The Ben Franklin Daytimer, and keeping odd hours…

It was not very long ago that I finally got around to reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Now this was in many ways an exercise in abject envy of one of history’s most effective people. The man was an unstoppable productivity machine. It seemed every one of his setbacks suited him just fine and he made them into great opportunities instead. But this kind of positivity I believed stemmed from the man’s ability to shelve what he could not do and focus cleanly and purposefully on his at-hand tasks. Which brings me to the real subject I’ve set out to write about today: Benjamin Franklin’s Daytimer.

One of the more difficult bits of maintaining my personal creative momentum has been guilt. Yes, guilt. Above the endless distractions of the internet and competing projects and planning trips and making tea and a mountain of reading I have mostly resolved is never getting done, guilt keeps me from maintaining my momentum. Now, doesn’t this seem illogical coming from a man who believes that the best way to motivate one’s self to their important creative work is by acknowledging it is their social responsibility? Yes, I admit it seems a little backward. But in truth the biggest problem is focus that falls apart. For me, I do not lose focus (I don’t misplace it), nor does it slip from one task to another. Instead it is as if I’ve fitted the wrench of my focus onto it’s bolt and its handle promptly resolves into sand. But what does that have to do with my guilt? 

There are certain ambient pressures of the world that enter into my thinking on focus and productivity. The first is the rampant and destructive glorification of “busy”. Working late nights and early mornings and all through the weekends is supposed to mean you’re doing something right. But Benjamin Franklin didn’t say “Toiling late and early to rise.” And more pointedly, that famous mantra, “Early to bed early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise” doesn’t just promise that you’ll get a lot done. The promises of health and wisdom are probably more important than the wealth that always seems to catch our eyes first. So my guilt over not having accomplished enough during the day leads me to diminishing health and wisdom. After all, when I’m late to bed it usually means I’m bleary eyed and exhausted when I get there. This is never a state in which I feel healthier or more wise. 

Now I’m no neurologist but I do have some neurons of my own and I can say with some confidence that attempting to overcome chemistry by force of will is a losing battle. But with this revelation in mind one sees a way out. Some time ago I came across an exercise in “Write” by Karen E. Peterson Ph.D. which suggested allowing your more intuitive side guide you in structuring your day. The exercise asks you to carry a chart of the hours of the day with you on a daily basis along with a box of colored pencils, and to fill in the hours with whatever color occurs to you allowing your mood to be reflected by the color choices you make. After doing this for some time you’ll discover a pattern as to what parts of your day are your most active and creative or most relaxed and least apprehensive. This understanding goes a long way in building an effective routine, which brings me back to old Mr.Franklin. 

In the autobiography one notices in several places Franklin’s proclivity for forming routines. It seems every new location or undertaking is accompanied by a description of its day to day, down to what kind of roll to be bought for a daily walk about town, whether it should be buttered, how much should be paid for it, and how it might affect the afternoon’s swimming. There is a section in the book which outlines the broader blocks of Franklin’s time each day, breaking out a 3 hour Rise, Wash, and Breakfast period, from two 4 hour work periods split by a 2 hour lunch, and a 4 hour evening for socializing and relaxation. Did you catch that? BENJAMIN FRANKLIN took 2 HOURS for lunch! It is at this point that we should all give ourselves license to quit feeling lazy about not spitting turkey sandwiches all over our computer screens during our half hour “breaks” and start getting serious about the effective use of our time. Guilt trip over, its time to fix the problem.

I have been playing with what I’m going to be calling the Ben Franklin Daytimer for a couple of weeks now. Essentially I am combining Franklin’s idea of an 8 hour workday in two 4 hour blocks separated by a generous break with the Pomodorino system to bolster the effectiveness of those work periods. If you’re unfamiliar with Pomodorino time management, do a little google searching and you’ll find a great many descriptions and best practices. Its a simple method of dedicating short blocks of time to a specific task using a basic kitchen timer, and then taking short breaks between those work periods. I don’t actually use a kitchen timer, instead I use a great Mac App called ChronoSlider which makes setting timers and even recurring alarms a really smooth and incredibly quick process, if you’re a mac user, check it out. As a person obsessed with organizing my projects it can be a challenge to put those things out of mind and the security of knowing that the bell will ring in a half hour makes it much easier and allows me to focus with greater intensity. But there is the even greater obstacle of having focus that will not dissolve to sand when you try to use it, and this I believe is where routine becomes important.

Early to bed. Sleep is hugely important to whether I can focus and think and be creative. I made mention above of chemistry and as I understand it nothing is quite as important to the chemistry of productivity as the time you spend asleep. This is another place where guilt shows up. After all, when you are uncomfortable about not having done enough, or you want to wear your sleep deprivation as a badge of honor, you are not likely to sleep well. Again, we need to think more about the ways we really do our best work and not use the hours and stress we put in as a measure of our commitment. I’ve personally been having the most trouble with this bit, the regularity of my routine. This is for several reasons (including my part time jobs with inconsistent schedules) but most frustratingly because of the nature of the work I’ve been doing. When you come right down to it, you’ve got to show up. And for me that has meant not just being at my computer and ready to do some post processing and writing but also being several hours drive from my home at sunrise to photograph seascapes. Breaking my routine has been detrimental to my sleep cycle and to my focus, but the pictures are coming out great, and thats the most energizing part of my day.

Not all challenges are trouble, just take them as they are, set your timer, and dive in. If you’re like me, or like Franklin, you probably have more stuff on the back burner than you care to admit. So if there’s a block in your way, don’t spend too much energy regretting it, instead just pull something else to the burner thats working and set your timer. And if you’ll excuse me, its time to get up and stretch.

Reading Writing and Running

I fantasize about a small cabin on a hill above some New England bluff. Its an imaginary place where I live for a few years with a like minded young woman. Yes, in part this is a fantasy about loving, warming, companionship, fantastic sex, and long lung-stretching, mind-expanding, heart-filling morning runs in beautiful places. The house has just 2 rooms, and rustic ramshackle siding but reliable electricity and hot water. It sits in a town where the sprawl of modern life has yet to penetrate, but where the local economy has built its own measure of convenience. And although the world goes on as usual, my companion and I quietly live out a kind of private utopia. We work simple jobs just half the week to support our habits of running, reading great books, and writing for ourselves and for everyone else who wants more.

We dedicate a chapter of our lives to a simple companionship and the cultivation of my newly designed Three R’s of personal development. Its a concept that operates much the same as the classic Three R’s many of us remember from elementary school, “Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic.” Of course if you ever learned the first two the last is hard to justify. And for many of us, especially those living a simple, quiet life in a shack above some small atlantic bay, arithmetic beyond addition and subtraction to balance a meager budget, has little utility.

So in this imaginary seaside shanty, the experiment of Reading, Writing and Running begins. The deep and distant humanity of our nature can be awakened in the primal simplicity of running for joy, for health, and for basic transportation. And then to write and deepen the understanding of this connection to the future, and to the distant past. Finally reading, primed by the regular practice of running and writing, we may dive into the classic literature, the new masterpieces of universal humanity and be moved not by the words but by the, wondrous nature of the base and fragile people who wrote them.

Short of cult leading, I expect to build my tribe one day on the merits of this system of learning, expression, and self actualization. The shack by the sea is the symbol that I’ve endowed to help me understand this hypothetical world, but the picturesque locale is not the fantasy. My yearning in this is most truly to be at the avant-garde of some new-millennium beat movement. When I read (or personally speculate) about my generation being one culturally lost in the torrent of commercial art, I feel it had ought to be my duty to stop that slide. I have no pretensions about being able to stand up, powerful and strong in the face of hollywood commercialisms’ fire hose and get anything but knocked clean off my feet and swept swiftly into the current. However, there is plenty of space today to stand just left of the line, not to level a playing field or to conquer a portion thereof, but to build an entirely new one. If that meant living in flop houses and smoking weed for the beat generation, I hope it could be reading writing and running in mine. Life needs little of its modern complications, I will happily live without restaurants and movie theaters, cable TV subscriptions or video games, corporate pop music made to sell soft drinks. All I ask is for a quiet place where I can share my life with someone sweet and concerned, and an opportunity to share the musings, learnings and stories of our lives with the world.

But in the world outside our private utopia, this might become a movement. Then I will have further obligations, which I will eschew. Because unlike many shaman before me, I know this message will not weather the inequity of being peddled. One cannot run angry, and one cannot peddle the careful, consistent, and ever deepening commitment to self betterment without causing it to crumble into dust. But I and the other practitioners of Reading Writing and Running will know that it is the way’s very fragility that gives it its power.

Abuse and Relief

Its been a long couple of weeks, and most of that time I have devoted to the work I consider unimportant to me. For the sake of making money I have two part time jobs in retail environments. Far be it from me to belittle the work that retail people do, I have seen it first hand and done it myself for a few years. The experience of working in retail is atrocious, and to that point I think EVERYONE should do it or some other service-oriented job dealing with the public at large. A huge amount of often tedious work constantly interrupted by people who believe they are the most deeply wronged, ferociously inconvenienced and fantastically important of all. Retail is not without its bright spots but these are the exception to the rule. And for those who find this rewarding, fun, interesting, and they wish to do more of it, I say, “More power to ’em.” But for me I cannot wait to get out in part because I simply don’t like it, but mostly because the other projects I’m developing are far more important, and deserve more of my time.
I’m sure many people have been in my shoes, but I know I do an exceptional amount of beating myself up about it. Hence the title of this post, when I’m “at work” I am often being abused by the public, when I leave home (where much of my real work gets done) to “go to work” I abuse myself for the waste of my valuable energy. Since deciding back in March to move at the beginning of next year I have been reporting to work for someone else 6 days a week, and the relief does not come easily. One day per week spent relaxing means that I will have wasted my once weekly opportunity to get some serious work done. This is no way to accomplish anything. But for now, until I have my tribe, my collaborators, my virtuous circle of inspiration near and accessible I will have to just deal with this frustration, and work harder until all my moving costs are covered and I’m ready to settle into dirt-bagging for my real purpose.

Not long ago I wrote about Motivational Love Letters, the little spots of writing that build up your confidence and provide positive affirmation for your dearest pursuits. These have become extremely important for providing myself the much needed relief from my grind and drab view of the world that closes in on me. But these too might give way to the pressure of a terrible question they beg me to ask myself, “If I’m so great, why am I still here?” There are no easy answers here, but there might be a few good ones. They will as always depend on just who you are as an individual, but for me this question has given me the opportunity to look at the yin to the Love Letter’s yang. I’m referring of course to the easy to write, hard to listen to, even harder to admit making use of, “Light a Fire Under your Lazy Ass, Tough-Love Letters.” Though its probably best to make use of these very sparingly I have found that lately with so many other things sapping my energy, these have been instrumental in helping me to hang on. While the world whips me around on its frothy sea of spite and joy and begrudging admiration, I am desperately gripping the edge of my life raft and hoping the change that falls from my pockets will be put to good use. And so it is that the cycle of abuse and relief continues. Praise, motivate, hurt, motivate, scar, heal, abuse, relieve.

In these last couple of weeks I have also decided it would be a good idea to return more seriously to my running practice. After all, who couldn’t do with a little extra meditation and blood-energizing exercise? Especially when in the throws of a struggle to maintain one’s own identity, subjugating the real work of your life to the false idols of money and expediency. But again, running has been teaching. There is such wisdom in the runner’s high. Its as if in lieu of inventing a time machine, or workable unifying theory, universally applicable philosophy or useful religions, truly virtuous savages gave us their wisdom in our genes, in our sweat, in our blood and literally in our hearts. There is a moment when you hit your runner’s high, and you know you’re back. I have not been running much lately and just yesterday had the fantastically invigorating experience of feeling more prepared to run faster and harder just as the effort necessitated i work harder to keep up. This cycle did not wear me down but instead built up my faith, my excitement, my speed, my freedom. Simply put, there are times when the harder you’re breathing, the faster you can run. Its like Pat Robertson always told you, the more you give away the more you’ll have to give. Except that I don’t want your money for my congregation/ TV Station. Just remember that your emotional life and your imaginary world, and at least your perception of your physical energy are as boundless as time and your will to explore.

Even on the trail, and along the beach the cycle continues. Abusing your feet, wearing down your legs, working your lungs, the air relieves it all, and your smile will rebuild your strength. Take that moment and remind yourself to go out and spend your time in the ways that you are the virtuous vagabond, the dirt-bagging hobo king. Light your fires in the dustbowl-refugee jungles of your day, and give away your fear and self loathing, your frustration and your joy will bring you home. Tell your stories, and scar and heal, shock and comfort, abuse and relieve.

Fear

I have struggled to put my thoughts in order, to build cohesive crossovers between my areas of interest. But I was always sure that I was looking for a unifying theory. Projects accumulate, and moments pass, time rolls forward, and things don’t come together. But I work, and I press and I struggle. Or, at least thats what I thought was happening. Last week it was suggested to me that I am not missing my unifying theory, that I am not subtly under-committed, but rather my work is suffering from fear.
I have been living this week with the idea that, “You might be afraid of what it is you can do.” The unfortunate conclusion I am drawing is that this could be my best unifying theory thus far. In many ways I have avoided and derailed and distracted from the reality I need to face. The fact of the matter is that as energizing and fun as the work can be, it is terrifying. I have stayed with just a foot in the water because it is only the craft that is energizing and fun. The art, the self-exploration, the self-exposition, the joy and anger, the sadness and the fear are painful and draining.

When I have traveled the paths of artistic truth they have been fearful and angry. The depth to which I can delve is limited in my trust, my belief that I can return to my sanity. The domestication of life in society protects us all from the voices that speak in our bones. To borrow a phrase from great lyricist “We’re branded with a secret in a language we can’t read.” I have taken the effort to come to terms with this fact, but I often feel that I was never meant to translate these secrets. They claim they can only ever be understood in their own original language. Therefore following their meanings as they develop will begin to distance one from his sanity, safety, and domestication. Distance from domestication is not all bad, and indeed it can be very pleasant. However, the fear that as you follow down the path of truth you begin to lose track of your way back to the place you know, the place where you are stable is a fear that should not be underestimated. There is a stereotype of artists, especially among young male artists, that we can be dangerous to ourselves, that we drink, do a lot of drugs, and have illicit casual affairs. There was a time I thought I was simply a more practical, mature, stable person than some of my peers. Today I am discovering that I have simply never chosen to give myself up to the current of the fearsome truths that play havoc with these less fortunate characters. In this light it must be said I am glad I haven’t. However, the pain and fear persist, I have not followed the road before me fearing I will neither recall the path back nor find safe passage through.

Learning and turmoil, the boiling in your gut when you do not know the answers. When you know neither the way nor the goal, you can only step forward if you cannot stay where you are. So I remain living within the confines of my fear and slowly, carefully, with waning patience, I am pressing its borders.

Running Out of Time

I posted earlier this week about feeling out of sync and distracted and unproductive. I have also experienced more migraine events than usual in the last 2 months, it occurred to me last week that I had not been running. So, I finally got around to going out for a run. I took off for 5 miles and came back feeling like a new person. I cannot overstate the strength of the link between exercise and my power to focus. There is a unique thing that happens when one can combine meditative rhythm with natural, enjoyable alterations to brain chemisty.There is a point in my run, usually around two and a half or three miles where all other things begin to disappear. For me it matters not whether its a straight and flat road-run or a narrow, hilly, muscular trail. So long as I am outdoors and moving forward, feeling the ground disappear off the toes of my shoes, I will discover a unique freedom and clarity of mind. When I reach this state there are no stressors, not on my joints, not on my mind. There is a place about ten feet in front of me where I know my body will be very shortly and there is the breath in my lungs. Beyond that my mind will waft from thought to thought, into unthought and back. At times I find I can think about what are otherwise very most difficult choices I face without any of their usual weight. Three miles into my run I begin to see my world as a kind of enlightened spectator. I still hold all the context, but now I gain a special kind of separation that does not limit the depth of my investment, only its ability to blind me.
Running convinces me of the virtue and the attainability of living simply. But simultaneously, it invigorates the creative process which clammors to put more work, and learning before me. Perhaps my greatest lesson from my time spent on the trail is that simplicity and fullness are never mutually exclusive. Even greater than that, simple fullness is downright acheivable. When my run turns the corner from enjoyable physical challenge to psychological and metaphysical exercise, time begins to disappear. Not in an amnestic way but where I feel I could keep floating along on my legs with this lightness of mind for the entire day. In this mental place of no-time it becomes possible to play unabashedly. To play physically, and play with ideas. When I’ve run out of time, there are no pressures, no worries, no concerns, and the world is simple, and my heart is full.