Weekends

I have been working from home every day for the last few weeks but this is the first week my kids have also been off school. As we aren’t allowed to leave the house we have a unique problem of how to define a difference between the weekdays and the weekend. I am not sure why it seems important to do this but it does.

There will be differences: I won’t be sitting in my office from 9 until 5 so they will see more of me. We are also unlikely to attempt the sort of formal home-schooling my wife has been doing for the last week. But other than that?

We will watch some films together. I might finally get out for a run. I will do some gardening. But we won’t be able to go out anywhere and it’s only now that it really hits me how much we are losing there.

I have always been more than happy to stay at home to work. Sitting in front of a computer is the same wherever I happen to be doing it. It’s also very rare that we go out in the evenings. On weekends we used to go out; to the cinema, for meals, to the park, for long walks. Now we can’t do any of that.

It’s going to be a strange experience. Oscar is already asking about going out and despite how much fun he’s had in the garden, Jude is also starting to get bored. And really, this is only week one of complete lock-down, we have a long way still to go.

Make it Easy

There is too much going on right now. It was my intention not to write about the Coronavirus here but how can I do anything else. Even if I don’t mention it directly, it is safe to say that it is in the background of everything I think about at the moment. How could it not be? Going out of my way to not refer to a major current event that’s affecting the whole world would be extremely obtuse.

Having said that…

At the moment everything feels like a struggle. My natural inclination seems to be to scour the internet news sites and social media as if doing that will keep me and my family safe. What I should really be doing is writing and reading but, however much I enjoy those activities, they offer medium/long term rewards whereas surfing the latest breaking news is instant gratification (albeit with a heavy dose of medium/long term anxiety).

Which is why I am doing my best to make it easy to read and to write. The two fiction books I have on the go at the moment are short story collections and the non-fiction book is about writing. I am also reading them in digital formats (which is uncommon for me lately, but certainly the most convenient format) so they are available on my phone as well as my Kobo reader. I am setting myself limits for when I can check the news and trying my hardest to stick to them. I don’t succeed as often as I would like.

This situation is hard but I am determined not to fall apart and go back to my bad old habits. If I can’t make the progress I originally wanted, I can at least not make it any worse. I am doing my best to make it easy to make the right choices.

Distracted Thought

When I spend too much time online (reading news, Reddit, blogs, etc.) it isn’t immediately obvious how much of an impact it has. In my day to day life I can usually manage to function and continue doing all the things that I need to do. It would be easy to convince myself that it doesn’t really have an impact beyond the time I spend doing it, but I also know that isn’t true.

Every morning I get up and write in my journal. It’s free-thought stuff kind of like Morning Pages but I keep it like a journal so that if I ever want to go back and look at them I can. If I have a good day then the following morning my journal is focused and tends to follow one line of thought from beginning to end. If I have a bad day then it affects me like a hangover. When I sit down to write my journal I can’t keep to a single line of thought for more than a paragraph, my mind skips all over the place and I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anything done. It feels awkward and stilted.

And I know that this is just a visible symptom of the problem. That same distracted style of thought is present everywhere and in everything I do and it can take a couple of days to get over it.

How I’m Writing Now

A lot has changed since I was blogging last year and frankly I have gone back and forth between different methods of writing for the last year or so now, but I am now reasonably settled in the way I write.

Past

When I first started writing and publishing I did everything on a computer. I used an app on my phone and computer to store notes for ideas and all of my planning was also done on a computer. Likewise I wrote all of my first drafts on a computer and could, on a good day, rattle off 5,000 words, although my average was about 3,000. I also edited on a computer. Doing things this way meant I could publish a short novel a month, and I was building up a backlog of stories that would allow me to take time off without missing any of my planned release dates. I was also “stacking” stories, so I always had one story in planning, one in first draft and one in editing/publishing. I was very “productive”.

Present

My stories don’t touch a computer until there is a complete first draft. I do all of my note taking, planning and first draft writing in a variety of notebooks. I write my first drafts with a fountain pen. I am a lot slower this way. On a good day I probably get 1,000 words written. I am focusing on one story at a time. In a stories published sense I am not very productive.

Why the change

I first tried this out over a year ago and over the next few months I went back and forth because I am a magpie and continually attracted to shiny new apps and tools. But as I said at the start, I think the change is going to stick this time. As to why I did this, well there are a couple of reasons:

  1. I enjoy the process more. It’s more fun to write in a notebook
  2. I think it produces a better story. I know there is a lot of debate on this subject, but honestly, I think slowing down a bit means I can write better

Future

I need to do better at the first to second draft part of the process. Currently I have a number of stories that are a complete first draft and I need to get better at typing them up and editing them. And publishing as well. I have one story that is complete and ready to go, but I just haven’t gotten around to putting it on the various sales platforms.

Don’t Go Crazy

This might be my last post specifically relating to the Cornovirus outbreak because it’s time I started following my own advice.

Since my Digital Declutter post in May last year I haven’t blogged. I have been trying very hard to cut my internet use and media consumption back. I have been successful for weeks at a time and I have felt a lot better about everything. I was still doing this when the virus started leaving China and making its way to Europe so I was slow to pick up on what was happening. Even as Italy prepared to lock its doors I was under the mistaken impression that it wasn’t really going to impact me.

When it finally did hit me I fell back on my old patterns of using the internet too much, listening to news radio and, basically, trying to inhale as much information about the situation as I could. Unsurprisingly, the weeks that I have been doing so have been very stressful. And the question I find myself asking now is; was I really worse off when I didn’t understand the full implications of what was happening?

Perhaps, but I’m not sure it’s as straightforward as that. Maybe it would be better to ask whether I am better off checking the news every fifteen minutes than I would be checking it once or twice a day? I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

Most of the news I’ve read and watched about it isn’t actionable information. Which means that the only outlet I have for it is panic which doesn’t do me or the other people around me any good. And it is quickly driving me back into the old unfortunate habits that I’d hoped were behind me.

My solution then is to check the news twice a day; once mid-morning and once when I have finished work for the day. That should give me everything I need to know about what’s happening and it should reduce my levels of stress. What it means for this blog is that I am going to try to write about other things, things that I was thinking about before this all started and will still be thinking about long after it is all over.

Stay safe out there.

Try to make the most of it

This isn’t a good situation. It seems like half the world is locked away and none of us knows what the long term impact of that is going to be. Personally, I’m not even thinking about that as most of my concerns are more immediate; what happens if someone in my family catches the virus?

But on the bright side I get to spend more time with my family every day. I get to eat lunch with my wife and children every day. I feel more a part of the family than I do when I spend two hours a day sat in my car by myself. And whatever the next few weeks may bring, I want to enjoy that and make the most of it.

It’s Not The Apocalypse

I have read a lot of post-apocalyptic books and watched a lot of movies. I’m sure you have as well. That’s probably one of the reasons why I’m finding the news so distressing at the moment; because it all looks so familiar. But if that was the only issue then I think we would be okay and we would see a lot more people behaving like reasonable adults. Unfortunately, we also have a lot of experience of modern news reporting to go on.

We all saw what the media did during the Brexit campaign and during the most recent election. Until recently we could see it happening in the Democratic Primary in America. We know that the media isn’t presenting us with an unbiased factual report of what is going on. They are using the same attention grabbing techniques that they have always used, the scare tactics and rhetoric. Unfortunately this seems to be creating two courses of action:

  1. People refusing to believe what they are being told and carrying on life as normal.
  2. People believing that the world is going to end and panic buying toilet paper and hand sanitiser.

Neither is a good response, but I can’t blame anyone for either. This is what the media does now and no one trusts it. Either we assume they are over-inflating the crisis, or that they are deflating it. There’s no real way of knowing which one of these it is or if, in this rarest of moments, they have all decided to start being professional journalists and are reporting things accurately.

There’s no short term answer to this and I’m not here to tell anyone what to do. My advice would be to listen to the doctors and nurses who are working on the front line and have first-hand experience of what is going on. And, while it’s probably a good idea to play it safe, can I suggest that if we run out of toilet paper in the shops we have probably already run out of something much more important.

Working from Home

In the last few months I have been lucky enough to start working from home three days a week. Lucky, firstly, because otherwise I spend two hours driving to and from work every day, secondly because it involved moving into a job where I could work from home during the Coronavirus outbreak. My previous job would have made it less practical.

Having already transitioned to working from home some of the time meant that I had some experience when my company asked everyone who could work from home to do so. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for someone who has never had to work from home to suddenly find themselves in that position.

I can’t speak about the difficulty of not having co-workers around me. By nature I am an introvert so working in isolation feels more natural than in an open-plan-office. Although, having said that, as I am now into week two of full-time working from home, I do find myself more involved in conference calls which I used to take a back-seat in. But, on the whole, this aspect hasn’t been a struggle for me.

What I imagine will be a big struggle for some people (and still is on occasion for me) is the issue of motivation. Office life has its own structure and flow. You get in, make yourself a coffee and spend a few minutes catching up with co-workers. You do some work, you go for lunch, you do some more work and then start thinking about going home. You don’t give a lot of thought to these routines but if you look for them, they’re there. Then, suddenly, you find yourself at home with an eight hour block of time to manage and a pile of work to get done.

It can be daunting, and without a boss looking over your shoulder, it is easy to lose motivation. The key is to build your own routines.

This will take a bit of work. It’s likely that the routines of your office were there before you started and will be there long after you leave. You didn’t have to think about them, but when you’re working at home, you do.

Everyone is different, but this is what works for me:

  1. Get a notebook and create a plan
  2. Start by splitting your page in four (so three dividing lines)
  3. At the end of each section write breaklunch or finish as applicable
  4. Add your meetings into each quarter; we are aiming for four equal sections but meetings can be tricky so you need to be flexible
  5. Work out what times you will be taking a morning break, lunch, and afternoon break and then what time you will finish, add them to what you wrote for number three, so break @ 1045
  6. Fill in the other activities that you need to do in the appropriate quarter
  7. Add some other things in like drink water
  8. Stick to the plan as much as possible
  9. If something comes up that means you can’t stick to the original plan, such as an unexpected meeting, then, when you are next able to, adjust the written plan and try sticking to that

I have been using something similar to this for a few months now and it works well for me. It gives structure to my day and means that I get the most out of the time I am working.

A bonus tip if it’s possible for you:

10. When you finish work switch off your computer and phone

A Solution to a Problem It Created

As we prepare for a likely lock down in the UK, social media is playing an important role in getting people organised so we can support the elderly and vulnerable. I am part of a WhatsApp group in the village making preparations for this and, although I am not on Facebook, I know a lot of other volunteers are being found there. It’s fair to say that, without social media, we would just be a number of well meaning people who wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves. However… and with network technology it seems like there is always an however, social media is one of the reasons we are in this situation to begin with.

Things were already changing, I suspect, when social media came along. Sixteen years ago, when Facebook first started, we were not living in idyllic communities where everyone knew everyone and we all looked out for each other, that chad been going away for a long time. People were already moving away to live and work in different places, lives were already changing, but without the ease of keeping in touch with old friends there was still an incentive to know who your neighbour was and to have some kind of connection with the people you physically lived near. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more.

Now I could live quite comfortably without knowing the names of my neighbours, let alone what their needs might be. Now it takes a formal organisation to get help to older and vulnerable people whereas once it might have just been something we knew and did. Social technologies are playing an important role in mobilising help, but if they had never existed in the first place we might have kept hold of the old connections we had to our physical environments.

It’s a complex situation and during this crisis it’s too late to do anything about it. Idealistically I am apposed to those tools, but I am more idealistically apposed to letting my neighbours starve, so it’s a question of degrees. But my hope is that, once this crisis is over, it gives us all a chance to reflect on the way we have been living recently. That it reminds us there are real people in our local communities and that we are a part of those communities. I hope that when this is all over we don’t lose the connections that we build.

Digital Declutter

Digital Declutter

I try not to waste time online and generally prefer analogue tools to digital devices. However, over the last few months, I’ve found the digital creeping into my life in unintended ways. With that it mind, and inspired by Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport I have decided to invest some time and do a digital declutter.

This is going to take place over the next thirty days, with the following rules:

  • no websurfing
  • no RSS
  • no Reddit
  • no podcasts
  • no radio
  • no online shopping

Essentially I am going to remove all non-essential internet use. I am including radio in this list because I want to stay away from news about Brexit. I reserve the right to pick up a newspaper if I want to learn about what’s going on in the world.

The only thing that I am going to keep doing is writing this blog. I enjoy doing it and, the last few weeks where I’ve not been doing so, have coincided with my internet use getting out of hand. Maybe there’s no relation, but it’s something I want to explore.

My hope is that these thirty days will give me a sort of reset. I suspect that I will go back to some of it, and that’s not generally a problem for me. But I want to remove everything before adding back in the few things that are useful.

I’m sure I will write about it here again over the next thirty days, but if you’re interested then I highly recommend picking up a copy of Cal Newport’s book.