Business Musings: Priorities
Note: I have just written a short book titled Writing With Chronic Illness. The book will appear in mid-April, just in time for my annual spring Writing Storybundle. I’ll be excerpting three chapters from the book on this blog. There’s a lot of material in the book that’s not available on the blog, but I feel this post, and the next two are general enough to appeal to everyone.
I write a lot. I always have. When I was in college, I wrote essays instead of taking tests, wrote fiction, and worked as a freelance nonfiction writer. I also worked in the news department of a listener-sponsored radio station, where we reported and wrote a half-hour newscast. I did that twice a week on top of everything else.
Nowadays, I write books, nonfiction, and short stories. I don’t have a target weekly word count, but I do put in time, almost daily. I’m generally disappointed if I get only 1,000 words in a day, and super pleased if I get over 5,000.
Remember, I only count new words, not rewrites or anything else. All of that happens at other times, not during my writing time.
My writing has been the constant in my life. I took writing classes in college, not to learn from the instructors (most of whom had less success than I did even then) but because I needed to block out time for writing in my busy life, and I knew myself well enough to understand that if I was writing for a class, I would block out time every week.
Mind games. Writing is all about mind games and understanding yourself.
Even though I don’t understand myself as well as I think I do.
For years, I would say that I get so much writing done because I have no life. Turns out that was true. Due to the constrained circumstances I lived in on the Oregon Coast, I had no life—or very little of one. I couldn’t go out to movies or dinner with friends; I had no opportunity to see concerts or plays; I couldn’t take in-person continuing education classes; and I couldn’t make the one to two hour one-way drive that would take me to the bigger cities, because I couldn’t guarantee I would make the ride home.
I had the time to write—when I was healthy, which was rare. So I learned how to write while ill.
The key, for me, turned out to be a structure I didn’t have to think about. I knew what I needed to do—not in the deadline sense, but in the daily sense. It took me a long time to form that structure, but once I had it, I could function inside it almost instinctively. When my circumstances changed due to our move to Las Vegas in 2018, it took me weeks to realize that I had demolished my structure when I changed locations. I had to rebuild from scratch.
Rebuilding forced me to reexamine my priorities. I can’t build a structure until I know what I put first, second, and third in my life. So, priorities before scheduling—or I’ll blow everything up and get nothing done.
My priorities are relatively simple, because I don’t have children or a day job. More on that below.
My priorities are:
- My husband
- My health
- My writing
These are big broad categories, that I use to cover a variety of things. I could as easily write them this way:
- My family
- My health
- My career
I don’t waiver in this order, for reasons I’ll list below. I list family first because the one thing that life teaches in brutal ways is that our time with our loved ones is limited. We need to tend to our family first, in all ways. Realize though that family is whatever it means to you. For me, family is my husband and some of my closest friends. If they’re in crisis, I’m there. If they need something, I’m there.
My husband and I interact daily, and we make sure we spend quality time together. We also are both writers, so we understand the demands writing puts on a relationship.
However, when he got seriously ill and needed care in the fall of 2017, I dropped the writing altogether to help him. I wasn’t healthy enough myself to juggle both of our health demands, the household chores, and the other demands of illness without giving up something. The something was the least important thing on my priorities list—the writing.
Dean did the same thing for me last year. My health got so bad that we had no choice but to move immediately. He had to handle the bulk of all of it, although he had been handling the bulk of it anyway. He likened my chronic illness to us being two frogs in a puddle of water. Little did we realize we were in a pan of water, and the water was coming slowly to a boil.
By the end of that rough couple of years, Dean was doing most of everything. Then we moved me here, and he had to handle the move on his own. His writing, which is also third in his priority list, went out the window for a good part of 2018.
We all have times in our lives when we have to give up something on our priorities list. It isn’t always because of an emergency. I strongly advise anyone with babies and small children to focus on them as much as possible. Children are little for only the blink of an eye. You’ll never get to see that first step a second time or receive those joyful hugs that only a toddler can give once the kid hits grade school. Once the kids go to school, you can bring the writing back or make it rise on the priority list. You’ll have time then.
This goes for parents who have jobs outside of the home as well as the kids’ primary caregiver. Enjoy your kids while you have them with you.
And speaking of primary caregivers, sometimes we have to take care of our spouses or our parents or some other close relative. If you find yourself in that situation, remember the priority list. Family (however you define it) first, your health second. (Or maybe even your health first, family second.) The writing comes in as a distant, distant, distant third. You will get a chance later, if you take care of yourself as well as your loved one, to get back to the writing.
So, family first. The family is what makes us human. Family should also be a refuge. If you have a toxic nuclear family—like I did—then you need to redefine family to include friends or other loved ones. Sometimes family first means separating yourself from those harmful biological family members and finding your true family. It’s a journey.
I put health second, even though many advisers say that you should always put your health first. It’s that old thing they tell you on airlines—put on your oxygen mask first, then assist the person next to you.
That’s good advice…except that those of us with chronic illness can misuse it. If we put that illness and its care first, it can take over our life much worse than it already has. Everyone in our lives ends up taking care of the illness instead of taking care of their relationships.
See the difference?
So, in my life at least, health is second. But a close second.
Because if I don’t take care of my health, I can’t function.
Thanks to our move, I’m in a lucky position. My health is better than it has been since I was a teenager. It’s still not perfect. I can have an allergy attack after entering the wrong building or eating the wrong food. Those attacks can put me out of commission for hours or days or, in the past, weeks. So caution is my watch word, but at the moment, I’m better.
Last year at this time, I was not. I could barely function. The environment around me—the moldy house, the poor nutrition due to the lack of proper food in the area, and our lovely asshole neighbor who decided to burn his garbage—almost took me out.
Still, I maintained my routines and honestly, I think they saved my life.
Health for me is all about routines. Eight hours of sleep. Good food three times per day. (The small meals every few hours don’t work for me.) Exercise.
Where I fall down is in relaxation, but I didn’t realize that until I got healthier.
I also take prescribed medications at the same time every day, as part of the routine, so I don’t forget them. The more consistent I am, the better off I am.
So, when I talk about health, I am talking about self-care, in all of its permutations.
Let’s break these down just a little:
Sleep—After I got mono at sixteen, I wasn’t able to stay up all night any longer. I was that teenage kid who fell asleep at late night parties. I’m still not very good at shorting myself sleep. I get migraines after two days of six hours or less of sleep—even at my age. So eight hours for sleep is essential for me.
Even though I suffer from insomnia. I’ve learned how to mitigate that too. If I can’t sleep, I will lay in bed and rest. If I’m too restless for that, I get up and go through my pre-bed ritual all over again—after I’ve checked the temperature in the condo. If it’s too cold or too hot, I can’t sleep either. I don’t panic when I can’t sleep (or I’d be panicked several times per week). I reboot my rituals as if I was a computer, and start all over again.
I also learned the power of naps. Naps got me through the worst of my health problems. A twenty-minute nap is restorative when I’m healthy. A two-hour nap sometimes gets me through a bad migraine. An hour nap as the migraine comes on often mitigates the headache’s power.
I’ve learned all of that through trial and error. But I’m willing to try. And if I need a nap, I drop everything and take the nap. No toughing it through the exhaustion, because that will lead to a health collapse. Better to find the twenty minutes than tough my way through a day and crater the following day.
Food: three meals, no matter what. Three meals of food that’s good for me. That was hard on the Oregon Coast, but really possible here in Las Vegas. I can eat to excess again, so it’s something I have to watch. I try to keep my food intake balanced. I eat fresh ingredients whenever possible, partly because processed foods can often exacerbate my food allergies. But the food has to taste good and be something I enjoy. There’s no way I’ll stick to a food regimen if I don’t enjoy it.
So food is a big part of my day—and my health.
Exercise: Because I now live in a walking city, I can combine food and exercise easily. I walk to at least one meal per day. I eat out a lot, but at vegan restaurants or restaurants that cater to dairy allergies. I eat small portions and take food home for another meal.
The walk to and from the restaurant adds steps to my total for the day.
Yep, I’m one of those wearables advocates. I bought a Fitbit in 2014, and discovered that striving for the magic 10,000 steps per day works for me. I lost ten pounds in the first three months of wearing the thing. I can do 10,000 steps, it seems, with a migraine (even if I’m shuffling around in the dark), with the flu (I’m not describing how that is possible), and even with a bum leg. I’ve been consistent with 10,000 steps, missing only twice since I got the Fitbit—once accidentally (that never happened again!) and once because I injured my knee so badly I couldn’t walk. I had to reset my goal, and I did.
I was irritated to learn that exercise made me feel better. All those studies that say eating right and exercising will improve your health and mood? Those damn things are right. I wish they weren’t, to be honest. It would be easier to sit on my butt and eat lots of bad-for-me stuff. But when I do that, I feel much, much worse.
So eating right and exercising makes me feel better. The other bonus is that I sleep better. (Yeah, also irritating.) And the third bonus? I have more energy. Even as my health declined, my energy level remained consistent because of my commitment to exercise.
I do all the other health related things I can too, but not all at once. I make appointments with myself to make appointments. I hate them as much as the next person, so I schedule when I’ll call for the appointment (if I can) and then I keep the appointment. I try not to have more than one check-up per month.
I also learned to get all of my vaccines. Since I got the flu shot, I haven’t had a serious bout of flu. I might get a two-day sniffle, but that’s it.
Keeping the health as good as possible helps with my third priority:
Sometimes, when I was really really sick, I had a word count quota. Or an hours-at-the-desk quota. I try not to work with quotas, though, because I love to write. What’s the point of doing it otherwise? All of my efforts are aimed at keeping the writing fun.
Except…I would rather be reading.
So, I have learned the hard way that reading is a reward for a good day’s writing. The same with any other kind of story I could consume. No TV shows until I’ve written; no movie until I’ve written; no games until I’ve written.
Sometimes I’ll stumble around my condo or my neighborhood, grumping aloud at myself: You’re not writing, are you? Shouldn’t you be writing? And if I’m not tending to my health or doing something for my relationship with Dean, that complaint is a valid one. And one I need to listen to.
Sure, I would rather read a book or sometimes, I’d rather clean the cat boxes than write. Especially if some project is going slowly.
Email isn’t writing. Research isn’t writing. Rewriting isn’t writing. Only new words is writing.
Remembering that has made me prolific, even with all the health problems.
That and the fact that writing is third in my priority list. I will make everything and everyone else wait while I’m getting words. Even if I have an “important” phone call. Or a negotiation that needs to be completed. Or something else that “needs” to be done right this minute.
I find it useful to think of writing the way that people think about their day jobs. If your best friend called and asked you to come right over to help him with something, you’d go, right? Unless you were at work. Then you’d ask a series of questions about how serious the situation was. If he was on his way to the hospital and needed someone to watch his kid right now, you’d go, whether you were at work or not. But if he just needs help moving his car across town, then you wouldn’t.
Writers often volunteer to help in both circumstances.
That little day job trick, which I figured out in my twenties, has kept me focused on my third priority really, really well. It’s up to me, the writer, though. Because no one else is going to be able to keep track of what I do. I’m home much of the time. I have “free” time. I’m the logical person to call.
Until I say no a lot of times. Then some people learn to respect the boundaries. Not everyone, but most people.
That’s the other thing about priorities. These are my priorities. They might not be yours. They certainly aren’t everyone’s.
I don’t expect other people to have the same priorities that I do. It’s up to me to prioritize my family, my health, and my writing. It’s not up to the world. The world is what it is. Other people will do what they do.
I have learned to say no more than yes, to draw boundaries around important parts of my life, and to know both my strengths and my limitations.
And that helps me with the priorities.
It also helps with productivity, which is up next week.
As I mentioned above, this is part of the book Writing With Chronic Illness that will appear later this spring. If you support my Patreon at the $10 or above level, you’ll get this book (and others that I write while doing this blog) for free. If you support at the $5, you’ll be able to see some Patreon-only content, including one other short essay that’s part of the book, but too short (in my opinion) to be part of this weekly blog.
The next two posts will be from the book as well, unless something major happens, the way it did last week, with the whole plagiarism scandal. Then I’ll bump the chapters back to accommodate the news items.
And…since I’m mentioning Patreon…here’s the weekly reminder that this blog is reader-supported.
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“Business Musings: Priorities,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.