Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I'm not here right now

In my last post I promised I'd post monthly, and here it is nearly two months later. I've been thinking for weeks about what I should write here, and I keep coming up empty. Today I realized that the best thing I can do is simply explain why I have nothing to tell you. I'm not here right now.

In order to explain what that means, I need to explain my pet theory for how I work. I'm not sure this works for anyone else but me, but it describes my thought processes perfectly, and maybe it will be interesting to you. When I'm working on something, there are always four phases to the work.

During the fattening phase, I increase in intellectual bulk on some topic. I go on journeys through information and knowledge; I pursue intriguing avenues; I bounce back and forth between opposing views; and so on. Some people might call this phase "gathering" or "scanning," but I like the metaphor of puffing up to a larger size on a topic. I grow.

At some point my growth reaches a point of saturation. I find myself greeting old friends more than I do making new acquaintances. My paths grow smooth, and everything feels comfortable and familiar. When I reach this point, I know it is time for the next phase: milling.

During milling I stop working on the topic I have been researching, and I carefully refrain from learning about anything else. I clean my house; I take long walks; I cook more than usual; I knit and weave; I distract myself with non-intellectual (or at least non-complicated) pursuits. The information I fattened on is not out of mind entirely, but it is in the back of my mind, where it can swirl around and recombine in ways of which I am only dimly aware.

At some point during milling I begin to have an urge to do something related to the topic I've been pondering. I might want to write a blog post or article or book, or propose an idea to someone, or collect some data, or run an experiment, or something. But somehow a craving for action takes form. When this happens, I know I have entered the next phase: producing.

During the producing phase I do what looks like work. I write reports, run experiments, analyze data, and so on. This aspect of work will be so familiar to you that I don't need to describe it. In fact, this is the only phase of my work that I find most people are willing to pay me to do. That's a problem, because producing doesn't produce anything if it isn't preceded by fattening and milling. I usually have to ask my clients to be patient when work begins on any project, because I may seem to be doing nothing useful at first.

After some amount of producing, I reach the end of what needs to be done in the project. The proposal or experiment or report has been completed and delivered.

For a long time I thought that producing was the final phase of my thought cycle, but some years ago I realized I was missing something. I call my fourth phase the void. The void is sort of like milling, only it's deep milling, back-burner thinking that places the preceding project within the context of my life's work, my life, and life itself.

You might think of the void as "vacation" or "holidays" -- an optional rest -- but I have come to believe that the void is as much work as any work can be. After a few project cycles without sufficient attention to the void, all of the other phases begin to break down. I went through void starvation (that is, projects back to back with no voids between) when I was doing heavy project work early on in this field. I was becoming less and less effective in my work, and I only realized why this was happening because the combination of parenthood and lulls in paying work forced me to discover the benefits of the void. I've since come to anticipate and actively create the void in order to improve the quality of my work. I don't know if everyone needs the void, but I do.

This is exactly why I can't write a substantive blog post for you right now. I'm deep in the void after finishing the book. For the past six weeks I have purposely thought as little as possible about anything work related. I have answered emails and talked to people as they needed me to, but otherwise I have avoided thinking about work. I will probably soon enter a new fattening phase, and then I will have some relevant blog posts to write. But right now all I can tell you is that I'm not here. Who knows, maybe what I've written to you from the void will have some value to you as you evolve your own pet theory about about how you work.

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