#52Beats. Beat Four: Hooked into Machine. Reflections on Work, Life, and Rhythm (part 1)

By Way of Introduction

On the Sunday night, I struggled with the idea of going to sleep and letting the week end without a blog post. “Only four weeks in, and you’re already lagging behind,” booed my inner critic. My response to it was that these posts are supposed to be a time for reflection, not something I hastily hobble together for the sake of regularity. And last week, truthfully, I didn’t manage to take a beat.

I did a lot of editing of my novel, finally getting into the swing of it and not petrified by the fear of ‘ruining’ my allegedly perfect manuscript. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t perfect before editing, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be that, after. But it is going to be one I like more, now that I bring two more years of writing and storytelling experience to the table.)

I also did an unprecedented thing of taking an entire weekend (!) away from both art and paid work. As a result, I was able to finally organize my clothes for the first time since the house move (now I get to actually choose an outfit instead of wearing the first three things I pick off the floor!); put together an impassioned residency application for the Home Office, complete with a hefty document package; and spend a lot of time with my husband in-between those projects.

When I finally sat down to write this belated beat on Monday night, the post quickly ballooned to a sizeable length. My original intention to talk about rhythms on the scale from hourly to yearly has spawned several necessary stories from my personal history. Thus came the decision to split the post into two logical halves. Address my past practices in the first one, and current ones in the second.

Here goes.

Hooked Into Machine: Reflections on Work, Life, and Rhythm – Part 1

I have a real soft spot for Tony Stark (as pictured in the MCU). In addition to the knee-bucking combination of charm and vulnerability that Robert Downey Jr. brings to the role, Tony’s is a story of continuous conflict between humanity and machinery. We see the “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” move from being metaphorically stuck in the machine that is the military-industrial complex, to literal dependence on machinery for his survival. We see his definition of the self evolve from “I am Iron Man; the suit and I are one” to “You can take away my tricks and toys, but one thing you can’t take away: I am Iron Man.”

One last thing I’ll do before this becomes an essay devoted entirely to Tony, is leave this video here. I think it’s an amazing exploration of Tony’s character and the transhumanism implications of his story arc.

An important question that my therapist had taught me to ask is: why? So I asked myself why do I have such a soft spot for Tony? The answer is probably manifold, but one aspect of it is: for most of my life, I’ve had a habit of treating my entire being as a machine.

When hearing about someone who “is like a machine,” you probably imagine a high-powered triathloning CEO, not a freelance size 24 who came fourth-last in the one 5k she ran. However, I define one’s machine-ness not by societal standards, but by two things:  fitness for purpose and consistent output. With the benefit of hindsight, I should also point out that most machines have a limited useful life.

Fitness for purpose

While I have never been fit in the conventional sense, I’ve always been extremely fit for each of my purposes at any given time.

A daughter that makes her family proud and causes no trouble. A student that works hard and receives consistently good grades. A fast and accurate translator who copes well with sleep deprivation. A good employee who pursues quality in everything she does.

From an early age, I’ve been good at identifying the rules of the system I was in, and learning to excel in them. That said, I never dabbled in politics: in class or in the office. I had no idea how to play the game, and I think I was reluctant commit to its changeable rules. Formal rules, however… I fit them to a T, and most of the time, my work was good enough that I could afford to ignore the game.

Consistent output 

I’ve been a chronic overachiever for my entire life, however I think that my real “machine-made” times began when I started freelancing at the age of 17.

17-year-old me was not trained in any productivity or time management techniques. She just did the math. When presented with a 50-page text that needed translating, she knew that she could translate ten pages per day, so she would agree to deliver it five days later, come hell or high water. (17-year-old me also had a client that swung between unscrupulous and plain exploitative, but that’s a story for the freelancer house of horrors.)

Somehow, I had managed to maintain that habit for years. Take X amount of work, divide by Y amount you can do in one day, add the result to the current date, and there’s your deadline. 30 days’ worth of work? Sure, I’ll deliver in a month from now. Days off? Never heard of them.

Between the ages of 17 and 25, I combined freelance work with either uni, uni+part-time work, or full-time work. Some seven years ago, I switched to being a full-time freelance writer/editor/translator while also pursuing a career as a novelist. I also did a fair amount of volunteer work, moved countries, wrote comic books, attended comic conventions, and dabbled in music. All with the machine mentality: efficient, result-oriented, quality-minded, and just perfectionist enough to hurt myself, but not the product delivery date.

Limited useful life

I’ve always been healthier than my family and myself gave myself credit for, and I suspect that’s what let me get away with many years of my work style that’s best described as 24/7/11: work 24/7, perform at 11. Unsurprisingly, the older I got, the more health issues I ran into, and the more I’d treat each of them both as a personal insult and a personal failure.

Which brings me to autumn of 2016, during which I made great progress on the novel that had lay abandoned since start of year, upgraded my gym membership to a personal training program, and worked on every freelance job that came my way. A few weeks in, I injured my back, but continued exercising. A little later, I came down with the worst cold in years, all in the middle of warm weather, no drafts or air conditioners. After taking two weeks to recover, I returned to the gym and trained enough to show some progress on my next PT appointment. And then I did NaNoWriMo, writing some 20 thousands words in a month.

Over the next six months, the very idea of exercise or creative output filled me with dread. I did the work requested by clients, and filled the rest of my time with video games. I wasn’t crazy busy all the time, but my relationship with rest remained broken. I would work until I couldn’t, and then rest for as long as I could get away with. If I was still a machine, I was one on my way to breakdown and/or obsolescence.

That’s how I ended up in therapy. Unsurprisingly, my answer to the question on what I was hoping to get out of it was, “I want to be able to work better.”

Discovering a rhythm

I think that weekly therapy session were my first taste of the importance of pauses. It was a regular practice, but entirely unlike the gym sessions I’d dragged myself to because… for the life of me, I can’t even remember what my reason was at the time. To be healthier? If that had been my initial reason, it had bombed, as every single session had made me feel weak and broken, not strong and healthy.

In the case of therapy, once a week, I would spend an hour discussing things that bothered me, ask and answer tough questions that let me know myself better, and come up with practical steps for me to try. It was a pause, during which I wasn’t doing any work – but after taking it, I could come back to my life with more clarity.

Some of that clarity showed me that the younger, machine-like me had no rhythm to speak of. A rhythm implies motion and stillness, sound and silence. If younger me were a heart muscle, she’d be a V-fib; if she were a song, she’d be a foghorn.

If I had to name the one most important thing that therapy had taught me, it would be to listen to my body and my mind. Over the years of treating myself as a machine, I’d successfully numbed even some of the most basic sensations. By constantly restricting my calories, I’d forgotten what it’s like to be actually hungry (which only promoted emotional eating). By working well past the point of exhaustion, I’d made myself forget about restful sleep.

I’d be lying if I said that since starting and completing my therapy course, I’ve been a picture of health and productivity, or even a picture of balance. During the past six months, there were times when I overstressed, overbooked, overeaten, underslept or injured myself (getting to know your body for the first time at 32 has tricky moments). But I have begun regaining some faith in my body and mind’s ability to manage themselves without my constantly standing guard. I’ve been exploring intuitive eating, self-love, and body positivity. I’ve drawn up boundaries to protect my personal space, both with difficult people in my life, and the people I love dearly. On several occasions, I have done the unthinkable and moved work deadlines. (Even typing that out is scary.)

And probably for the first time in my life, I’ve been waking up well-rested most mornings.

Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow, where I’ll talk about the many time management systems I’d tried and failed at, and the rhythms I find myself following on the scale from one hour to one year.

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