Have you had a productive day? Congratulations. You’ve channeled through the mucous procrastination barrier, grit your teeth, and powered through another unpleasant item on your to do list, simultaneously aiming for maximum time efficiency and counting down the minutes until a snack break would be justifiable. You worked “smart,” putting no more effort than necessary into the task, though you had to strain every muscle to keep yourself from turning away. You didn’t let your curiosity get snagged on little pointed details which could keep you off course. Nobody got time for that. Keep at it.
Until you realize that you’re spending your life deriving more happiness from having done than from doing. Until you get kind of sick of being a martyr in the worship of productivity, constantly flung back and forth between guilt-ridden pleasure and self-righteous misery. Or until you just crack, no longer able to breathe within the narrow walls of serious, efficient work, falling out into a field of undirected diversions and not particularly motivated to step back in.
For me, I started realizing something was off at the end of last year when I found myself procrastinating on my “work” by doing the same types of things that the work involved. I was putting off studying about the hippocampus by reading an article about hippocampus damage cases. I was putting off writing a personal essay for class by blogging similar essays. I was putting off researching gender theory by reading about gender theory.
I noticed the contrast between the momentum and ease with which I fell into my “indulgent” procrastinatory wanderings and the strain with which I plugged through my “worthy” work. I noticed how I was praising myself for “productivity” and punishing myself for “procrastination” despite the fact that the same exact learning was going on.
At that point, the whole work/play dichotomy was starting to seem arbitrary and not very…well…productive.
Realistically, I don’t think our drive to produce and complete is going to disappear any time soon, nor should we force it to. We live in a world which puts a premium on time, space, and energy. We all have deadlines and schedules and a whole lot of stuff to do. I’m certainly not about to start ignoring that. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t relieved to finish my work this weekend or that I wasn’t pretty unhappy about doing some of it.
But what if we found a little breathing room in the vast space between work and play? With practice, could we learn to gently steer our desires, curiosities, and inclinations towards our goals, instead of forcefully manhandling them down a fixed (and unsustainable) path?
What if we woke up and asked ourselves: What am I in the mood to learn? What thoughts am I itching to write first? How does my body feel like moving? The more I pay attention to my desires, the more I find that my “to-do” list and my “want-to-do” list have some intersections–or at least some points where they come reasonably close to meeting–and this shared space can be a good starting point for directing my energy.
Like a lot of people, I’m expecting to have a busy semester, filled with a lot to do and probably a little bit of strain in making it all happen. But for when I find the time, I’m adding these items to my to-do list:
- Invest a little more in the value of your desires.
- Work just a little stupider.
- Wander just a little off course.
In the end, you just might end up going a little farther.