The Exercise Distraction

Procrastination comes in many guises. Mine happens to wear lycra.


When I’m not writing, you’ll find me exercising. Or rather: when I’m trying to write and failing, you’ll find me thinking about doing exercise.

I’ve always been a fidgeter. A live wire. My family nicknamed “The Worm” for wriggling off their laps as a small child, and Tigger (from Winnie the Pooh) for bouncing all over the place as I got older. This energy has been channeled into various pursuits, some healthier than others.

While studying for my first year exams at university, I discovered powdered guarana, a Brazilian plant with a high caffeine content, which I intended to use as a study aid. But after the first few days, when I felt so high that I made a William Burroughs quote out of tinfoil (“cut into the past and the future leaks out“) and pasted it to my bedroom wall, I discovered that it was a very effective stimulant for running. I had run cross-country at school and continued to run a couple of times a week, twenty to forty minutes at a time. But suddenly I was able to run 10 km every day without any pain or fatigue. It felt miraculous. And so although running was supposed to be a way of de-stressing from revising, studying became an afterthought, something I did as the sun went down and my blood sugar had finally recovered.

Ever since, I’ve allowed exercise—let’s call it movement, because “exercise” sounds so self-punishing—to take priority when I should be doing work. It’s probably down to a little fantasy in my head that in a parallel life, I could’ve been an athlete, and only for lack of a coach to spot my young promise as a child did I miss out. In reality, I’m terrible about sticking to a schedule, run more off adrenaline than any solid stock of energy, and am too fickle to stick to any one sport for long. In addition to tae kwon do and cross-country, I’ve become variously obsessed with cycling, yoga, salsa, weightlifting, breakdancing, tap-dancing, barefoot running and Movnat. I have manic periods where I feel light, strong, capable of anything, and irrepressibly hyperactive, as if I’ve drunk four cans of Monster. And then I have weeks where I feel like my limbs are made of porridge and it’s all they can do to arrange themselves in a puddle on the sofa.

Even so, every time I’ve quit a job I’ve taken a month or two off with plans to try and exercise six days a week and maybe become a personal trainer or a dancer or someone else whose job it was to move every day. And every time I did so I’d discover I don’t have the endless reservoirs of energy I quite imagine when I’m working a desk job and chewing at the bit to leave so I can throw my body or lumps of iron around. It’s only when I’m leading a disgustingly sedentary lifestyle against my will that the “I coulda been a contender!” dream floats back up, but when I have bags of time at my disposal I find the reality is that some days all I’m up for is a walk to the corner shop.

Having gone freelance and become a master of my own time, I’m discovering tricks to suppress the exercise impulse and coax the writing genie out of the bottle. One approach is the “take the puppy for a walk so it won’t tear up the house” one: sufficiently wearing myself out so that all I’m physically capable of is sitting in front of the computer and typing. Sometimes, however, this plan backfires, and I drain my energy reserves to the point that I can’t even focus on the screen.

What I have learnt is that the best kind of writing day comes when every other obligation, event and thought melts off the horizon. That means that movement isn’t even an option for the day. I forget that I have to buy something for dinner, and that S will come home later, and that I really should leave the house before dark. I reach what they call flow and ride it into the spooky, misty depth, ignoring the failing light outside. I eat things— three apples in one go, a tub of hummus — without really noticing. I forget about all the errands I’m supposed to do and ignore phone calls. The usual magnets of procrastination—Facebook, Twitter, news sites—are not a temptation any more.

It’s a glorious feeling, but I don’t reach it every day. Every time I discover a trick that “works” to engineer it, it only works for about a week, and then it becomes exactly the kind of routine that obstructs flow.

When it comes to reaching flow, what works for you?


One response to “The Exercise Distraction”

  1. Great piece!
    I’ve not been called a worm exactly, but thought often of Asterix, that bouncy character who fell into that energy drank. How to achieve my flow? Certainly self-knowledge helps. I constantly work on knowing and experiencing myself, reframing strengths as weaknesses and vice versa. E.g. “It’s not impatience, stupid!”, rather “It is a very design-suitable characteristic, the bias to act.” I added yoga and other mindfulness hacks a decade ago, trained to be a teacher, made my knack for many things at once a purposeful task by being a parent and a professional – now it is acceptable and helpful. Swimming (the blue) and recreational running (the green), set my mind at ease, too.

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