Ego depletion: your brain really does get tired, and you really do have finite reserves of will-power. Let’s say your to-do list has 20 completely disparate things on it (each item representing at least 5 emails, 3 scheduled meetings, and 6 attempts to reschedule them once the people involved in the first 5 emails fail to hold up their end of things in a timely fashion), and every time you try do item #3, someone drops by your office (the door of which you can’t bear to close because you feel trapped like a mistreated Targaryen dragon sealed and chained in the darkness of a Meereenese crypt) to talk about items #6-11, or, even better! items #21 and 22. The mental effort you will expend to stay focused, “productive,” polite, and non-violent (or at least minimally-sarcastic) will so exhaust your stores of self-control and self-discipline, that you’ll be good for nothing else but lying on the couch in a stupor, binging on Outlander and a bucket of Trader Joe’s chocolate chip cookies.
Consequently, plagued by guilt, haunted by every impending beach trip between now and your retirement, and brainwashed by misogynistic capitalism into thinking that your worth as a woman depends completely on how you look in a bikini, the little will-power you have left is just enough to get you to the gym.
And/or: profoundly and irrationally irritated by a) your to-do list; b) everything that gets between you and your to-do list; c) your own procrastinatory self—you take the inbound train rather than the outbound one after work, and go to the gym to lift, hit, dance, and sweat until you feel better. Whether it’s (2) or (3) that gets you there, you’re at the gym for 2 hours. Then you go home to the couch, Outlander, and cookie bucket. (Yes, you’re aware that there’s a vicious circle element at work here, thanks).
You do a ton of writing—tons and tons of careful research arranged into a deceptively-baroque, devastatingly-insightful, analysis of some urgent cultural issue, which you bring in on time, only to be told by your editor that, while it is, indeed, delightful, it’s not what she wants at all (because she refused to tell you what she did want at any earlier part of the process), and could you please re-write this tiny passage here? and here? and here? Just a few trivial revisions, affecting only, oh—piff, nothing at all!—7000 words, which will be read by 5 people in the world if you’re lucky, not counting your parents.
While watching Outlander, you spend all the slow boring bits (i.e., where the earnest 20th century husband is clothed) reconciling gym, dance, work, and social schedules to find time when you can write what you really want to write. You go to the award-winning cafe to eat pastry and Create. The smell of organic bacon smoked over free-range apple wood in a smoker built lovingly by hand by a weedy hipster youth proves intensely distracting. The harsh, file-on-metal tones of confident, loud, over-paid, under-thinking people on their break from all of those jobs which pay better than what you get—are even more distracting. So, instead, you waste most of the carefully-plotted writing time taking online quizzes about which Game of Thrones character you should date (I get Jaqen H’ghar, which makes complete sense as I would crush on the guy who’s emotionally unavailable because he’s a sociopathic religious fanatic and assassin).
You try it again. This time, no messing around. You go to the library, that temple of quiet study and exalted intellectual pursuit. You can’t settle anywhere. There’s a noxious smell. Two kids have never learned (how? HOW??) that you don’t talk at normal volume in libraries. Two other well-raised kids are whispering politely—and you learn that you have the neurological thing opposite to the thing that makes you feel soothed by whispering. Judging by the steady whistling sound, someone near you has a deviated septum and Just. Doesn’t. Care. This guy over here takes first one, then two, then—as your horror steadily mounts—three pieces of gum and steadily stuffs one after the other into his mouth and proceeds to chew. That guy is playing Grand Theft Auto, without earbuds. That guy is clipping his nails. The security guards don’t do a single damned thing about any of it. No-one cares but you. Determined to stay and work—to Create, remember—you take refuge in the stacks. Sitting on the floor, in blissful auditory and olfactory peace, you’ve just opened your laptop, and have your fingers poised, tingling with pent-up brilliance, over the keys…and a security guard is standing over you, come to discipline you—you!!—for sitting on the floor. You flee, feeling both persecuted, and angry with yourself for caring about being persecuted. You console yourself by applying grand literary references to your non-grand situation: “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”
You’ve done tons and tons more writing. It’s good stuff, but also honestly, searingly, wrenchingly true, and, after a winter of isolation, rejection, suffering, insult, and near-assault—you have to concede that it’s just a teeny bit (just the littlest smidge) dark. A couple of people have mentioned that your writing makes them sad. You’re not sure you want a reputation as one of those brooding, self-obsessed, lyrical-but-oh-so-intense female memoirists. And, since you have nothing else in the pipeline, the world must languish, insensibly depriving itself of the exquisite tristesse and poignancy of your touching history.
So you decide that you’ll start a new piece of comic brilliance instead. But then you have to look up that quote by Tolstoy about how all happy families are alike, but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and then you see an update on Facebook, and then you realize that your neighbors have finally stopped doing their- and-their-friends-and-relations’ laundry, so you can finally wash your sports bras, and then you remember that you haven’t swept the floors in two days…and then it’s just too late, and you have to finish season two of the Americans.
You get asked out on a date and have a good time. The second date goes well, and the third…except for that one thing he said in passing that could mean 10 different things. You wander around the apartment absent-mindedly cleaning things, trying to telepathically decipher the black box that is another human being. You then have to go for drinks with your girlfriends to forensically re-construct the events and meaning of every minute of each date, and to deconstruct, with relentless incisiveness, every emoji used in every text the man has sent you (“is that really a crying face, or an Android-iOs translation problem…??) Your psyche taunts you in an incongruously-Mancunian accent, “You know nothing…”—because you really do know nothing. Until you go on another perfectly-enjoyable date and all that stuff you were worried about turns out be truly nothing. All of this is extremely time-consuming, and since bad things continue to not happen, you find you have nothing to say publicly about any of it.
Mad Max comes out. You call your parents. You go to a weekend-long fitness camp. A friend is in from out of town. The snow is melted, you’ve got a new battery in your car, and you can finally go to Ikea for that thing you were sure only Ikea could provide. It doesn’t fit. You have to go back to Ikea. You get invited to a poetry reading. You need to spend 4 hours going through every possible combination of airline fares and schedules in order to plan the perfect itinerary to visit your parents. You check Facebook again. And again. The season finale of Game of Thrones demands protracted analysis and conversation with everyone you know. You realize your 10-class card for ballet is about to expire. You have two unused salsa classes. You go to dance classes. You start composing an indignant letter to Amazon about how the concept of “MommyPrime” is offensively patriarchal and discriminatory, until you realize that they have no way of knowing that “Pierre” is not a real over-indulged, Montessori-coddled child (birthday April 3), but is, in fact, your stuffed panda. You (and the panda) get a free trial month. You can’t help yourself and you buy season three of the Americans. Your hair, which yesterday was fine—completely fine—is suddenly impossible and it has to be colored and cut immediately. You need a filling replaced. You start a really good murder mystery. You go to the office and become enraged by everything that either is on your computer when you wish it weren’t, or should be on your computer but has been inexplicably taken away by IT on the capricious whim of their tyrannical sysadmin. You feel very busy, but thwarted. You write about not writing as a way to get some writing done.