I’ve been finding some great driftwood recently on the beach. Yesterday it was an old pine tree – straight and long but light enough, just, for me to drag home and cut up for the Guy Fawkes bonfire. One section was so perfect- no rot, well seasoned and close grained that I decided to keep it and use it to make something from. A few years ago I would never have thought like that, but having made trips in some rough and ready places I’ve seen people turning raw trees into usable planks. Once in Indonesia I saw two men very patiently using an old chainsaw to cut one inch thick planks of wood from a felled palm tree. Of course it's obvious that wood comes from trees- but one can get so used to buying perfect squarecut 2x4s from the building supplies shop that you forget where it really comes from. And how easy it is to turn a log into usable planks. In the easiest form you just get an axe, or better, and adze and square it up. Or, using a wedge, split the log into planks. Or, if you’re feeling in need of exercise, saw it carefully lengthways. The point is it can be done without too much bother.
Which brings me to work. Today I realised with great clarity that we don’t need the habit of work, we need the skill of turning workish stuff into work. I’ve never been drawn to those self-help books that harp on about good habits. Good habits somehow sound...boring. I prefer to think about routines- functional habits, if you like, created for a specific purpose which can be discarded when no longer functional. (Semantics? Maybe, but I find if you have the right word for a thing it somehow spurs you on.) So, routines. When you have something important to do you create the right routine to get it done. You want to do a long walk- then you’ll need to start at the crack of dawn each day to get the miles in. I’ve started as early as three a.m. on some trips but you wouldn’t find me getting up that early normally. To write a book you need another kind of routine. When I’m on holiday I like to get into a routine that involves lots more social activity.
But the bland notion of a good work habit hides another thing. A skill, a supreme skill, without which you simply will not succeed. It underpins so much of what I have been writing about on this site, and, I believe, lies behind much of the shallower talk about ‘good habits’. The skill is so simple to describe I’m surprised I’ve missed it all these years: the ability to turn workish stuff into work. Workish stuff is the driftwood on the beach, the fallen log in the forest, the brushwood left after trimming the hedge. It's wood, but not as we know it. Mostly it just gets burnt, or thrown away.
But for people who know how- it’s the real thing, you can build a house from it, or a table or carve a bowl or make a boat.
Workish stuff is the vague form that work takes before it is refined down into work itself. Take writing. You can, as I did, mess around for some years doing a page here and there and never actually finish anything. Not even a story. Not even a poem. Finally I started to write very short stories and managed to finish one. Then I started writing two or three hours each evening in a coffee shop after work. Now I was finishing a lot of short stories. But still I didn’t get any published. Finally I set aside a period of time to write each day with the sole intention of getting published be it in ten years or two. It took two- but it happened. I had turned messing about with pen and paper- workish stuff- into work.
Workish stuff always stops when you feel like it. Work never does. Work stops when you decide, when it's done.
I have a good pal who runs a bookshop. He had one employee who is now an entrepreneur in her own right, but when she started working for him, aged 18, he left her in charge for a morning to see what she would do. When he came back she had found some paint, painted part of the wall that was peeling, bought some books from someone who came in trying to sell them, tidied up the counter, straightened books on the shelves. She had really worked. He told me every other person he has had working for him just sits there, waiting for a customer. Most, now, end up doing facebook or solitaire on the computer while they wait. His star employee had the talent of creating work out of the vague forms workish stuff takes.
It’s not easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it. And, in the developed West, just as we have got used to processed food, so we have got used to processed work. If it doesn’t look square and white and clean it ‘aint work.
But work is everywhere. By which I mean, opportunities, workish stuff, which, with work, will become something valuable, something worthwhile.
I spent years dabbling at languages getting nowhere. Then I took a fulltime intensive Arabic course- suddenly I was really making progress. I’d found a way to turn workish stuff into work. There’s a clue here: intensity. Work is the distilled form of workish activity. Strip off the bark, the leaves, the roots, the rotten bits and you get a 2x4. The distilled essence of a tree, in this example. Likewise work is the necessary distillation of many vague forms of activity.
Intensity then is the first part of the skill. Intensify until results start to show up- then you know you’re working.
Set a timetable, a calendar- dial up the numbers- this is a way of ensuring you do significant amounts of workish stuff- like Maple syrup- you need a lot of sap to make one litre of the finished product.
Most of all set it up right. There is no area where you can waste more energy and achieve so little as writing. People, and I include myself, can spend years and have nothing to show for it. Nothing. To turn writing into work you need to focus on the essence of the game: getting words down on paper. That’s all. If you aren’t or can’t do that you’re not working. So the skill of work means identifying the essence of the activity before you start- then concentrating on that essence to the exclusion of everything else.
I was always shocked at how I could work really hard for someone else and yet not for myself. How I would go the extra mile when under orders but slack when I was my own boss. Lots of people are in the same boat- and it’s what stops them from ever achieving their dream of independence through self employment. They talk about security but what they really mean is ‘I don’t know how to motivate myself when my butt isn’t being kicked’. I sympathise but they are really being too hard- and too easy- on themselves. Too hard because it’s not about motivation it’s about having work set up for you to do. If work isn’t laid out how can you be blamed for not doing it? But too easy because they aren’t looking for the real answer, they’re accepting the off the shelf cliché of ‘not motivated’. Words like motivation and habit seem a little worn out. Instead look for the skill you need- that’s all. The skill here is learning how to process workish stuff into pure work, work which you will then motor through quite happily. A woodworker may use a thicknesser and a planer to get a log looking like a finely milled plank; you need to ‘thickness’ and ‘plane’ your lumpy workish stuff before you start REAL work.
A to do list, for example, often defeats us because the tasks aren’t really achievable tasks, or they are too vague. So a first requirement is to define the work you need to do. Spend time getting it from vague to lucid. In writing a non-fiction book set out in note form the day’s work ahead. Find the reference material you will need. Set a number of words and a number of hours. It’s beginning to look like work. One would-be writer I knew always had to clear a space on the dining room table before he could start writing…and he never did get that space properly clear. Work needs to be free of distractions. Allowing distractions is just another form of dilution.
You need to set out the task, the essence of it, remove any distractions, intensify your effort, dial up the numbers- the sub-goals that keep you focussed and on target, and lastly you need to PUSH.
You know the feeling. You’re jogging and you want to stop- but instead you PUSH. It’s a real drag but all of a sudden you get a second wind and you’re flying. You’re writing and it’s an effort. You think about taking a break and having a coffee but instead you PUSH. And it’s still an effort but at least you’re keeping going keeping PUSHING. And then sometimes if you’re lucky you breakthrough and you’re in a flow state and you have no awareness of time and it’s great.
But you have to keep PUSHING. It’s like having a bicycle with rusty bearings. If you stop peddling for a second you just grind to a halt. But if you keep peddling, standing up on the pedals you find you’ve got to the top of a hill and even with the rusty bearings you’re flying down the other side.
The temptation is always to stop early, stop after a first minor success or payback. Keep pushing- it’s the only way to get into ‘work nirvana’- that state, the flow state, where time doesn’t matter and trivialities drop away.
Turn trees into wood. Turn workish stuff into work.