Woof. 2019 has been a surreal year in many ways, and as such I’m not sure how to catalogue it. When I think about 2019 my first thought goes towards political events. Every year is political of course, but on a personal level, I’ve never felt as political as I have this year. There was a time not too long ago where events on the TV screen felt so far away, even unreal to me. Wars, scandals, elections, natural disasters, and recessions were a blur, something in perpetual motion but which never changed- like a waterfall. It’s not that I thought it unreal in a literal sense, but the news for so long was something I subconsciously treated like a storybook. I’d dabble in it now and then, but it could never compare to the concerns of my ego. I never reacted to it with the same intensity as I did a class I hadn’t done the homework for, a turbulent shift at the pub, or a difficult boss in a video game I was playing (looking at you, Masayoshi Shido).
But in the last few years, I feel more connected to political events. And in 2019 especially, things like climate change, healthcare, gun control, and Brexit have dominated my psyche like never before. I wonder if it’s just me or not, because everywhere I look I feel like I can see politics trickling down into the day to day lives of people around me. Are people more engaged than usual, or am I projecting my own sentiment onto those around me? I can’t say; I can only articulate my own experience and feelings.
When doing preparations for my review of 2019, I realized that a post I had written a few months ago, September Thoughts, had actually captured my overall thoughts of the year in a nutshell. Almost everything I could think to say about the year I realized would simply turn out to be a needless rehash of what I’d already written. Hence the lateness of this post. What can I say about a year that felt so insubstantial?
2019 wasn’t a bad or unhappy year for me, but it was for lack of a better word “inbetweeny”. I feel like I’ll probably forget it in the years to come. There were no personal milestones for me, no drastic changes, no significant developments. It was the first year in my life where I’ve had the same job from beginning to end, and that sense of level continuity was reflective of my life outside the pub as well. I worked the same role on the same invariable shift pattern and I didn’t spend any of my earnings. I saved everything and I took no holiday. In my spare time I tried to make little steps toward improving longstanding obsessions, tweaking my productive exercises here and there but ultimately making no significant breakthroughs.
I read more books and I wrote more words, but I don’t feel any nearer to where I want to be. Being able to read 50 books a year still seems unfeasible for me, and what progress I have made toward improving my speed and concentration is so minimal it hardly seems worth noting. People think I’m an elite reader because I enjoy reading so much. But if reading were like football, I’d be the fat kid that gets picked last by the team captains, and can’t run more than 10 yards without pulling out his inhaler. But he loves taking part and every now and then he blocks a powerful shot in injury time with his groin and ends up the Man of the Match. That’s kinda like when I surprise myself by bossing a classic like The Color Purple, which was probably my favorite read of 2019.
In 2018 I was able to write 35,064 words for NaNoWriMo and when I took part again in 2019 I was able to write 43,762 words. The goal is to write 50k in a month, but I am proud of how I beat my previous score. It was an interesting examination of my own productivity. For instance, in November of 2018 I didn’t have a job- my only distraction from writing was Red Dead Redemption 2, which undoubtedly affected the results, but which surely would have been replaced by something else if it didn’t exist. In November of 2019, however, I had far more commitments and distractions and yet I wrote more. I also didn’t have the benefit of having a novel already underway. In 2019 I came up with the idea for the novel on day one and made it up as I went along. The key lesson, for me, is that the intensity of the writing session is more important than the length. Having more time available doesn’t necessarily lead to effective use of that time.
Throughout my twenties I’ve often castigated myself for not using my time effectively. I’ve wasted so much time- so much of my prime years have been squandered by fear and lethargy- and it’s led to some quite serious self-hatred on my part. I used to tell myself how lucky I am, how fortunate I am simply to have “free time” at all. I thought of all the writers, past and present, who surely would have killed for such a forgiving schedule. Surely they would be writing all day long, because they have willpower and I don’t? Now I’m not so sure that an abundance of leisure time is good for a writer- I don’t think an absence of responsibilities and real world experiences is conducive to creative health. That’s not to say I’m letting myself off the hook- throughout my youth I’ve been unconscionably lazy, and I’m motivated to make up for lost time as best I can- but when comparing my NaNoWriMo experiences it’s become clear to me that the path to prolific writing does not lie in an open schedule. I strongly believe that to be both consistent and effective, it’s good to write as early in the day as possible and to have a designated, uninterrupted work period. A quality, focused hour is better- in my opinion- than having the whole day free and chipping away at it without any rhythm. Set a timer, put on a constant, continuous sound (music without lyrics, without much excitement- think soft jazz, ambient sounds, chakra healing and binaural beats, et cetera), put away your phone, avoid social media, and commit to thinking and doing nothing outside of the realm of your given focus until the timer expires.
Rereading my September blog post also brought attention to another focus of my 2019- between working, fretting about political events, and trying to be productive, I’ve also revealed a potential enemy to my progress. I am not succinct or straightforward enough, be it in my written or oral communications. It just so happens that the blog post that became September Thoughts was originally intended to be something else. I had planned on blogging about a trip I took to Castle Combe with my friends, but as I sat down at my desk, I realized that I didn’t have much to say about it that would be of any interest to those outside the trip itself. Worried that the post would be too short and lacking in any real value, I began discussing my state of mind prior to the trip. Before I knew it, the introduction had become a blog post in and of itself. And this isn’t the first time that’s happened. What was meant to be the introduction paragraph to my post about novels set in Houston ended up being an entire post unto itself as well, as I found I had more I wanted to say about the city and my feelings towards it. I always intend to write short, digestible posts. But ones I don’t scrap for parts always end up way longer than I could have imagined. And the process of writing these extended pieces is draining; it dislodges my other targets for that day and fucks with my schedule.
I also discovered that this tendency to waffle on is not limited to just my writing. I talk too much as well. During conversations with my friend Aaron, he’ll sometimes point out that I’ll take far too long to impart the smallest, most trivial piece of information. Or I’ll essentially repeat the same point but with different words. What I realized was that I don’t have confidence in my ability to convey information that makes sense. I over-explain everything to try and recreate the way I see something with as much fidelity as possible in the mind of the person I’m speaking to. And there is no doubt that this tendency toward long-winded elucidation is to the detriment of both my writing and social skills.
It’s funny how so much of what I want to say about 2019 is wrapped up in that one, somewhat forgettable blog post in September about my nighttime walks home from work. Doesn’t that just encapsulate it so well? 2019 has been a year of steady progress, a progress built out of small, unremarkable steps, which grouped together can be considered important. I’ve certainly spent a lot of time in my own head in 2019, which isn’t so great when I’m getting agitated about politics, but which also allowed me to learn a lot about my own habits and weaknesses.
I won’t make a resolution or a bold mission statement for 2020. My only aim is to continue working on the areas I’d like to improve and to try and push myself to the limits of my productivity. Perhaps a more definitive target will emerge in the near future, but for now I only wish to up the ante in my efforts to avoid wasting time.
I’ll end this post with a little anecdote. The other day my friend Aaron and I were discussing our reading targets for the New Year. Aaron was toying with the idea of reading a book a day from January 1st to December 31st. He could easily do it, providing he made time for concentrated, uninterrupted reading each morning. He reads at a rate of 2 standard paperback pages per minute, so I have no doubt that he could finish 365 books by the year’s end. But the reason he wouldn’t, we agreed, was not for lack of speed. To live a happy and productive life in the modern world, you can’t be inflexible. Rigidly sticking to the obligation to finish a book each day could potentially detract from other aspects of life. Even if the time was there in abundance, the energy might not be. Any productivity schedule has to allow for life hitting you with things out of the blue, and something as simple as a dental appointment or a work party is enough to pull one’s focus elsewhere.
This is very true of my own experience. No daily schedule can truly last. What’s important is not the arbitrary number of 365 books read, but the simple motivation to read more, to read as much as possible. I think you can apply this to anything, be it fitness, make-up tutorials, or model railway collecting. And that is not to let the true joy of these passions be lost in the pursuit of milestones. Aaron concluded our discussion with a neat quote from the Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz: