Spinning My Wheels

I like to think of myself as a highly productive person, and by many measures I am. I don’t waste time very often. Even my break time is spent productively, reading books or watching movies I believe are in some way important. I learn constantly, I work constantly, I produce constantly.

But sometimes I find that for all of my production I am not actually producing anything of note. I write every day, but can go days or even weeks without working on a specific book or play. I read everyday, but still only manage a few pages at a time. The truly awful thing is that sometimes I’ll even manage to rest in an unproductive way. I’ll listen to an intense podcast while on lunch break and end up going through the motions of taking a break yet feeling no restorative effects.

These are not constants of course, but when my incredible productivity hasn’t produced anything for several days or weeks, I can feel it. I feel it every time I sit down, every time I get home. I stare at my computer with a sense of hopelessness. I realize that I’m about to expend effort and achieve no satisfying result. Even though the majority of my work both at home and in the office is self-generated and self-managed, somehow I’ve managed to make it unfulfilling.

I know what I ought to do in such times. I ought to take a break – a real break. I ought to stop all my normal routines and just waste time for a day or two. I ought to do a full reset. Turn it off and on again like a malfunctioning computer.

I don’t take vacations like I should. I think it’s because I know that even if I had a day where I truly took a break from everything else, I would still think. I would still know all the things I am not doing. I would still know all the things I want to be doing. And I would grow impatient with my vacation. I would want to get to work on something – anything – to feel like I’m being productive. I must learn, I must work, I must produce. It is my natural resting state.

In the end, the thing I struggle with is learning to let go of possibilities, and forgiving myself for not going after them. There are so many things in the world that fascinate me, so many things I want to do and know, that I will always have to say no to what I want more often than I get to say yes. I make lists all the time. I make lists of languages to learn, books to read, TV shows to watch, skills to acquire. I’m constantly re-writing my goals in hopes of one day figuring out how I’m going to accomplish them all in the one short life I have available. This means sometimes I fall so much in love with the the What and How of doing that I forget about the Why.

Snow on Trees landscapeI booked a vacation for February. I’m going to Holden Village, a retreat community three hours out of town that you can only get to by boat. I’m told that the winter community is small, and there’s a good chance that my aversion to cold will keep me bundled up in my own room the whole week. They cook all the meals and there’s no access to the internet. Hopefully it will be the kind of reset I’m looking for, and a chance to forgive myself for only having 24 hours in a day. At very least, I’ll have plenty of free time to make more lists.

Take a Look, It’s in a Book

last-night-at-the-lobsterIn February of this year, something very embarrassing happened to me. I was browsing Reddit (despite having better things to do), when a question popped up on the writing subreddit: “How many books do you read a year?” It seemed like a simple enough question. I knew that I didn’t read much – hardly at all really. I’d wanted to start reading more as a way to improve my writing, so I thought it would be good to look at the responses and get an idea of how much my fellow authors were reading.

Fifty.

Excuse me?

Fifty to sixty books a year. Some claimed a bit more, a few claimed a bit less. But the answers were routinely hovering around one book a week. I was shocked. In 2013 I had read two books. Total. Even then, I ended up skimming a lot of the first one, and the second one was a very short book of very short stories (it was also brilliant and I highly recommend it: Sum by David Eagleman).

This was my wakeup call. While I knew it was possible that people were over-selling themselves, they could be doubling their results and still outpacing me twelve to one. It was unacceptable. I had always been a great reader – the top of my class. By junior high I was testing as “13+”, meaning beyond the standard 12 grades and past the point where they keep track. Thirteen Plus. I was so good at reading, I was off the chart. There was a plus sign to prove it.

9780440508830_p0_v1_s260x420Looking back, the problem started early. I was good at reading, yes, but I didn’t enjoy it. More specifically, I didn’t enjoy the books I had to read for school. I didn’t enjoy The Picture of Dorian Gray. I didn’t enjoy The Scarlet Letter or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There were a few hits of course. The Little Prince was worth it. The Good Earth was surprisingly engaging, as was A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But those were anomalies. I didn’t like most of the books. More importantly, I loved television. I spent hours in front of the television, internalizing the five-act plot structure and studying the timing of commercial breaks. These days most people know that a half hour show is really just over 20 minutes, but that’s because we watch shows on Netflix. I learned it the hard way – with a stopwatch and an unhealthy fascination.

The point is, I didn’t like what I was forced to read, and I didn’t bother reading anything in my spare time since I preferred television to books. It got worse in college when I discovered passing a class was a matter of reading the material OR attending the lectures. You didn’t need to do both, and I’ve always had great attendance. Besides, in high school and college I crammed my schedule so full of activities that the idea of leisure reading was absurd. I read on vacation. That was it.

And now? Now I don’t even go on vacation, so I don’t read anything at all. At least, that’s where I was in February of 2014 when I got my wake up call. I needed to do something. And I needed to start immediately: twelve books in the next twelve months.

It wasn’t easy at first. There’s a pretty big gap between two and twelve. I wasn’t used to reading every day. I wasn’t used to reading in the day at all in fact. I had always tried to read before bed, which is probably why reading makes me so sleepy. I started reading more during the daylight hours. I would give myself the freedom to only read a few pages and stop as soon as I felt myself nodding off.

By the end of February I finished my first novel, and I had another book done not long after March. I stayed on track, and by the end of July I was at eight books. I had made up for my late start and even managed to get ahead.

FermatThen in September I hit a wall. I got stuck with a book that didn’t interest me, but for unrelated reasons I knew I had to finish. I tried starting a second book so I could alternate between the two, which didn’t work. I would get interrupted when I didn’t read a high-demand library book fast enough and had to return it for a few weeks. It was a rough couple months. I lost the cockiness I’d developed in July.

But I got a second wind and now I’m halfway through book seventeen. Even if it hadn’t been for my last minute participation in the Christmas BookTubeAThon, I still would have hit my goal and then some. I’m finally a reader again.

The problem with setting goals is that once I achieve them I instantly want to set higher ones. I’m already planning on doing the July BookTubeAThon, so twelve books shouldn’t be much of a challenge. How many should I shoot for in 2015? Eighteen? Twenty-four? Perhaps I’ll need to set more specific goals, like a certain number of novels (I read mostly non-fiction this year) or a minimum page count (some of the books were quite short). Or maybe I just need to get back to the reader I once was. Maybe I already know what the real goal should be, next year and every year for the rest of my life: 13+.

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I created a GoodReads account to track my goals and the books I want to read next. If you’d like to be my friend on GoodReads, look for NoodleDrive.