Last Saturday, I pretty much had my day to myself. I went to the store, did some housework and spent an inexplicably long time making a card; also working on my stamp collection. Finally around 3pm I forced myself to go into the office where I checked my news blogs and email… and wrote in my writing journal: “I don’t know why I can’t seem to concentrate, but I can’t. Arg! My brain feels like oatmeal. I want to go iron or bake a cake, not write… what is wrong with me????”
So I tried again, and instead found myself Googling “why not more productive.” That brought up a slew of articles on being productive, all with the same tired advice I’d read a thousand times before. (Many of which also included solicitations of the “buy our inspirational DVDs and become more productive in just two weeks” nature) But then, just as I was ready to give it up I stumbled onto the blog of Aaron Swartz and his post HOWTO: Be More productive.
It starts out,
“With all the time you spend watching TV,” he tells me, “you could have written a novel by now.” It’s hard to disagree with the sentiment — writing a novel is undoubtedly a better use of time than watching TV — but what about the hidden assumption? Such comments imply that time is “fungible” — that time spent watching TV can just as easily be spent writing a novel. And sadly, that’s just not the case.
Well THAT got my attention! (And I love the word “fungible.”) As soon as I read it I knew the truth in it. Time at the start of the day is much more useful than time in the afternoon when one’s system is taking that “post-prandial” dip. (I like “post-prandial,” too)
To be more productive, Swartz concludes, one must recognize the fact that the quality of any given period of time is not the same and learn to work with that reality in an efficient wa. For example, “it’s easy to start working on something because it’s convenient,” he says, “but you should always be questioning yourself about it.” Does this really need to be done now? Is there something more important you could be doing? Since I often do question myself about that, this was only marginally helpful — especially since even if I agree that there is something more “important” I just keep doing whatever distraction I happen to be pursuing. Still, it’s nice to have the concept reinforced.
He also suggested pursuing several different projects at the same time , thus having things to do in accordance with the different qualities of time throughout the day. I liked that because I think maybe… just maybe… some of the things I do in apparent distraction could actually be preparatory for writing. Card-making is not something I have to force myself to do, like ironing, so it’s fun, relaxing, my brain is occupied with non-word related tasks and it might just be a good activity for the subconscious to be wrestling with the writing task I seem to be ignoring. (Which lines up with other things I’ve read about writing)
Other suggestions he gave were to make a list of things to work on, integrate the list with your life, make your time higher quality, and ease physical and mental constraints, all of which were familiar but good to be reminded of. And then we got to “Procrastination and the mental force field.”
The real productivity problem people have is procrastination. It’s something of a dirty little secret, but everyone procrastinates — severely. It’s not just you.”
Really? It’s not?
He goes on to define procrastination:
To the outside observer, it looks like you’re just doing something “fun” (like playing a game or reading the news) instead of doing your actual work. (This usually causes the outside observer to think you’re lazy and bad.) But the real question is: what’s going on inside your head?
I’ve spent a bunch of time trying to explore this and the best way I can describe it is that your brain puts up a sort of mental force field around a task. Ever play with two magnets? If you orient the magnets properly and try to push them toward each other, they’ll repel fiercely. As you move them around, you can sort of feel out the edges of the magnetic field. And as you try to bring the magnets together, the field will push you back or off in another direction.
That’s exactly how it is! Exactly what it feels like. And the more you try to go toward it, the more it pushes you away. I will go into the office to work, not be able to find the pen I want, go off to the desk in the bedroom and suddenly be doing something that has nothing to do with writing. And just as with the magnets, which will NOT sit together no matter how hard you push, you can’t push through the mental force field on sheer willpower.
And what causes the force field? Swartz cites two major factors: whether the task is hard and whether it’s assigned. By hard, he means it can be a problem that’s too big. Or too complicated. Or both. Yeah.
He offers suggestions there, too, but I already do almost all of them. The cool thing for me was having it all validated. All my notions about being productive he labels as myths: “that time is fungible, that focusing is good, that bribing yourself is effective, that hard work is unpleasant, that procrastinating is unnatural… that real work is something that goes against your natural inclinations.” No, not at all.
If you’re trying to do something creative that’s of worth, says Swartz, the real secret is not to shut down your brain and just DO IT, but the opposite: “to listen to your body. To eat when you’re hungry, to sleep when you’re tired, to take a break when you’re bored, to work on projects that seem fun and interesting.”
And not to condemn yourself for doing any of it.
Which sounds a lot like the freedom we are to enjoy in Christ that I’ve been blogging about previously.
If you want to read the full article, it’s here.