Maintaining motivation when energy levels are below 20% of your usual maximum, when your mind is hazy and when you are physically unwell is unreasonable. A lot is said about being productive by employing any number of useful tips and tricks such as: getting enough sleep, exercising, eating healthy, scheduling the work and sticking to it. Not much is said about the sense of crushing defeat inherent in situations that alter your physical and mental capacity to successfully employ those tricks and tips.
It isn’t in my nature to complain in a public. It has taken years to unlearn the stoic philosophies that came to me from both sides of my family. Still, most of my complaining happens in my journal. Blogging about some of my struggles from last year was a big shift for me. It’s not even about the vulnerability of sharing personal struggles, though that’s there too. Sometimes it’s just that the heavy burden begins to feel like it is actually part of me rather than something I’m carrying and can set down and leave by the roadside. In addition to 2019’s deaths and grieving process I was suffering from some undiagnosed medical issues that I’ve been in the process of getting diagnosed by my doctor who is actively interested in getting to the bottom of my symptoms.
My job, the one that I have taken on and actively worked on in whatever spare time I’ve had over the years, is 100% self directed. Creative work often requires that interest and drive. The final public success of it requires that drive and great timing. I have had some successful projects that coalesced because I devoted my time and energy to them but also happened to have that great timing which propelled them beyond anything I could accomplish on sheer willpower.
Several years back I had the resources and need for a personal trainer. During that time I learned that exercise required honing a mind-body connection in order to actually engage the muscles. It isn’t as simple as lifting the weights a number of times. You can easily do the work without ever establishing that connection and fail to get the results you’re seeking. With my trainer’s help I improved my physical condition and gained perspective that I’d previously lacked which helped me creatively as well. Those gains began declining despite my best efforts and I struggled to find a doctor who listened.
An added thing I learned as I honed my mind-body connection was the idea that I had 100% energy when I was healthy, alert and feeling good. Figuring out where my energy levels were prior to a workout helped to define how many reps I should do in order to avoid injury and increase gains. This lesson became really important last year when my energy levels new normal was 50% of my previous maximum. To say it was depressing is an understatement. I’ll be honest, I was devastated as days, weeks and months passed by where no intervention I was doing helped to push my energy levels up past that new normal. It was like being ill every day.
The degree to which this effected my creative work varied. I could decide to tackle chores, exercise or creative work but only one of those. It was like having a hole in the gas tank. I could keep filling it up with sleep, good nutrition or light exercise but it would never fill to the place I expected. Caffeine also became an enemy rather than an ally. There was simply no way to try to push through to reach the levels I believed I could based on my previous capacity.
By the third quarter of 2019 I had finally given up on this exhausting folly. Losing my cat had a huge impact on my willingness to basically start from square one and face whatever changes had happened in my life. She was my creative inspiration and my daily dose of happiness, I really had never believed I would lose her and when it happened it made me come to terms with many things I’d been unable to before. Accepting that something was wrong with me at a physical level that I could not outthink or out plan was one of those things. It took me a few more months to finally find the right doctor.
Now, as an aside, I’m not sure if the other doctor I saw was a bad doctor but she wasn’t interested in getting to the bottom of my problems. The best doctors for me have always been the curious ones. Being a doctor is a job as much as it is a calling. Doctors who are content to deal with surface, mundane, every day ills are not bad. In fact I think there’s a place for that, many people don’t get sick often and when they do, often those issues are fairly standard and easy to address. For many years I believed I was one of those patients. Unfortunately this is not the case. My new doctor has isolated one of the issues and is treating it. We’re still in the process of figuring out some of the symptoms that have not abated.
How does all of this relate to writing? How does it relate to making art?
Well, it relates because my energy levels fluctuate between 15-45% and the result is that I can feel the physical and mental drain of writing and creating. There’s something sublime about being able to feel how the mental work of creating is actually manifested in emotional and thus physical ways. With less energy to spare I’ve become aware of the ways in which everything takes a physical toll. When I lived in that 80-100% range I rarely noticed creative efforts, they seemed light and airy. Creativity seemed to be a purely mental activity unrelated to the body. Reading also used to occupy that space, now I recognize that it is also something that utilizes the physical realm.
So, is it possible to be productive in this space?
Maybe. It depends on how you frame it for yourself. I had to start from zero. Being ill versus being chronically ill are different though some of the same principles apply. When you’re ill with a cold or the flu there’s the sense that if you do the right things you will return to your previous state of health and it becomes easier to accept that the steps you take while you’re ill will result in wellness. That sense that it is temporary makes it easy to accept a decrease in activities towards your goals. It’s like a bad vacation. Finding yourself chronically ill or in circumstances which decrease your capacities when working towards goals can make every effort feel futile because often every effort is a tradeoff rather than a step forward.
That was my 2019. Reflecting on the frustration as I tried to figure out what “normal” was. January of 2020 has provided clarity.
- Productive means something different to me now. It means that I wake up and assess my physical capacity and then make plans.
- On a bad day, productive means self care and only what has to get done that day.
- On a good day, productive means a short to do list (1-3 items) that are easy to accomplish (journal or write with no minimum).
- At the end of every day, write a bullet list of what I’ve done no matter how small
The contrast still feels unreal. My weekly word count is often my previous daily word count. But, when I fall into negative traps they drain my energy like nothing else. So I have learned to celebrate the small things that no one else would laud because they do in fact result in progress toward my goals. I stopped trying to play catchup on the good days. Each day is separate. If I have a bad day I do not try to make up for lost time because there is no such thing. I only have the energy to draw from that I have. Keeping that in mind has helped to conserve what I have for what is important to me.