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This month I increased my freelance workload to levels it hadn’t hit since my third son was born last year. I’m working with new editors and new publications. I’m learning new systems. I’m unlearning something too.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve used the discomfort of a job unfinished as a cue to work. That’s why when I scrolled past a social media post referring to precrastination — the also dysfunctional twin of procrastination — the term clicked on a gut level. I tend to do assigned work as fast and as thoroughly as possible in a fit of anxious achievement. The rest of my life be damned when there’s work to be done.
This has functioned well for the bosses and teachers who’ve assigned me tasks. After all, they have a productive worker they can count on. In some ways, it’s functioned well for me, too, since I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.
But there are ways in which precrastination has been less functional. Anxiety is a painful guide, and obedience to it has hurt my mental health. What’s more, focus on work has sometimes come at the expense of being present in my life. Personal time can be sucked into the vortex of work without my intending it. This cost is more dear to me now that I have children.
Of course, sometimes whole afternoons and evenings do need to be sacrificed at the altar of work. My writing practice has largely come out of moments wrestled back from family life. I’m glad for claiming those moments. But what bothers me is when I do not intend to be working on a story and then, somehow, I am. And I’m not really there when my family is all around me. So this correction is really about intention. I am trying to work when I mean to and not work when I don’t – even when I feel that anxious pull.
The practice, like many connected to emotional and spiritual wellness, is simple but not easy. It goes like this: I pay attention.
Here’s what that’s like. I notice when I feel anxious about unfinished work outside of scheduled work time. When I feel that pressure in my chest and that cramping in my belly. I name it for myself. “Oh. There it is. Anxiety about work.” And then I don’t do anything. I don’t open my laptop. I don’t check my email. I don’t type on my phone.
I do keep paying attention as the anxiety gets bigger. I try to widen my focus – to notice the rest of what’s going on. The smell of soap. The sound of my toddler babbling. The slant of light on the wall. Often, after some minutes have passed, I notice that the tentacles of anxiety have loosened, and I’ve given in to the gravity of the present moment. I’m also trying to appreciate how good this presence feels and how my fears about what will happen if I don’t obey my anxiety don’t actually materialize.
At the end of days when I’m able to do all this, I feel a zing of achievement. It feels like growth. But there have been nights when an honest accounting isn’t so flattering. I’m trying not to let those reckonings feel like failure. Instead, I aim to interpret them as evidence that the practice — tolerating discomfort, building boundaries, unlearning patterns — is difficult for me. Instead of seeing anxiety as a cue to mindlessly precrastinate, I am opting to treat it as a signal announcing a new way to work.
A version of this story was published on Medium
New Writing From Me
So I did write a lot this month — turning in three articles — but I have no new links to share at this time.
However! Since a couple of these articles are for new-to-me publications, with more in the works, it seemed like it was time for a new headshot. Someday I’d like to have professional ones taken. But for now, I took an hour, my iPhone, and this article about how to take headshots yourself, and ended up with something that I’m pretty happy with — it feels like it looks like me. You can see the result in this newsletter and in my bio.
Books I Think You’ll Like
When I got to the last 100 pages of Fellowship Point: A Novel by Alice Elliott Dark, I stayed up way too late so I could finish it. When I got to the end, I cried. Somewhere in the first couple chapters, this book hooked into my heart. It’s about an author nearing the end of her life and the book explores friendship and family across generations and over many years. It’s a rich book, and it made sense to me that the author herself is 68 and wrote this book over the course of a decade. The characters aren’t perfect, but they are good and get better with time. What a beautifully-paced ode to aging and love.
I stan Ed Yong. Ever since I came across his science writing in The Atlantic, I’ve admired the way he delivers clear, audience-focused content that manages to be both accurate and interesting. I am not alone in my admiration — He won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his series on the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these good feelings, I didn’t jump at the chance to read his latest book, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. I just had trouble rousing myself to read a book about animal senses when so much was happening in the human world. I shouldn’t have hesitated. Once again Yong’s fresh, compelling, science-based reporting brought me along for the ride and helped me understand why I should care.
Last month, I told you about Melissa Febos’s book on the craft of writing, Body Work. In it, she references her memoirs. The way she wrote about them piqued my interest, so I decided to dig into the ones I hadn’t yet read. Her first, Whip Smart: The True Story of A Secret Life, is about the years she spend as a dominatrix in New York City. I love the way Febos writes and I fell into this book. Her sentences and paragraphs always got me, but I sometimes wished for her to zoom out a little more to connect her personal experience with social commentary — Mostly because I bet she’d have interesting insights, and I’m always hungry for those.
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