ever to revert back to my previous “sure, I can do that,” good-girl persona quite to the extent that it existed before. (Good girls always do as they’re asked and make things work.) I’ve always been a good girl. (Mostly.) Letting go of that is an interesting experience. Would I have signed up for brain surgery to go through this change? Probably not. Do I regret it, in perspective? No.
Anyway, it’s time to tackle the vexing chapter again before the week’s papers come in and need to be graded—which is both important and time-critical.