It’s been nearly eight weeks since I returned from The Sociological Review’s writing retreat. Facilitated by Rowena Murray on her home turf in Scotland, there are four phrases that have endured. I can’t prove causality but when I hear these phrases in my head, they always have a Scottish accent. In 1000 words, because I now realise writing targets must be specific and measurable, I will describe how my attitude towards interrupting has changed how I see the connection between my brain and my body.
1. Sitting is the new smoking
I like sitting. I am very good at it. During my PhD and now in my Post-Doc research, my mantra was ‘sit at your desk until it’s done’. I’d take enough food to the office so that if I wanted to, I could stay late and eat dinner at work. A fellow academic once mentioned that she takes a day off at least once every 10 days. I used that as a yardstick and worked most weekends. My general rule was as long as I did a minimum of 3 hours writing, which I timed and tracked, the day counted as a work day. My work took priority and any interruptions had to be fitted around my writing. But for some reason, doing even my minimum target started to become more difficult. I looked back on my time sheet from my PhD days and couldn’t believe that I did fewer hours yet was more productive. I had developed bad habits since starting my post-doc; spending time on fieldwork logistics; frequently checking emails; having my browser open in the background; having my phone on the desk. Overall, the ‘don’t move until you have finished’ approach had lost its charm and, as repeatedly pointed out by Rowena, was slowly killing me.
2. Back up, get up
A bit like Bob Marley’s ‘get up, stand up’ (but less political), at 11am, 12:30pm, 2pm, 4pm and 5:30pm I now hear the phrase ‘back up your work’ immediately followed by ‘get up and move away from your laptop’. I have remained obedient to the three breaks a day routine, stopped working late in the office and notwithstanding the demands of job application deadlines, do not work at the weekends. What has been more difficult though is using breaks and time off to do stuff that does not entail more sitting. In Scotland we went for a walk before lunch which should have been easy to replicate given that I work on the slopes of Table Mountain National Park (See below).
As a compromise, I started doing more of what I see as functional movements; lifting (clearing out my office ahead of my move back to the UK); squats and stretches (cleaning the bathroom); and standing (cooking dinner). As if to somehow offset this stereotypically female use of my ‘free’ time, I have started working my way through all the comedians who have appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. But even Sandi Toksvig, as if slipped some cash by Rowena, made me feel bad about my sloth-like tendencies.
I’ve lived in my brain for so long. I needed to live in my body as well and connect somewhere at the neck. And I feel so much better.
(Sandi Toksvig, Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, Fri 4 Dec 2015)
Listening to Sandi as I inhaled Handy Andy (It’s the same as Cif in the UK, but I assume it’s not called Cif because in South Africa ‘Siff’ is slang for disgusting), I decided that the main value of ‘get up, stand up’ was that it helps to get me out of my brain a bit. Rather than seeing interruptions as unwelcome disruptions, when scheduled as part of my day, they are important opportunities to ensure that I move about. It means I can justify getting up to make numerous hot beverages (quelle surprise, I am a caffeine fiend), go to seminars, host seminars and arrange lunch time meetings, all guilt free.
3. That’s not writing
Within four weeks I had what I thought was a draft paper. And in terms of the number of words on the page, I did. But it was far from a manuscript and I have since been occupied with things that would likely prompt Rowena to say ‘that’s not writing’: checking references; returning to reading and note taking; quantifying data sources for my methods section; going back to transcripts. Rather than using the ‘that’s not writing’ mantra to beat myself up, I instead have used it to differentiate between different writing and tasks that are integral to writing. To keep a balance between both, I have a colour coded spread sheet that I started on retreat and have continued to use. Black is writing (‘just write’), green is time off (not household chores), orange is anything else that relates to writing (attending a writer’s circle) and purple is other desk-based work (for me this is writing job applications but I imagine in future these will be teaching related tasks).
4. Sorry to interrupt. It’s my job When I explain my new ‘stop/start’ routine to other people, they ask ‘so what did the facilitator actually do?’ and ‘How does this help if you teach 9-5 Monday to Friday?’ All Rowena did was interrupt. This was helpful because if I never have a protected block of time ever again, I can still prioritise my writing. Writing for an hour or so a day would be about 1000 words a week and a draft paper in two months. For other people this ‘up/down’ business, having carved out a space for writing only be told to stop every 1-1.5 hours for a break, is infuriating. But for me, the value of the retreat was not about working out how to write more, it was about how to break up writing into interruptible chunks and incorporate non-cerebral activities to make writing a distinctive task. Simple, but so far, effective.
Teresa Perez is a Research Fellow in the African Climate and Development Initiative at University of Cape Town.