Thursday, March 12, 2009

31 Days Later

Well, it’s almost up. My time alone in NYC, the time I thought of as a kind of retreat has nearly run out. Though when I look back on it, it seems to me more like an “immersion” than a “retreat.”

Over the past month I directed a brand-new solo show with Martin and saw twelve other productions (go see Our Town at the Barrow Street) (I know, I know, who needs that hokey old-school stuff, right? But seriously, I saw some damn fine theater this month, theater that renewed my faith and love and sense of play, excellent work by some of the finest minds at work in theater today, and it was this production of Our Town--a play I've never really liked--that stole my heart). I hosted a party, told a story at Speakeasy, met with new people and connected with old friends, and generally was a lot more sociable than I'm used to being.

When you’re coupled up, you can go for long stretches of time without seeing other people. When Mike is with me in NYC we’ll work at separate ends of the apartment all day, and when it’s time to stop working, it’s easy not to go out. Just give me my husband, my dog, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and some Hulu, and why would I ever leave the apartment?

But with Mike gone, the allure of online television lessens considerably. Watching television alone has always made me sad. Besides, we have our core programs (Battlestar Galactica, Top Chef, 30 Rock, and The Office) and as sign of my fidelity I swore to Mike that I wouldn’t watch any of them until we were reunited. That way we can spend our first weekend of reunion in our king-sized L.A. hotel room bed . . . watching TV.

But it’s more than that. I’ve always been a person who loves the idea—if not the implementation—of transformation through structure. So after I said goodbye to Mike in Seattle, waving him off on his big South Pacific adventure, and then got onto my own plane to go home, I thought about the adventure that was waiting for me back in New York, my adopted city. I thought about the gift of time that stretched towards me with as much promise as a blank page. What would I do with it? What could I do with it?

I made an exuberant list: I would write every day. Practice my Spanish. Start each morning with a long walk. Stop drinking coffee. Eat lots of quinoa. Clean out the hall closet. Frame that photograph. Throw a party. Scrub the floor. Wash the dog. Etcetera.

But the more things I wrote down, the farther I got from what I really wanted to do with my time. Which was to figure out what I did with my time. Because it just goes, doesn’t it? And there’s a part of me that really believes that I can do it all. I can write the memoir and I can eat the quinoa and I can mount the show and I can speak the Spanish if only I had more discipline.

So like they tell people to do who want to make a big shift in their diet, I decided I would do something very unlike me. Rather than leaping into action and giving myself a series of mandates, I would first simply observe what it is I do with my time. And so I went out and bought a notebook and began the irritating but ultimately enlightening task of writing down everything I did all day.

Have you ever tried this? It’s maddening. It’s not so bad when you’re in the middle of a task, but once you’ve completed something and noted it--

10 – 10:15, walked dog

--you really want to know exactly what you’re doing next, because time is ticking. And it turns out there’s always transition time between one activity and the next. Time to pee, time to check the inbox, time to walk into the kitchen and think about what that smell is... and then it’s 10:21 and you’re left realizing you don’t know how to account for that lost six minutes. Alien abduction? What?

On the second day of this I spilled some salt and just left it there because I didn’t want it to screw up my metrics and I didn’t know how to account for it. Ditto for the stuck zipper I had to unstick before I could go for my walk. I felt so stupid scratching out “exercise” and writing down “unsticking zipper.”

But if you go ahead and try this experiment, you will find it gets easier over time. Because you figure out certain systems and shorthands. For example, taking a shower, putting on makeup, changing my clothes, brushing my teeth, all fall under “grooming.” And I learned to accept that the transition time was part of the activity, so rounding off into increments of 5 minutes made me much less crazy.

The fact of that transition time came with a lesson, though: The more I can focus on one task (or one kind of task) at a time, the better I do. I’m less scattered and I get more done and there’s a lot less of that transition time. Working offline is good for maintaining focus, because otherwise my monkey mind leaps to address whatever just popped into my inbox. (In the future I might try setting my email to come in at the top of the hour rather than willy-nilly. Because things are rarely so urgent that they can’t wait an hour, right? And if they are, that’s when people get on the phone, right?)

But speaking of monkey mind, I’m going to stop myself before this turns into a productivity seminar. Instead, let me tell you what I discovered over the three-plus weeks I tracked my activities.

1. The little stuff takes a lot of time. Sorting mail, cleaning up salt, it’s all unavoidable. It’s just part of life.

2. Left unchecked, Facebook takes even more than a lot of time.

3. I work a lot more hours than I realized. Maybe because I make a living doing what I love, I’m often unable to count it as work, so I’m constantly feeling like a lazy person because despite not having an office job to go to, I'm still not getting everything I want done. This experiment really showed me how wrong-headed that is. But it also showed me that when I treat it more like a job--working in 2-hour chunks, then taking a short break, then diving back in--I get a lot more done and I feel better about what I do.

4. I spend a lot of time reading. Though these hours will probably decline with the addition of Mike’s company.

5. I am really bad at making time for my writing. I guess I already knew that, but it’s amazing to see, in print, how I put everything else ahead of my writing even though I believe it to be my most important task and even though the days when I do get to my writing are always my best days.

6. Structure is my friend and 9-5 is a song for a reason. Days when I had rehearsal from 2-6 were the best, because the day automatically came divided into two chunks. And if I got through all my work-work in the morning before rehearsal, then the evening was mine to do with as I pleased. Which was great motivation for getting up early and working quickly and methodically. And it turns out that the age-old cycle of working during the day and doing all the other stuff at night is very pleasing to the psyche. Much better than cleaning out your inbox at 3 in the morning, which is something Mike and I end up doing all too often.

This experiment is over. Today is my last full day in New York, and it will indeed be full: I need to pack for myself, the dog, and Mike (because he’s only got summer clothes and no costumes), and I need to do laundry and clean my apartment because friends will be staying here in our absence. (I also discovered that I spend very little time cleaning. Very.) And there’s a bunch of work stuff that I have to take care of, too, of course.

On Friday our pack will be reunited in Los Angeles, and I’m looking forward to many “unproductive” hours of snuggling. But we’ll also be putting up two different shows and one new workshop in two different cities, which means we’ll be launched into show mode. Which is to say, the show demands whatever time and structure it demands, and Mike and I are its willing and servile handmaidens.

How will this experiment affect how I work when in show mode? How will it affect how I work when we return home in April? Will I ever learn to put my writing in its proper place? And what the frak’s been going on in Battlestar Gallactica? Only time—that beckoning blank page—will tell.


Anonymous said...

Delightful entry! I admire your efforts to track time - something I've never done with ponderable results.

JM said...

Did you discover that you pretty much already *knew* where the time was going? I certainly didn't. I was amazed at how much of my day was made up of the "little" stuff.

la Ketch said...

Great post! Looking forward to seeing you in La la land :-)

Adam said...

Great post-- I too am always wondering "Where did that hour go?" I'm sure it's all sucked up into the computer somewhere, and if I can just find the magic code, my time will be released back out into the world. (Well, now it's my 6 month old son that is sucking up all my time, and it is delightful, although not nearly as productive as I would like. Well-- scratch that-- it's quite productive on the scale of "This boy has to learn" Less productive on the scale of "The premiere of my show is next Tuesday. I really should finish writing it."

Have fun on the other coast.

dup said...

I loved this post. I'm obsessed with the idea of daily routine. I really want you to read my play that I wrote in the Lab, it lives in this territory.

Ray liaw said...

JM - you clearly don't hang with many lawyers whose lives revolve around the billable hour :)

I'll make sure Joe reads this post when he wonders why I only billed 6 hours in my 8 hour stint in the office.

Glad you two are peas in a pod again!