Journal Entry

Thursday, April 24, 2008

On Productivity

Now, this was going to just be a comment on Meghan's LJ, but it has some pissant restriction of 4300 characters. Please, people! I can't clear my throat in 4300 characters!

Anyway, Meghan writes in part

So: how do you all develop habits? I need some advice. Is it something you even focus on? Or do you think it's another tool of our time maximizing, hyperproductivity capitalist society? Sometimes I think this -- "productivity" blogs scare the crap out of me, for one. But you need a shitload of discipline, it seems, to live outside the confines of dayjobs, frozen dinners, and the like.

To which I say:

Oh I am totally all about this, as you have probably heard me rant on about. Left to my own devices I am an utterly unstructured sprawl of procrastination and distractable randomness. Only by an enormous bricolage of tricks do I manage to get anything done, and it's still pretty sad the amount of time I waste.

Everyone's suggestions are excellent -- self-forgiveness, doing things in company, applying the leverage of peer pressure to yourself, rewards, metrics, etc.

I don't even try to write, or at least not to first draft, if there are any distractions around -- i.e. if I have internet access or am near undone housework. This is pretty extreme, as it means that I pretty much ONLY write in coffee shops with my non-wireless-enabled Dana or paper (I am the anti-Scalzi).

But I find that if I try to mix things together, that I always have the secret ambition to write, so that anything else I do (housework, playing with the kids, talking to Esther after the kids are in bed, reading) turns into non-writing as opposed to nourishing my soul, and I don't make explicit time for writing that will really happen, and so I am in a perpetual state of should-be-writing-now-but-something-has-come-up and I become crazy frustrated & depressed. Whereas if I have to get to the coffee shop, it means that I am not kidding myself the rest of the time, I can relax and enjoy life, and that I am forced to make the effort of actually building no-kids no-chores no-surfing no-interruptions writing time into my week.

I also know that I won't exercise on my own -- or not more than an every few months occasional "lookit me I actually went to the gym!" This is why playing a team sport is such a huge win. Even though I am small, slow, and started rugby late, and so I look like a thirty-eight-year-old loser creaking and groaning around the field on the second string team with a bunch of eighteen-year-olds so limber they don't need to warm up or stretch, it is totally worth it because I am not constantly fighting my own resistance, but can just go with the herd. Not wanting to let the side down on game day is a much more powerful motivation for me than wanting to stave off heart disease or reduce stress or whatever; however irrational that may be, it's a fact I've come to accept.

I think an inordinate amount about where I park my bike, where I put my wallet, what I keep on what shelf; I am reluctant ever to do things out of order willy-nilly; evalaute changes in routine carefully, and when I come up with some new optimization (like folding up large plastic bags in a pocket of my man-purse so I will actually have them along and avoid buying the 30-cent ones they sell at the supermarket here, or making four pizza doughs at once and storing them in the freezer) I am inordinately happy.

This sounds like my life is one of smooth routine due to natural obsessive-compulsiveness, but in fact it is the opposite, this is all totally unnatural for me, learned with great difficulty, and in fact my life is one of pockets of well-functioning routine sparsely interspersed in a chaos of staying up too late to finish things, forgetting appointments, losing crap, and being caught up in hour-long distractions (often conversations, whether with my kids or in blogland) and forgetting what I was supposed to be doing. You may not be nearly as ADHD-presenting as I, of course. :-)

About your move to NYC, Meghan: I find that on the one hand, every move or even vacation tends to throw my systems into disarray and that it's a big mistake to underestimate the cost -- it takes months, after a move, to get back to a functioning routine -- but that there's also an upside to this, which is that since you have to build everything from scratch, the net cost to implement drastic changes is zero. So moves are a great time to reinvent your life, putting in place new systems you would never have gotten around to in the old life because it would have been way too much work for only a modest change. But many such small changes, implemented when you have to set up again anyway, can together mean a big improvement. So every time we move between continents, my life is chaos for a few months, but in many ways it ends up vastly improved.

Basically my mantra is to set things up so that what is predictable, and the path of least resistance, is the thing I want to have happen. As opposed to counting on any internal willpower or consistency or perspective to be present in me, because generally it won't be.

The question of whether all this is a tool of our time maximizing, hyperproductivity capitalist society is an excellent one. I think to some extent it can feed into or trigger that mentality. But on the other hand, many tools, pace Audre Lorde, can be used agnostic of their origins.

So that a lot of what I focus on, such as minimizing day-job hours so I have more time to have pillow fights and do pretend kung-fu parkour moves across the neighborhood's flower garden, envision "productivity" in a radically different way than standard-issue capitalist culture might enjoin. The idea, after all, is not to produce: the idea is to be; any results you may obtain are secondary to who you get to be. Repurposing productivity tools as being tools often requires lifting them from the contexts they are presented in.

One thing related to that: there are many sub-agencies in my consciousness. Some want to lie on the couch. Some want to write fiction for the fun of it, others in order to be praised. Some want to go hang out with friends. Others want to be left the fsck alone. My task, I have found, is not to impose the will of the more "good, productive, noble" ones on the slacker ones, but rather to broker a compromise so that they are not constantly sabotaging each other. I find this actually increases even traditionally-measured productivity. If I try to only ever write, I find myself cheating on writing time in order to read and play. If I make it my goal to have time to write, to read, and to play, the agencies tend to respect each other much more.

Posted by benrosen at April 24, 2008 12:06 PM | Up to blog

Mad props for the (I imagine uncontrollable) Audre Lorde moment! Out of nowhere, blam! That was lovely.

Posted by: JessieSS at April 24, 2008 08:01 PM

Ben! What a great post. I've actually found I'm a lone wolf on the exercise front. I love teams, and rugby, but don't feel any need to jump back into it. I'm too competitive often, and end up with crazy injuries. Even in yoga classes I push myself too far!

I think I have to make that deep, internal decision that I'm for real going to develop systems for a problem, instead of wandering around it. We'll see...

Posted by: Meghan at April 24, 2008 10:10 PM

So, here's a dumb question. I like team sports -- but the last time I played was on my high school soccer thirds team. I have no idea how I find a team sport as an adult. Especially a team sport open to a completely out-of-shape slob like me. I think I'd be good on a team eventually, once I got back into shape, because I used to be quite a fast sprinter, and more importantly, I am fiercely competitive and thus have no hesitation about hurling my little body in front of some hulking giant if it will make them trip and drop the ball. But it's going to take me a while to get up to speed.

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at April 25, 2008 01:55 PM

Hell, Mary Anne... fast, fiercely competitive, zero hesitation about flinging yourself in front of hulking giants, compact body shape... you are a natural rugby player! Rugby union, unlike a lot of sports, is a club sport, so it's easy to get into outside of a formal educational enviromnent... even college teams tend to let townies in. And TSOR says Chicago is rife with women's rugby teams. :-)

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 25, 2008 03:45 PM

It's nice to see this way of life clearly described. All the tricks and tics we carry with us to try to make it in the mechanism of the civilization we live in.

I've spent a lot of effort trying to be like the--what would you call them, linear thinkers?--but I worry that I might succeed. This thing we've got, what if we need it? What if the world needs it? I've heard plenty throughout my life about how to overcome it, from people who get it and people who don't. But I don't hear much from anybody about how to embrace it.

Posted by: Jon Prescott-Roy at April 25, 2008 04:11 PM

Ben, remember the old days where I used to buy you cheap wrist watches so you'd have some idea of the time? :) Now that I'm using a cel phone, I've stopped wearing a watch... which is the case with many people, I think. Our society has moved back to pocket watches, essentially. Kinda funny how advancing technology can bring back old paradigms. I wanted what kind of advance would bring back men's hats?

Anyway, regarding the topic at hand, my problem is usually starting art projects... I have huge momentum so once I get into an artwork I move right along, but it's hard to get the wheels moving (or to know when to stop). My trick for the beginning procrastination period is to set myself up so that my procrastination is actually pretty productive (i.e., I work on back-burner projects, deal with needs-to-be-done-at-some-point day job work, etc.). The hope is that when I eventually get rolling, my procrastinations have actually freed up more time for the focused work.

I don't usually have much guilt over not working on projects (because I'm pretty good at doing so, I guess)... what I feel guilty about is not going to art exhibits or art openings. This has been magnified now that I'm in NYC because I haven't really increased the amount of time I spend looking at art or networking at events, but the amount of art viewing & networking opportunities has increased dramatically.

Posted by: Ethan at April 26, 2008 04:40 PM

Ethan: Men's hats were be a natural fashion accessory back when the skull was covered with neural plugs. With the new Hair 'Net for Men, though, they've gone away again.


Posted by: Matt at April 28, 2008 12:04 PM

Grammar is be different, here in the future, too, apparently ;)


Posted by: Matt at April 28, 2008 12:05 PM
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