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#16 The Distraction
This week, we delve into the nature of procrastination and that feeling we’ve all felt: that despite our greatest efforts, sometimes, we really cannot get anything done.
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#16 The Distraction
I was determined to get all my work done that afternoon. A long enough time had passed that it was no longer acceptable to do nothing. I had done so little that continuing the act of doing nothing was increasingly a hostile one: it meant I refused to act, I positively could not act. It was a statement out into the world. Nothingness was becoming an act of disrespect.
I sat down at my desk, and put on my new noise-cancelling headphones, Sennheisers. I found my most serene playlist of ambient music (the one that sometimes sounded like whales singing and sometimes like the sounds you expect to hear in space, even if that makes no scientific sense).
I stared at the blank document in front of me. The endless sea of white, like the space you occupy in your mind: endless, limitless. Isn’t it daunting?
All it takes is one word. The first word. Then the realm of possibilities for the second word is narrowed to a more manageable selection. Then the third will be even easier and before you know it, I’ll be done, sitting in front of a masterpiece with a full glass of accomplishment in hand.
The most common words are ‘the’, ‘a’ or ‘an’. I thought that was true, anyway. Might they be sensible starting places? Well, yes, they might be. But they don’t narrow the realm of possibility for word two very much. Word two could be anything and what if it’s something I don’t want it to be. What if it’s something anathema to what I’m thinking, feeling. Anathema to what I want to say. What if it’s ‘egg’? Imagine that. What the hell do I have to say about the/an egg? No, I thought, that won’t do at all. I need to work harder with word one in order to help myself later with word two.
What the hell was that?
I ripped off my headphones (so much for noise-cancelling) and scanned the room. Is there someone in my apartment? I definitely heard a banging and it could only have come from inside. What if it’s a murderer?
I stood to explore. Making my way out into the hallway, I saw nothing. But then, across the room, through into my bedroom, I saw a long pole reaching up and a wet mop scrubbing the outside of my window. A stream of liquid jetted out over the glass.
The window cleaners were here.
Scrubbing away at the perfectly clean windows.
It’s as though they’d arrived for the sole purpose of distracting me from my work. That’s how it feels, anyway. Perhaps my bosses wrote to them and said: this man needs to learn how to concentrate. Go and see what you can do.
No, that’s ridiculous. They are just the window cleaners, cleaning windows.
I put my headphones back on, pressed play on the ambient track I was listening to, and tried to put the window cleaners out of my mind.
The only problem is: it’s one thing to say you want to put the window cleaners out of your mind, but of course, the only inevitable outcome is you start imagining what their faces look like, whether they are bearded or clean shaven, whether they’ve long hair or short, whether their voice is broken or crackly or clean and carrying. Then you ask yourself if you’re not being a sexist pig for assuming it’s a man, anyway, and you ought to train yourself out of that presumption. She could easily be a woman, she could be a beautiful -
There it goes again!
This time my window, right above my desk. The little liquid jet is like a middle finger to my work. No, don’t take the bait, I thought. Don’t be sucked in. Keep your eyes on that document.
Three WhatsApp messages came in a row. I thought it was muted. I never have it on loud, but the evidence speaks for itself. That cold, clear pinging said: you never muted me, you idiot, you won’t forget again!
The first message was from Michael:
BEERS @ 7 AT THE WHITE HORSE?
Michael always uses full caps for all his messages. I think he thinks he’s different but it only reads like he’s threatening everyone. It’s like if I don’t go for beers at 7 he might leave a white horse’s head at the end of my bed.
The second and third messages were automated from my podiatrist’s:
You’re Overdue For A Second Appointment With Dr M. Sully. Looking After Your Feet Is Our Number One Priority So Please Do Book Your Second Appointment And We Can Get You Back On Your Feet Today!
Text Back With a Y To Say Yes To Booking An Appointment Today. We’ll Ring At The Earliest Opportunity. Text N to Opt Out And Miss Out On Vital Foot Health.
I had been to the podiatrist for in-soles in my trainers, which I received three months ago. They worked fine. Why were they texting me now? What did they need with me?
Thirty minutes passed since I said to myself I would finish all my work today. Thirty minutes. Four more of those and it’ll be dark outside. And I’ll feel sleepy. Or hungry. And then it’ll all be over. And I’ll be a failure.
I muted the phone and turned it over so I couldn’t see the podiatrist messages anymore. Michael could wait too.
Maybe if I start with a letter, I thought. Then that letter will lead to a word. Yes, that seems like a sensible approach. I looked at the keyboard and scanned the letters for the ones that looked most appealing. For whatever reason, I kept staring at the letter M in the bottom right of my keyboard. What a lovely, symmetrical letter that is.
Yes, I think I will type M.
An M appeared on the blank document.
I felt relief. What a world of opportunity awaits me. I could finish with other, odem, eningitis, ining, eteor, asculinity, aelstrom, ince pies, agnanimous, and of course, beautifully, e.
At that moment, I heard the struggling of papers and documents and cheap flimsy plastic scratching its way through the letterbox. It’s probably junk mail, I thought to myself. I receive more adverts for grocery shopping than I do letters and bills or other important correspondence.
I went to have a look, anyway, just in case it was something important. I’d want to know. There’s no point pretending I wouldn’t think about it. So bite the bullet, confirm your suspicions about the post, and get back to work.
I picked up the pile from the floor.
It was adverts.
ORDER TODAY FOR £10 OFF YOUR GROCERY SHOP
No, thank you. I have work to do.
Back at my desk, I stared at that M in the document I had open. What the hell follows an M? I had all sorts of options earlier, but now? Nothing.
I suppose what follows could only really be a vowel, but which one? And why?
Thinking about it, now I’ve returned to my desk chair, I do feel achy, and quite tired. This is what I thought to myself. And I thought, perhaps I’ll be more productive if I felt more awake. And in order to feel more awake, there really is only one thing for it.
I’m going to take a bath.
Yes, a hot, smelly bath, to work its magic on me and then I’ll be good as new to tackle the work that lies ahead.
I’ll be quick, I promised myself.
The bath took twenty minutes to fill up, but that twenty minutes didn’t go wasted. I thought very much about the letters that could follow M: all the permutations and combinations of letters upon letters out there that make some fascinating words. This was all good work that would contribute to my output later. For I will be primed for writing when I’m filled with a sense of opportunity, that I could take my work in any direction I wanted.
In that twenty minutes, I gave myself freedom.
When the bath was full and the bubbles were piled on high, I dipped my toes in. The first thing I felt was numbness. Like my feet didn’t want to feel the heat. I thought of the podiatrist and how they might feel knowing I’m burning my feet. They probably wouldn’t care at all, to tell you the truth. And they’d think it odd that I was even thinking about them while dipping my toes in a hot bath.
Over the course of several minutes, I worked in my calves and my thighs, then my torso, chest and shoulders, and buried my neck in the water. Bubbles circled around my head like loosened ice caps in the arctic. Except they were steaming.
I closed my eyes, took deep breaths, and tried to escape into the empty void of my mind. Only here could I achieve the clarity, the peace of mind, and the focus required to complete my work.
And it worked too for a while. I saw things and felt feelings that I knew to be true to me. And that is the essence of what should be expressed on a page: the things seen and felt that the person with the pen knows to be true. Don’t you think?
I saw a past that encompassed opportunity, mild failures, and a not entirely fulfilled potential. I saw a future where I got all the words I wanted out there, and people raved about the combinations upon permutations of letters and words that I had chosen. People applauded me. People merited those choices. Because they are hard choices, no matter what you might think.
I opened one eye.
I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear a distinct buzzing. It wasn’t just in my head. I was sure of it.
I looked to the side of the bath and on its edge there had landed a tiny little fly. It rubbed its hands together like the greedy bastard it was - robbing me of my focus - and it twitched.
I stared at it for a long while, and just when I thought it might be staring back, it twitched and turned away from me, standing still on the spot.
Then it jumped and buzzed its way around the bath in a circular motion before landing on the other side. Now on my left.
I continued to stare down at it. This time, however, it landed in a patch of water it must not have seen. It stood tall as it had before but I wondered if the water would affect it at all.
Sure enough, as it tried to move away from its spot, the water clung to its legs and it could not move. It buzzed its wings, but the more it tried the less it could move. Water soaked its wings and weighed them down.
I sat motionless, watching.
The fly tried its hardest to get away. But no matter what, it just could not move. I watched it buzzing and flapping and pulling with all its existential power for the best part of ten minutes, before the fly pulled so hard in one direction that it slipped along the pool of water it was in and down the side of the bath.
The fly fell into the bath with me, and buzzed its last dying buzzes. It twitched two or three times in a clump of steamy bubbles before floating around in a circle, stilly.
I continued staring at its dead corpse. All I could think of was how bizarre it was for the fly to make such suicidal decisions, and that it was utterly illogical for the fly to expend so much energy in such short, inefficient bursts of helplessness.
That was all I could think about at that point, and whatever had been preoccupying me beforehand seemed to have totally vanished from my mind.
I hope you enjoyed The Distraction. I thought it would be good to share a single story in one publication again, as the flow is obviously much better. I can’t do that with all of them, though, because they’ll take you too long to read. But it’s good to do when I can.
Please share with friends, family, colleagues, strangers. I’ll be eternally grateful!