Sitting in a café this morning, watching as snow lightly falls and businesses start to open. People are heading to work or school, with determined steps and set, neutral faces. Lots of parents with children, all bundled up like tiny human packages. They’re fond of hats with animal faces and ridiculously cute, bright, bobbing pom-poms on them here. Everyone has rosy cheeks and coats that look like quilts on. It’s cold but not windy so I kind of like it. I feel awake.
I’ve been spending too much time inside, thinking the same thoughts, going over the same worries, obsessing over the same things. My brain defaults to cycles, I guess. It doesn’t seem to know how to switch tracks without a lot of angst beforehand. It wants to tread the same grooves, turning them into deep troughs of well-worn concern. Sometimes I think I need a mental shovel to dig out.
Granted, we’ve only been living in Germany for a little over a month. I don’t know why I always expect myself to instantaneously adjust to everything, with no lag time. My frenemy, ye old Unreasonable Expectations, has been really fond of me lately. She’s been hanging out a lot, taking up room, leaving shit on the kitchen table, lecturing me on all the Should’s I haven’t made into Done’s. She tells me to take a nap so I can be more productive, then yells at me for needing sleep.
The problem with Should’s, really, is that they seem simple. They seem harmless. What’s wrong with having goals? What’s wrong with expecting more of yourself?
Theoretically, nothing. That is, when you’re expecting more from yourself in a way that actually let’s you accomplish those goals, not set you up for impossible ideals you can’t reach, so you continuously fail, and feel like a failure. Because instead of supporting yourself and what you really need to do to accomplish what you want, you’ve been self-sabotaging with inevitable failure. With the belief, at core, that nothing you do is really worth doing, no achieved goal is really an accomplishment.
Why do I do this? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid, I was never satisfied with a single thing I ever did. It’s not something I developed in adolescence or adulthood. It’s always been there. This constant, nagging, doubt.
So. What do I do about it? It changes, from day to day. Some days I basically just shut down and make very little progress and feel a lot of self-disgust. I do not recommend this strategy.
One of the things I find almost always works to snap me out of it is getting the hell out of wherever I am, going for a walk, turning up music and dancing around like an idiot, watching something I love, or otherwise breaking whatever routine I’ve gotten into that isn’t currently helping. This idea that we should never take breaks and clear up our brains because that will “kill momentum” is, I think, ultimately counter productive. Obviously don’t mess up a groove that’s working, but if it’s not, do something else for a while. Read. Go out for a coffee. Talk to a friend. Get your brain on some other track.
When I worked at a desk job I had this unhealthy attachment to my workspace. No matter what company I was in, it was extremely difficult for me to unglue myself from the computer, chair, and environment, for any amount of time during those 9-10hrs. Normal people at least take lunch. I felt guilty if I spent a minute in the bathroom. I get into this place where I feel like I must always be DOING WORK, like if I stop for a second, get some food, take a little walk, or chat with a co-worker, suddenly I will no longer be able to function and all work will cease and I will become the dreaded UNPRODUCTIVE. I have absolutely no idea where I picked up the idea that I must be doing something that leads to something else every second I’m awake. No one in my family is a workaholic. I was not an overachiever in school. But wow, has it become a hard habit to break.
Part of why I think this way is because of what I do. Editing and writing are, in most ways, all about the details. They require concentrations and chunks of time dedicated to focusing on the task at hand. The kind of editing I do is less about the finer points of spelling and grammar (obviously, I mess up on that all the time), and more about the detail work of storytelling. It’s about nuance. In some ways, it’s almost like solving a puzzle. You are trying to figure out whether the story you are getting is the story the writer is trying to tell, and if it isn’t, why it isn’t. Depending on what kind of story it is, you may also have to consider continuity (especially important in ongoing monthly comics), character development, narrative arcs, etc. That’s actually quite a lot of things to be keeping balanced in your head. And what’s more, you’re not just thinking about them, you’re coming up with solutions for a given problem. In my case usually in the form of a suggestion, I don’t tell writers what to write. I give them my interpretation, ask questions, and make sure I’m facilitating the whole process. If I’m not then I have to figure out why not.
But this isn’t all you do when you edit. Every day is usually a combination of known tasks, new ones, and surprise crises. The latter are never exactly a surprise, in the sense that something is always going wrong in publishing. It’s just that the shape isn’t always the same.
Maybe that’s where it comes from, the idea that I must always be doing something. You rarely have a “slow” day in comics. There are certainly days when you’re not approving a book or having some immediate, this must go out now moment, but there’s always something happening. Something that needs doing. You can write a to-do list and hope you get to all of it, but I find most days get derailed. It’s just the extremity of it that changes.
The thing is, though, that if you never take a break, your work WILL suffer. You will stop noticing the finer points. Details will go by you. Nuance will get lost. I always make the most mistakes, miss the most obvious forest for the trees, when I haven't been taking any time away. Your brain needs to reset. You need to switch up your route, otherwise it becomes a senseless, autopilot, groove, where you're just going through the motions. Which, in the end, is the opposite of being present and and active in your own head.
I still don’t know where the ( I don’t know, terror? ) of Not Being Productive comes from, though. Maybe it’s because I’m an atheist and, as such, believe this is it, this is all I get. With that kind of “what I have is now” motivation, it’s hard to justify wasting any of it. There’s a drive to make it count. Which is fine, in so far as it actually results in doing things that matter to me. It’s not okay when I spend my limited time constantly judging myself and turning everything into a neverending litany of “not good enough”. It’s okay to say “I like this thing I did. It matters to me. I am glad I made it and I am proud that I did.”
It’s harder to say, think, and feel that than it probably ought to be. And here we are, back at should. Dammit.