Saturday, May 05, 2007

May 5, 2007 - Losing My Edge (Or, Regaining It)?

“Procrastination,” they say, “is the thief of time.” That particular thief’s been nosing around my house in recent months, and I don’t like it.

Lately, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by various long-term projects, both professional and personal. I’ve gotten myself into the position more than once of putting things off till the last minute, then working frantically to meet the deadline. Some deadlines I’ve missed altogether.

E-mail is part of the reason. Like a lot of people these days, I feel swamped by a rapidly-rising tide of e-mails, many of them trivial. Reading and responding to these ephemeral messages devours a growing amount of my time. We’re all learning how to use this technology, which is still in its infancy. Some of us are more adept than others. It’s so easy to click on our mail program’s “forward” or “reply all” buttons, thereby multiplying exponentially the hours everyone has to spend slogging through these messages.

Yet, e-mail isn’t the only reason. I’m coming to realize that one of the side-effects of cancer treatment, at least for me, is a cranky refusal to put up with the trivial. At times, I’ve had a devil-may-care attitude about lots of mundane-but-important tasks: “I’ve just been duking it out with cancer, and you dare ask me to fill out my income-tax return?” (I’ve gotten an extension on my taxes, this year.) Life is filled with deadlines: and, cancer or no cancer, many of them come back and bite you eventually, if you keep putting them off.

Post-chemo recovery is deceptive: you feel like you’re back to normal, but you’re really not. There’s a certain lack of focus, a fear that perhaps you’re losing your edge. With cancer, you just don’t wake up someday and say, “I’m better, now.” The PET scan results may keep coming back clean, but that doesn’t mean you’re not still living with certain more subtle, long-term effects of the disease.

Stephen Covey’s bestseller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, contains a memorable illustration he calls “sharpening the saw.” Covey tells of two lumberjacks who are laboring hard to cut down a mighty tree, using an old-fashioned cross-cut saw. Back and forth they pull the saw, their motions synchronized in perfect rhythm. Yet, the longer they work, the less effective their labors become. Each stroke seems to be taking a smaller bite out of the tree trunk. Stubbornly, the laborers keep sawing.

What they need to do, Covey says, is to stop and sharpen the saw. But there’s something soothing, even hypnotic, about the rhythm of the sawing. The more exhausted they become, the more easy it is to imagine that if they just keep going, they’ll finish the job. “Who’s got time to stop and sharpen the saw?" they think to themselves.

I’m still trying to figure out what it means for me to sharpen the saw, in these months after cancer treatment.


smwilton said...

I'm amazed at the ideas that come to you -- and the pictures you find for illustrating your thoughts, like the computer being tossed out of a window, and the men working together with a saw.
S. Wilton

Tom Clarke said...

Time, my friend, time. You've basically had your body poisoned for weeks on end, so your not going to be better overnight.

Don't let yourself fall into the cycle of going overboard (like putting in 8 hour days, for example) when you're feeling good and then feeling like crap for the next day or two because you're exhausted. Cut off your workdays at four hours, no matter what, and work less if your don't feel up to it. Period. End of sentence.

Your body will repair itself eventually, and I can't explain it, but you'll know when you're ready to work on a more consistent basis.

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Thanks, Tom. I appreciate the advice, but I'm not really having problems with physical side effects any more (it's been almost a year since my last treatment). What I'm speaking about is more of a state of mind.