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Work, a Novelty

When I was in school I took a physics class. I might be misremembering, but I recall that the principle of work was defined as lateral movement. Lifting something up and down didn't qualify. There was math, probably some calculus, involved, but the basic idea that the amount of work done was figured by how far along a lateral plane something was moved. Variables included the mass of the object moved and the speed of the movement, but ultimately, it was a fairly straightforward bit of math.

For the last little bit, I've been concerned about things that, in effect, result in an upward movement and little actual lateral motion. From trying to figure out how to be content in the future (see Making a Contented Life) to determining what activities would be satisfying and thus lead to a contented day (see I Can't Get No . . .) to spending my time trying to learn new things (see Focusing on the Now). All of these paths of thinking were helpful at the time but were largely vertical movement, not taking me anywhere, forward or backward.

This week I determined to make a change. To actually seek out lateral movement, movement in a forward direction even.

I read a piece by Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, about personal values (see his Personal Values: How To Know Who You Really Are). In that article, he explains that there is often a gap between what we really value and what we think we should value. The first is demonstrated by our actions and the second by what we say about our values. For instance, I say I value getting published but I only spend about an hour a day working on my writing, and that mostly writing first drafts rather than editing and rewriting. My actual value is less getting published than simply writing. Albeit this has changed slightly in the last month as I determined to do another round of editing on my current project, but still, the effort necessary to actually produce a publishable product has been largely absent.

So I followed Mr. Manson's process and figured out what my actual values are. I won't list them, but they weren't terribly impressive. For all the things I write in this blog, the things I actually value are rather minimal and akin to laying in bed, sipping hot chocolate, and reading a good book. Plenty of self-care but very little actual accomplishment. No movement. No work.

For a time I accepted this depressing situation. I thought if that's what I valued then that was what I would have to live with. I would be content with my fate and live within the sphere of my values. In a matter of doing a brief exercise to figure out my actual values, I forgot the last section of Manson's article. The most important section. The section that outlined the way to change your values.

Thankfully I have learned that when I feel depressed there is usually something I can do to change it. Sometimes I pay attention to this and sometimes I don't, but as I settled into a bit of misery I remembered that most valuable section about value change. I remembered that he had outlined an actual process for identifying laudable values and how to go from what you actually valued to adopting those very same ideals. I did not have to accept my lumpish value set as permanent and unchangeable. I could alter my situation and I could improve my life.

But what values should I adopt?

The last attempt I made at filling my time involved learning. I filled my week with active learning activities, some related to the law others related to history, and unrelated activities. But I had been gaining momentum and building up a head of steam for progress. But then the fourth wave of Covid struck and Ho Chi Minh City was all but locked down. We were sent home. Work from home. I spent the week largely trying to simply not be depressed rather than proactively learning. I read a lot of books and tried not to stare at the wall for too long. This effectively killed my momentum.

I spent this last week in the office, amongst a handful of other staff to provide a skeleton crew should there be any need to actually have a physical presence somewhere. I spent the first two days staring at the wall, my momentum from before spent, I was listless and unmotivated. I was miserable. Tuesday night I tried to figure out how to change my situation and set upon the idea of actually working. Of not just trying to fill my time but of filling my time with productive labor, of activities in pursuit not of my own interests but of those of my employer.

I laid out an ambitious day and vowed off Facebook (not that I spend an inordinate amount of time on the platform, but enough to think avoiding it would improve my productivity). And then I got to Wednesday and, after a couple of hours of effort found myself falling back into my rudderless drifting of the last two days. But that drifting led me to Mark Manson and to a decision to change my values. And I had just figured that work would be a worthwhile endeavor.

Work. An idea that had not occurred before. Not really. I had worked hard in law school, spending long days studying, but I had not been called upon to really work since then (see Unlearning Helplessness) and any work ethic I may have had no longer existed. In fact, I remember a good friend from college once commenting on how I never really worked. Like Peter Parker in Sam Raimi's Spiderman 2, "brilliant but lazy."

I thought about this. It seemed to be an underlying principle of success, this concept of a work ethic. A means to not only the mythical publication but success at either law or any other pursuit I might be tempted to undertake. The Puritans made a big deal of it and they only burned witches some of the time, so it couldn't be all bad, could it?

I decided that the first value I would seek to adopt, to change myself from my lumpen worthlessness, would be a work ethic. I also knew from reading Cal Newport and Scott H. Young that the ability to work and to work consistently, was a learned skill and something that needed to be developed gradually. I could try to fill up an entire day with work, and I might even succeed, but without having developed any stamina beforehand I would end up the next day, or week, doing very little as I recovered from the sprint. And as Manson suggested, the process of adopting new values is one of setting progressive goals towards that value. Of deciding to take specific actions that will align your behaviors with the value you propose to espouse.

A gradual build-up then. I had worked about two hours that morning, something I figured I could do sustainably for a while. I would start there. Pushing myself a little until I worked three hours. Spend a week at that level and then add an hour each week until I was up to six or seven hours a day consistently. This would require not only a tracking method but a great deal of creativity as I don't actually have that much work to do. I would have to come up with meaningful productive activities that contribute to either my own goals of publication or, preferably, my employer's bottom line.

I downloaded a time tracker and determined that writing and editing my own projects would count towards my three hours. In fact, as the measured time increased, those activities may end up comprising much of my working day.

And so I began.

And succeeded for a day and then found out that work from home was extended for two more weeks. I tried to get permission to come into the office so I could sustain my momentum, but was denied. I was banished to my studio apartment for two more weeks. Depressed, I failed to work three hours on Friday. But I pulled out at the end and did manage more than two. I also determined to pursue a slightly modified goal. While much of my efforts would be on avoiding depression while trapped at home, I would write and edit and do whatever tasks might be required by work, and then spend an hour or two reading a rather thick tome devoted to the contract law of Vietnam, in Vietnamese. A full fifty-page chapter a day. This would require multiple hours and, as I would be taking notes and trying to actively learn the material, would be akin to work. More, it is an activity I can sustain while struggling with motivation and depression. And hopefully, it will be enough to keep the dream of a work ethic alive throughout the next two weeks or more until I can return to the office and resume my full pursuit of this novel new value.

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