During my senior year of high school I lived in Homestead Florida, a town that described itself as the “gateway to the Everglades.” My dad was in the Air Force and he was stationed there. What that meant in practical terms was that it was humid and we were surrounded by a swamp. Mosquitoes were common and large, though to say that they carried off small house pets would be an exaggeration.
When I am under deadline for a book, I will often work many days in a row without a break. While I was working on A Year With God, I worked a whole a month with no days off, a consequence of laboring to finish the second third of it to meet a deadline. I had about 36 days to do the first third and I had about 36 to do the last third, but I’d only been given 29 days to do the second third. It was tiring, but I managed it. So when I finished that second third, I finally took a weekend off and relaxed. Recalling that time–and even now, without any pressing deadlines–I have been reflecting on how busy I tend to be.
Which got me to thinking about my swampy senior year of high school. I don’t recall feeling so overwhelmingly busy back then, and I’m not entirely sure why, since I was really very busy. Admittedly, children usually do not have jobs, but they are still in school all day, five days a week. My senior year I had to arise before the sun came up and I took a long bus ride to school. I had homework when I got home—a lot of it, since I had honors classes and still managed to graduate with all As. Despite that, I recall endless hours spent on a model railroad or on my stamp or coin collection and listening to classical music on the radio. Admittedly, I was an odd teenager. Somehow, in all of that, I also found time to write novels (I wrote my first when I was 16 and from then til now, for the most part, I do at least 10 pages of writing per day). I also read voraciously, and watched television not infrequently.
But I don’t recall any sense of being overworked or over tired. How did I do it?
What is my problem now, that I feel like I have no time for myself? Does it somehow relate to the sad reality of being middle-aged? Is it just that I’m simply not as spry as I used to be? Possible, I suppose, but I know some younger people that have trouble keeping up with me. In fact, my children are constantly complaining about how fast I walk and they don’t like how I pick parking spots as far from the stores as possible. Walking is good for your health, I tell them, but they don’t believe me.
So I’m wondering if my problem with feeling overworked is simply an attitudinal issue. If so, I’m going to have to work on altering it and recovering my high school mindset. Perhaps I need to discover again the art of leaving my work at work rather than carrying it with me in my head all the time. When I was in high school, I was able to keep my school life and my non-school life separated. Maybe I need to do that with my work.
In a world filled with cell phones and the internet, it can be hard to go completely off the clock. There’s nearly no place to go to get away from our labor. People can call us, text us, and email us no matter where we happen to be. Day or night. When I was working on A Year With God (a bit of a misnomer since I only spent three months writing it, including all rewrites and revisions) I regularly got requests from my editor at 11:30 PM–and she was back east, while I’m on the west coast! I’m not sure that woman ever slept.
Since I work from an office in my home, getting away from work is even harder. When do I begin work? When do I end work? And how can I tell? In the old days, I physically left my job. When I was in graduate school at UCLA, there was actually a time clock that I punched when I arrived at my job and when I left. But not anymore. Now I commute from my bedroom to my office and I find that I hardly ever leave my office until I’m back in my bedroom to sleep.
So what am I going to do? Something all of us need to do. Turn off our connections to work at the end of the day. We need to shut off the office in our heads and find something else to think about and do. Eight or so hours a day is long enough to work, and we need to work only five days a week. It is good to work hard, but we can work harder and better if we know when to quit. “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,” so goes the old cliché. The dullness is not so much in the sense of making him boring and uninteresting to be around, as it is that it renders him dull of mind, and dull of energy. If we don’t take time off we might be able to impress our peers by telling them how many hours we’ve put in and how tired we are. But in the end, in cold reality, we will actually just make ourselves dull: accomplishing less and doing it less competently.