Coping… with disappointment and distraction
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Recently, I’ve been speaking to a lot of people about breast cancer. It’s for a book I’m working on, and one of the observations that comes up a lot is that a cancer diagnosis helps you put things in perspective. You no longer sweat the small stuff, or care about trivial inconveniences. Once you’re faced with the prospect of death up close, you find it difficult to care as your colleague complains she was given the wrong coffee in Pret.
To an extent, I agree. And this is not just a cancer thing; it can happen with any life event that causes proximity to death or grief. But sometimes there is so much pressure to ‘enjoy every moment’ and brush off life’s nuisances. Despite having had breast cancer, I do still get annoyed by annoying things. Last week, when our childcare fell through, it was really sad and difficult to accept that I was going to have to miss Glastonbury, despite having a ticket for the long-delayed and much-anticipated festival. Some disappointments are easier to brush off than others.
I threw myself a pity party, and read this New York Magazine article about how even the man who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck failed to follow his own gospel. At least I wasn’t due to perform, like poor old Wolf Alice who had to deal with a cancelled flight hours before their Friday afternoon slot (they made it in the nick of time, but stress levels must have been through the roof!).
Anyway, I’m trying to reframe this sad state of affairs in a positive way: not going to Glastonbury means I had a bit more time to work on my book. Now, I can cope with disappointments, but distractions? That’s another story. I’m a journalist, used to writing ‘1200 words by Thursday’, not 75,000 words in three months. Also, this book is important to me and I want to make sure I get it right.
Procrastination is often the result of discomfort. When something isn’t easy, the brain looks for an escape route: Ooh I’ll just put a wash on/reply to these WhatsApp messages/sort out the kids’ clothes. You’re probably meant to be doing a work task instead of reading this, right? (If you are, don’t worry: productivity tips coming up!)
I find the worst kind of procrastination is other work. Clearing my inbox or - let’s face it - writing this newsletter feels productive because it’s work, but it’s not the work that I’m meant to be doing right now.
I asked Instagram for advice (because what’s more productive than looking at Instagram?) and lots of people suggested setting a timer, then focusing on nothing but the task in hand until it runs out. Cue me browsing beautiful hourglass timers on the internet for 20 minutes. Others suggested accountability, which I’ve started doing by telling friends my word-count goals and asking them to check in with me.
The brilliant Nahid de Belgeonne suggested working in chunks of 90 minutes, then doing something non-stimulating (like gardening, walking or meditation) for 20 minutes. She calls it ‘intermittent resting’. And I loved Oliver Burkeman’s advice on the Diary of a CEO podcast. He recommends ‘radical incrementalism’, which basically means doing a small amount every day, but making it a habit… Every. Single. Day.
So I’m going to be book-focused for the next few weeks. If you bump into me this summer, please tell me to get back to my radical incrementalism. And, whatever you do, don’t ask if I had fun at Glastonbury.
This week I’m…
Streaming Glastonbury highlights with a heavy heart
Reading Danielle Pender’s beautiful short story collection Watching Women & Girls
Dancing to Break My Soul, Beyoncé’s first new single in ages
Promising myself I’ll finally learn to play tennis after watching Wimbledon (then forgetting all about it by August)