The weekend before last, I was having a writerly conversation with a group of writerly friends. One of them was expressing heartfelt admiration of a mutual friend of ours, who, he said, had totally mastered the problem of emotion getting in the way of writing.
Even if you’re not a writer, you probably know about this little problem. It’s when you have a to-do list a mile long, or angelic plans to clean out your closet today, or work projects to complete, or writing to accomplish. And then something happens. It doesn’t matter exactly what something is (a particularly disappointing rejection letter, bad personal news, someone wrote something nasty about your favorite hat on Facebook, or what have you); the salient feature of the something is that it’s completely upsetting and derails any work you had plans to accomplish that day (or that week, that month….)
Back to my writerly conversation. I thought to myself, “Well, that’s great, but it’s not so difficult really. After all, when I’m writing a first draft of a novel, I’m pretty reliable about cranking out my daily word count in spite of everything else going on.”
Be careful what you think to yourselves, my friends, because four days later, life took a swing at my head with an oversized and ridiculously colored hammer (I think it was fuchsia, but it took me so much by surprise I wasn’t at my observational best). And before I knew it, I was eating my words. Imagine me staring at the blank page that was supposed to be my blog post the next day. Not so difficult, huh? How could I possibly write an entertaining and interesting blog post with a pounding head (the hammer struck pretty hard, apparently) and emotional turmoil swirling in my brain?
Well, obviously I managed, since I published a blog post last Thursday. And equally obviously, I’m managing again with this post. But now this pesky problem has earned my interest. Life is, in my experience, going to knock me down every so often; how do I keep my productivity in the face of these challenges? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
1. Manage expectations. So maybe I won’t get everything done on the to-do list today after all. But if I can prioritize the tasks that are really critical, or pick a couple tasks that I feel more confident I can manage (this may be errands, or reading the next chapter in my current nonfiction book, or cooking dinner), then I won’t completely lose momentum and will be better set up to deal with tomorrow.
2. Take a break. Anything I need to accomplish will seem extra overwhelming while I’m in the heat of strong emotions. If I can take a short break and do something soothing (play the piano, take a walk, read something fun, play mindless computer games), I’ll be in better shape to tackle what I need to do.
3. Vent. I’ve recently read that venting actually makes a person more angry instead of less, but even if that’s the case, I find it helpful. Just knowing someone is on my side comforts me to the point where I have a clearer head.
4. Channel your emotions into your work. Maybe that anger can give you the extra burst you need to put all those packets together. Or maybe your disappointment will encourage you to send out that story again. Or maybe you can use what has happened as inspiration for your blog post (hmm, now you see what I’m up to, don’tcha?)
5. Compartmentalize. If you can get this down, it can be golden (as long as you don’t take it to extremes, of course). As I’m writing this blog post, I’m still upset. If I stop to think about it, I can feel the headache, the neck tension, the tightness in my stomach, and I can dwell upon exactly why I’m feeling the way I do. Or I can not stop to think about it right now and write this blog post instead. It’s not that I’m not upset, it’s that I can push the upset off to the side while I complete this task, or even several tasks. At some point, I’ll have to stop and deal, but it doesn’t always have to be right now. Believe me, if what you’re upset about is important, it’ll be there waiting for you when you finish.
6. Find the silver lining. Yeah, I know I just wrote about this, but it too belongs on the list. Finding a good point, any good point, can be crucial for managing your mood, especially once you’re over the initial shock of whatever is going on. And if you can manage your mood, then writing (or project planning, or programming, or making phone calls) won’t seem quite so hard after all.
Anyone else have any ideas on how to keep on task in the face of emotional difficulty? Anything you find particularly effective? I eagerly await hearing about your experiences.