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Bored? Make Jam.

Grace and Katriina cooking

Last week’s post was for the busy people finding that lockdown gave them less free time, not more. This one is for the rest of you, those finding time hanging heavy on your hands. 

Let me reiterate: if you’re busy, read this if you want to, but it isn’t written for you.

Okay, so you’re stuck in your home, your job may be gone, your social life is toast, and there’s bugger all to do to keep you sane and happy. What can you do about that? I have three steps that might help.

 It would be absurd to expect you to get through lockdown fitter, stronger, better educated and better qualified than you were going in. Absurd to expect it, but not absurd to work towards it. This is the perennial problem of the truly self-employed- there is no-one telling you what to do. That’s a double-edged sword* :

On the one hand, you’re free to never wear a tie, spend all day watching Netflix, and eat yourself into a diabetic coma. 

On the other hand (in my experience, being self-employed for the last 20 years), your boss is a dickhead who never gives you a raise or a day off. 

I imagine that entrepreneurs are generally doing quite well in lockdown- we’re used to being self-directed. But I remember what it was like going from a full-time job (as a cabinet-maker) to being suddenly self-employed. It was disorienting, and I spent an awful lot of time pursuing distractions because I had no idea how to be self-directed. If you are used to a boss and a paycheck, deciding for yourself exactly what you’ll do every day is hard, and if you’re anything like me you’ll tend towards reading books and watching tv.

The thing that really pulled me out of it was deciding to open a sword school. This is obviously not a practical suggestion for you, especially in the current circumstances. But the key point was not “open a sword school”, it was having a direction to work towards. 

Step one: find your jam

So step one is this: decide what you want to be doing six months or a year from now. Whether that’s getting a job, starting a company, writing a book, lying on a beach sipping Mai Tais, or growing your own carrots, it doesn’t matter. What is your jam? Once you know what your jam is (and it may have nothing to do with being self-employed or starting a company), adopting an entrepreneurial mindset will help you achieve it.

The best definition of entrepreneurship I’ve ever come across is Prof. Howard Stevenson’s, which I paraphrase as: “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled”. Let me unpack that a bit. “The pursuit of opportunity” is simply working towards a goal of any kind. Seeing the thing that you want, and going for it. The second part is the key. A sensible person looks at what they have and makes what they can from it. An entrepreneur looks at what they want to build, figures out what they need to build it, and finds a way to acquire those things. That could be cash, a team, a change in the law, a thousand kilos of beef jerky, it doesn’t matter. If it’s required to get the job done, you find a way to get it.

So the entrepreneurial approach to being stuck in lockdown is to decide where you want to be when it’s over, and spend the time acquiring whatever it is you need to make that happen. 

The problem with this is it’s daunting. It may even seem impossible. The fundamental personality trait that makes entrepreneurship possible is a tolerance for risk, which is one of the many reasons why so many ‘successful’ entrepreneurs come from wealthy backgrounds- they can afford to take the risks, because failure is survivable. I imagine it is also extremely helpful to have the seed money in your trust fund. This is also, incidentally, one reason why I think that the limited liability company is one of the most important inventions in human history. By capping the downside, it enables entrepreneurs to take risks that would otherwise be too dangerous. But I digress (as usual).

In my case, I had been made redundant and nobody was hiring in my chosen field. Entrepreneurship was the only way forward, and it took a lot of getting used to. But having that clear goal made figuring out what to do infinitely easier.

Step two: identify the resources required to make your jam.

This will probably produce a list of things that are entirely out of reach. That’s okay; they are only out of reach at the moment. But presumably they exist. If your list includes unicorns or perpetual motion machines, then you need to re-think. But I know from personal experience that line items like “have a permanent training facility that is not shared with other groups so we can leave our swords there” can be achieved- the necessary first step was to open a school using hired gym spaces, get enough students paying training fees to cover the rent, go searching for spaces, and then rent one. 

So what do you need to make your jam?

Step three: break it into bite-size chunks. Do one chunk a day.

But now you have a gargantuan to-do list, big enough and heavy enough to smother even the most ambitious dreamer. A lot of it is probably outside your current area of control. But narrow it down to things that you need (not want), and find something in there that is within your reach. It may seem trivial, too small to matter, but my entire house is built out of individual bricks, any one of which is largely irrelevant, trivial, the house would stand without it. But I'm very glad the bricklayer put it there anyway. So step three is break it down into bite-sized chunks, and at any given moment focus only on that one little chunk; the ideal chunk size is something that can be done in less than an hour. Then do one thing every day. If you do one thing every day, you’ll probably get there eventually. But the magic of doing one thing is that on good days one becomes five or ten. 

Writing a book is incredibly hard. That’s why most people who want to write fail to produce much. But writing a paragraph is easy. Writing a chapter is manageable. I don’t think of the book I’m working on as “a book” until after the first draft is complete and I’m then working on beating it into the shape of an actual book. (Like my new book. It's very book-shaped.)

The smallest chunk in my book-writing is probably “send an email to the editor for a quote”. That totally counts as a day’s work, if that’s all I’ve got in me that day.

The key discipline in this process is being able to focus on what you can control. I’ve written about this at length here, so if it’s an unfamiliar idea, go have a read. Seriously, it’s the one Jedi mind trick that really matters. I'm well aware that if you've been laid off and have no idea how you're going to pay rent this month, none of this advice will seem very helpful. You have my sympathy, though it's no help at all. But you might find that there are ways forward that you hadn't previously considered if you give yourself the mental freedom to focus on the things you can control. Worry doesn't pay the rent either.

Bonus step: embrace boredom

One final thought. It has been well established (most recently and accessibly by Manoush Zomorodi in Bored and Brilliant) that boredom is a necessary aspect of creativity. It is the mental equivalent of letting a field lie fallow, in preparation for planting. So especially in lockdown, embrace boredom. One reader of this blog sent me an email with this:

“Now that I *have time* to sit and think, and to look out the window and enjoy the day, and be alone with my thoughts, I realize that prior to being laid off, I rarely had time for my brain and I to just hang out. In the winter, I'd work, I'd sword, I'd come home, exercise, eat, watch tv, go to bed, repeat. In the summer, same list, but add in gardening and volunteering two nights a week. I was mentally exhausted. No wonder I got depressed! I had no time to let my mind wander.  Now that I am not working, I feel more productive than I have in, well, a long time. I can't remember the last time I felt so accomplished. Mind you, last week the arthritis in my right knee went a bit crazy, so I have had to slow down even more.  I don't mind.  Anyway, back to the point – I am enjoying thinking and having time to work on my mental state. I can examine my thoughts and decide if they are worthy of reflection, or need to be ‘let go'. I am enjoying listening to birds outside my window. Drinking tea. Taking MOOCs (one is about human evolution, the other one about Einstein and the Theory of Relativity. Woot! Awesome! These are on edx.org, and coursera.org, respectively).  I *was* doing online sword classes, but then my knee got too sore so I am resting for a while, and allowing it to recover.” (Shannon E., Vancouver)

That’s the best description of the necessary mental approach I’ve ever read!

*I hate that metaphor. It means it’s both good and bad, one edge cutting the enemy, one edge cutting you, which is not at all how double-edged swords work. The point of sharpening the back edge is so you can cut other people with it. Only a complete moron would cut themselves with it. But I digress, again!

If you liked this post you might also find my other “let's get through Corona without going mad” posts helpful:

What to do if the Corona virus keeps you away from your sword class?

Improvised Training Tools

You have One Job. Some thoughts on how to do it

Thoughts on “You Lack Discipline”

Doing Something Useful

Instinct, Shed Time, A New Book and  A Challenge

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