You think life’s a b****? Meet self discipline.

I’ve never been too good with authority. If someone tells me to do something, it’s usually a good enough reason for me to resolutely do the opposite. Even when it comes to book and film recommendations ‘you must watch x’ and even if x sounds brilliant, my natural reaction is ‘I must, must I? I think you’ll find I can do what I like’. Which makes no sense, of course, but is probably one of the reasons why I still haven’t seen Star Wars – because you’re not the boss of me.

My reaction is just the same when it’s my own internal recommendations ‘you can feel your skin burning, put on sun lotion’; ‘you’re exhausted and your eyes hurt, don’t watch another episode now it’s 4am’; ‘time to get up’ – ‘IS IT?? IS IT REALLY?’ and so on. My alarm clock is currently set at 6.45am knowing that if I set it any closer to when I really do need to get up, you wouldn’t see me until lunchtime, because I’m not the boss of me either.

Except now I am.

The problem, as you will see from the above, is that even when I want to motivate myself to do something pleasurable or stimulating, I still find that my contrariness gets in the way. I enjoy going for a run, but getting myself up and out into the fresh, sunny morning is somehow a chore. I love to write and I love to Read Your Writing, and yet even with a really great project in front of me, I can find myself battling against the very thing I’ve risked it all to pursue.

The World Economic Forum has recently released a study - I like to think in direct response to my own blog about working from home - on the benefits of limiting the working week to 25 hours. One half of me decided this was vindication! A great justification for taking a nap after lunch. The other half decided I was an incorrigible slacker who needs to knuckle down no matter how sleepy and full of baked potato. Every day since starting school I have understood that the only way to get things done is to work every day as much and as hard as possible – but that was when someone else was making the decisions – surely it’s time for a nap change.

Writers and academics will likely begin to see the parallels between setting up on your own and deciding to write a novel, a screenplay, or even a PhD – self discipline is bitch. When there is no longer an authority figure to tell us how to behave, what to do and when to do it, we reluctantly struggle into that role ourselves. Anyone who has experience in management will tell you how difficult that role can be.

I like to think I’m the cool mum, the fun teacher, the hip young babysitter who tells it how it is and lets you stay up late and watch a horror film. Captain, my captain, don’t listen to the man, we don’t need rules - hey it’s sunny let’s have class out on the lawn today! And then I realise that it’s really uncomfortable to work sitting on the ground and it’s tough to get anything done after that late night and actually horror films give me nightmares.

In fact, far from fun-mum, I am likely to be my harshest critic because I know just how contrary that inner voice can be. The fact remains that work must be done, and someone has to make sure it is done and stop larking about. But don’t let it be the inner voice that cried wolf: sometimes, as much as I hate to admit it, she’s right. The question, then, is whose instruction do you trust when there is only you in the room?

It’s important to remember that there are different types of work: creative (the idea having); planning (the in-between stage where you develop that idea into more rigorous structure, give it shape, lay out the pattern); and productive (putting stuff down – writing the words). Each of these will require different skills, environments and approaches. Everyone will do these things in a different order and in different ways: you might start with the productive work, writing every day*, which might lead to an idea; or you might have an idea which, in attempting to produce, you naturally explore various patterns and possibilities.

Not only this, you will approach these different types of work best under different circumstances – I have a lot of ideas and also do a lot of planning while running, travelling or even washing up. I can only really do productive work when I am quiet and sitting at a tidy desk (more on this next week). All the ways that you achieve these things are legitimate ways of working and count as working. So if you want to stand on the table and recite poetry, or enjoy the sunshine on the lawn, just consider which task will be most profitably done in this environment and can you prioritise that one while the sun is out?

And ultimately, some weeks just aren’t ideas weeks, and others just won’t be any use for producing words. Why that is may be as a result of environment, health, food, sleep, or hangover too much exercise. If you’re too tired to concentrate you could waste three hours producing what could have been done in one hour after a nice nap and a cup of tea. If you suspect you might just be being a bit lazy or bored, change the task and push yourself to keep going for another hour and see if it sticks. 

Take advantage of the two roles you now inhabit – be it employer and employee, supervisor and student, or writer and editor – and have a conversation. You know yourself best, so ask yourself questions.

I can tell you, it’s a lot harder to argue with.


*highly recommended