Aiming for sustainability at work

I’m hauled up on the living room couch, sitting sideways with my back against one arm and my feet against the other. My laptop rests atop a pillow on—naturally—my lap. (The pillow elevates the screen so that I don’t get a crick in my neck from looking down, something I’ve learned from experience.) I’m at work. Really.

For a long time, I didn’t admit to my working-from-the-couch habit. When people asked about my writing routine, I talked about being a morning person and detailed my day, beginning with pre-dawn yoga, breakfast, and a thorough reading of the newspaper (comics last, so I have something to laugh about). Then, I’d say, I answer the night’s accumulation of emails and write in my journal for half an hour or so about whatever comes up. That’s my warm-up, I’d continue, before I turn to the business of real writing, spinning words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and pages on my way to completing whatever writing project is uppermost on my deadline list. My creativity comes to a halt at around one o’clock when I break to share lunch with my husband. I spend the afternoon working on the other business of writing: research, interviews for my magazine articles, answering more emails, arranging book promotion, revising my web site, updating my blog, paying bills.

That’s all true. But that recitation doesn’t include the fact that I spend increasing amounts of my working day with my feet up on the couch, writing with my laptop in my lap. It’s not that I don’t have a great  office. I do: it’s perfect creative space for me, complete with a desk custom made by my sculptor husband. I love sitting and writing at that desk, with its view over the landscape I write about.

The couch time comes because I’m aiming to make my work sustainable in terms of my personal energy budget. (In terms of its impact on the planet, my work is pretty green: I work at home in a house heated by the sun and soon to be powered by solar electricity [more on our coming photovoltaic system in a future post], I do most of my errands on foot, recycle almost all of my “trash,” and do my best to make planet-friendly purchases.) The sustainability I’m aiming for is balancing the work I do in a day with the energy I have to do it. I’ve had an autoimmune disease that is difficult to define but often regarded as a form of Lupus for most of my adult life. I manage it by adapting my life to minimize the symptoms, but now and then I need to fine-tune things. That’s what I’m doing now. In that way I’m like everyone: I have too much to do and too few hours in a day to do it—and not enough energy to work twenty-four hours a day even if that was a good idea.

HomecoverI’m fortunate—or unfortunate—enough to know my limits. I live with a tighter energy budget than most people. Overdraw the account, and within minutes my cheeks flush pink and my hands and feet swell. Keep going and within an hour, I start to feel chilled and achy all over. If I push harder, the fever intensifies and, worst of all for a writer, I begin to lose my ability to retrieve words from my brain. I know they’re in there, I just can’t find them. I get nearly immediate feedback about when I’m overdoing things. Not that I always pay attention.

That’s the problem I’m currently wrestling with: I’m pretty good about paying attention and self-correcting at home. (Hence the couch time, which allows me to work in a way that’s actually restorative or at least energy-efficient.) But send me out in public and I most certainly don’t want to give away any weakness. I become Superwoman in front of an audience, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound while also giving a great talk, teaching an inspiring workshop, delivering a moving reading, an insightful interview, and darning socks and diapering babies at the same time. That used to work for me. Sort of. Because I could always collapse and spend a few days sick in bed later.

 But being Superwoman doesn’t work now. (It never really did.) And starting in late March, I’ll be promoting my upcoming memoir, Walking Nature Home, through a series of booksignings, readings, talks, and workshops. The memoir traces my journey from illness to renewed life and love through a close relationship with nature, and I want to walk my talk. That means among other things not pretending I’m Superwoman. I see this as an opportunity to learn new, more sustainable habits on a personal level. I’m also going to try out some potentially more sustainable book promotion activities via a virtual tour, a round of visits in cyberspace to blogs whose hosts are interested in sharing my writing with their audiences. I’ll keep you posted on what’s coming and how I do. And I’d love to hear your suggestions: How do you find a sustainable balance in work and life?