“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
Work, rest, and the copywriting process: the importance of taking time out
It was Francis Harmar Brown who coined the immortal line “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.” And as a football-mad youngster who played three-hour non-stop games at the park every Saturday and Sunday, I well believed it. I didn’t know much about how direct address (second person pronoun), the neat list of three, and the easy assonance made it stick, but I knew to have a Mars bar in my bag on the touchline. Not that we had a touchline: in those dim and distant days, a hedgerow sufficed.
These days, as we’re better at working long hours than resting or playing, I thought rest was a fitting subject for this blog. After all, I’ve taken a rest of sorts: this blog is long overdue.
We’re not very good at resting
The modern cult of overwork and presenteeism is alive and well. Idling along the pages of the Guardian’s lifestyle section yesterday, I stumbled upon an interview with drag queen Trixie Mattel. It’s the headline, you’ll understand, that stops me in my tracks:
Curious how the writer selects that titbit to lure in today’s reader. The quote in full reads:
"Is Sunday a day of work? Weekends frustrate me because everyone stops working; I refuse to. I’m self-employed and have eight jobs: every day is a Monday.""
It’s the cut and thrust of the hustle culture that pulls us in. (Writer Michael Segalov could have led with numerous other quotes in his "Sunday with..." piece.)
A curious thing has happened in my lifetime. It has happened slowly so that we’ve not really noticed – like the boiling frog analogy. Someone somewhere somehow very cleverly persuaded us that working longer and longer hours is glamorous, edgy, out there.
And yet working longer hours does not make us more productive, and this is borne out in recent studies.
Resting makes us more productive
One of the best books I’ve read about work is called Rest. Silicon Valley technology forecaster and consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang realised that he got a lot more done when he took a little rest.
"When I was on sabbatical at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, I found that in three months I got an enormous amount of stuff done and did an awful lot of really serious thinking, which was a great luxury, but I also had what felt like an amazingly leisurely life.""
The perils of overwork
Tiredness, for me, means the writing slows up. The law of diminishing returns applies as much to creativity as anything else. I become less creative as the day wears on. I write early on in the morning, striking while the iron is hot because it cools after three or so hours of writing. (Then it’s time for proofing, editing, admin, marketing, social media engagement… and rest.)
Tiredness impairs the good judgement that writing requires and the decision-making that is the heart of success in any business. The latter might mean underestimating how long a project will take and underquoting, or taking on the wrong work. In short, making mistakes which cost me financially. In effect, working longer hours for less money.
Your reserves of energy are finite, so channel them carefully. As Daniel Levitin puts it on the back cover of The Organized Mind, a book I’d highly recommend if you’re interested in the neuroscience of work and rest:
"Your brain has a daily processing limit – why waste it on cat photos?"
Rest in a few mixed metaphors
Rest not only recharges the batteries, it’s an essential stage of the writing process: the most underrated part, the one many omit altogether.
When it feels like the gears are getting stiff or I hit a dead end, experience – life’s best teacher – has taught me to ease up and walk away, rather than push through or bash my head against that brick wall.
Pulling at knots as if that’ll untie them when it only makes things worse? That’s the stuff of adolescence. Like the field that needs to lie fallow, ease off, or tune into something else and tune out. It’s the equivalent of turning the computer on and off, or resting heavy muscles after a long walk or run.
Our minds are like ornamental snow globes. Day-to-day bustle leaves us all shook up. To see more clearly, we need moments of stillness. Returning to a project or piece of writing after even a brief hiatus, I see things with much greater clarity.
The boys in the basement
The unconscious mind – what Stephen King called “the boys in the basement” – miraculously, does so much of the problem-solving for us writers – if we step back and let it do its magic, that is.
We think we’re resting, but the unconscious is hard at work.
I wrote this post over five days – or five mornings, to be precise – totalling five hours of writing.
Day one: brief burst of outlining (as the initial ideas came to me)… then leave for 24 hours
Day two: fleshing out the outline (as I research and reflect)… then leave for 24 hours
Day three: kill my darlings (in other words, ruthlessly cut redundant ideas: I may like them but what does the reader really want to know?); tidy up expression: I now have the ugly first draft... then leave for 24… you get the picture...
Day four: read as if for the first time (cut and refine further): read aloud for fluency and use Read Aloud function (mistakes such as omitted or repeated words are easier to hear than see)
Day five: hand over to my editor, and then deal with her amends
And so, there you have it. I wrote this rested, refreshed, reinvigorated because I’d taken a week away from the laptop. Away from email and notifications. And other bothersome interruptions to the real stuff of life.
Need a break from writing your own copy and content?
You rest. Leave all the rest to me.
"If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work."
King Henry IV Part I