You can’t do everything.
You can do a lot of things, but you have to pace yourself.
These are the lessons I’ve been learning this month. I’m the sort of person who wants to do everything: Teach. Write novels and stories and essays and poems. Spend time with my daughter, of course. But also learn Hungarian, and go to the ballet, and read books. Travel when I can. Decorate my apartment. There’s time for all of that, but I have to figure out when and how to do each thing so I’m doing it well, and not exhausting myself. That takes pacing.
So for example, I’m decorating my apartment. My impulse is to do everything at once: to buy the bookshelves, put them together, stain and finish them. Buy the pillows, the fabric to cover the pillows. Sew the pillow covers. But I don’t have time to do everything at once, because I’m also teaching and writing. So instead I do a little each day, and I find that as long as I’m doing something each day, eventually it gets done. The shelves go up, the pillows are covered and put on the daybed.
It takes having patience, and being able to divide work into discreet tasks so you can do it a bit at a time. So for example, today I’m going to stain the shelves, then let them dry overnight, turn them over, and stain the other sides tomorrow. They should be completely stained by this weekend, when I can put the whole bookshelf together and finish it with oil. Soon, and by soon I mean at the end of the week, I’ll have a bookshelf, and the books that have been sitting on the floor will have a home. I do hate books sitting on the floor, so not having a place to put them has been an exercise in patience. But I know that as long as I work on the shelves every day, a little at a time, I will eventually have a floor without books on it.
The same goes for writing, and of course you know I’m more concerned about writing than shelves, although my home is important to me. In writing, I have to pace myself too. Right now, I’m working on revising the entire novel. This will be my second full revision, and this week I’ve been doing the hardest part: rewriting the first chapter. I work during the day, so I write at night, from around nine p.m. to midnight. I find that I can only write for about three hours before I lose focus, before the words won’t come as easily or fit together as well. It’s like the shelves: as long as I do a little each day, I know it will eventually be done.
There is another sense in which I try to pace myself: not just breaking up tasks over time, but making sure that in any given day, I’m doing different sorts of things. I know that if I teach and then meet with students, I need to do something that doesn’t involve people. If I sit and write for a long time, I need to go something physical. If my mind has been taken up all day with work, I need to go read a book. Whatever I’ve done, I need to do the opposite for a while. Otherwise, I’ll exhaust myself with one task, or type of task.
Pacing yourself is about getting to do all the things you want to do, not necessarily when you want to do them, but so you can do them most efficiently, and with the most energy. It takes three things:
1. Prioritizing. Know what you actually want to do, and get rid of the things you don’t want to, to the extent you can.
2. Dividing tasks over time. Figure out how to divide what you need or want to do, and do part of it each day until it’s done. But almost anything you do, even the things you love to do, you will tire of, if you keep doing them long enough.
3. Dividing your time into tasks. What do you want to do when? What are the things you most need or want to get done today, and how are you going to arrange them? Can you fit in the things you need to do, the things you want to do, and the things that will give you a break from everything else? Remember to take a walk, read a book . . .
I’m not always very good at pacing myself, but I have so many things I want to do . . . and I think that’s the only way to do them.
Last weekend, I saw this little tree in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts. Can you see that it’s trying to be all the colors at once? I admire this little tree, and yet I thought: pace yourself! You have plenty of growing to do, and there’s plenty of autumn to come. You will be all the colors, little tree, in time . . .