Making the most of waiting time

I’m a sucker for productivity blogs and life hacks. Not that I routinely follow their advice, but I do like reading them. I keep reading them because I keep thinking one day I’ll stumble on The One Thing that will transform my life and make me super productive and ultra efficient.

The fact is, though, and without bragging, I am already pretty darn productive and efficient. I get stuff done. A lot of stuff. In spite of periodically having a day in bed because fatigue has overtaken me.

I’m something of a machine at work. I have well-honed powers of concentration, and can tune out most of the noise from around me when I need to get things done. (Worth nothing, though, that this comes at a cost: tuning out noise and distraction depletes mental energy, a total waste of it.) I work from home one day a week and usually devote it when I can to ‘deep work’, the kind that requires uninterrupted immersion for serious thinking.

Reading those blogs and life hacks makes me realise that I have a lot of good productive habits already. No real surprise there. But there is one oft-repeated tip that I totally disagree with: that is the tip that advocates doing email or making phone calls or checking whatever on your phone when you are waiting.

I believe this is counter productive to the pursuit of greater productivity. Instead, waiting time is best used as “free-range thinking” time. Don’t check or respond to email, don’t make calls, don’t run through your to-do list: spend this precious time thinking about nothing, daydreaming, just letting your mind wander. Take a break.

We can’t work in a focused way all the time. Half of the other tips in your typical “how to be more productive” list are about chunking work, using things like the Pomodoro technique to concentrate work into 90 minute blocks. Crucially, techniques like that work because in between blocks of work you take a break. The breaks are vital. They are what make the technique work.

The point of the breaks is to give your brain a rest. Switching from reading up on constitutional law in the 1800s to checking your email is not the kind of break your brain needs. Take a proper break. Go for a cup of coffee, stand in line and just look at the coat of the person in front of you, or out the window at the passing cars, or the rain, or the sun, or the leaves, and give your brain a rest. Stop beating it to within an inch of its life.

THAT is how you make the most of waiting time.

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The importance of doing things

Like many (most) people, I look forward to my weekends. I don’t often have social plans, preferring to enjoy the solitude of home after a week of talking to people at work. 

There’s a downside to this though: not having plans can turn into lying on the couch watching reality tv. Especially when I’m feeling less than average. 

This weekend, however, was a good mix of time alone and time with people. On Saturday morning I did a blitz on the kitchen, cleaning the bench, sink, cooktop and microwave thoroughly and even getting half of the fridge cleaned properly (as in, emptied out and washed with hot soapy water, as distinct from the once-over-lightly wipe with a sponge and a spray of something). I managed to work up quite the sweat doing this. Makes me think our (great-) grandmothers were probably very fit and strong from the housework and cooking. If you don’t believe me, try making a cake and creaming the butter and sugar until fluffy by hand. 

Doing housework can be satisfying because it’s physical work and you can see the results of your efforts. I believe more and more that something that we’ve lost with our automated and outsourced lives is the satisfaction of practising physical skills. 

In the afternoon I took my ladder to a friend’s house to help her hang a blind from a height. Not the kind of job one should tackle alone because falling would be serious. Again, there’s great satisfaction in completing a job like that, seeing the blind that she’d made (double satisfaction for her) hang straight and to the perfect length, hearing the bite of the screws as they secured the batten. 

This morning, friends came over for coffee and I made muffins. I thought about going out to the bakery to buy something, but decided to bake instead because it felt like I was making an effort for them. I like baking, and there’s nothing so welcoming as the smell of fresh baking when you walk into someone’s house. 

So I end my weekend feeling surprisingly content, because I have done things. Not big, brag-worthy things, but practical, constructive things. Things that required a bit of skill and know-how, and that yielded results. It feels good. 

Taking things as they come

I thought I was getting the hang of pacing myself, but RA has a way of constantly reminding me that it’s really in charge. I had major pain in my hips and ended up in bed for three days, with pain and overwhelming fatigue. 

That passed as inexplicably as it arrived. I woke, the pain had dulled to a faint presence, and I had enough energy to get up, showered, dressed and out the door. Sometimes that is an achievement.  

Three days later, a beautiful sunny day and my friend Geoff invited me to go walking. Geoff has RA too so some portion of our walk is consumed with conversation about drugs, side effects, and our latest symptoms. 

I wasn’t sure how much I could manage, but we picked a place with multiple routes of varying lengths to allow us to turn back at any time. 

So we set off. Eleven km later we were back at the car. 

Today I’m pretty sore and tired, as to be expected. I’m also feeling really pleased that I could do that distance. I just wish I knew why one day I’m flat on my back and the next I’m hiking the hills. It makes no sense. There’s no rhyme or reason, and that’s the hardest part about living with this disease. 

I just have to learn to take it as it comes.