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May 2013

Post image for Being and doing are not at odds

Every time I write something on the topic of personal productivity, a few people suggest that maybe doing more isn’t appropriate at all.

As a friend of mine suggested on the Facebook page, Western society has an obsession with productivity. We grow up being taught that we want to “do well” but we’re not often taught explicitly what that means. Success is a vague word, and in the absence of a meaningful definition it seems to refer to little more than having an above average income and a lot of phone calls to return.

We know that there’s something very near-sighted about taking busyness and career success for compass-North in our personal quests for happiness, so it’s understandable that the discerning person might be suspicious of anyone that appears unusually preoccupied with their personal productivity.

Last summer, I was more socially active than I’d ever been. Over the winter my focus shifted totally, and as the recreation season returns I find I’m spending most of my spare time at my desk. I’ve been turning down a lot of social invitations, giving vague reasons most of the time, but those who know me best know I am working. Some of them may be wondering, in my conspicuous absence, if I’ve lost touch with the values I espouse — staying present, connecting with other human beings, and enjoying the in-between moments.

A certain amount of personal productivity is absolutely necessary, at least enough to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, and maintain some semblance of stability and autonomy. But I’ve been achieving those minimum productivity standards my whole life, so the question “Why do you need to do more than you’re already doing?” is a fair one.

Well, I don’t need to do more. Other than the physical essentials of life, I don’t strictly need anything. But it makes no sense at all to cease all activity except the minimum necessary to survive. After I earn enough to pay my food and rent, “unnecessary” productivity becomes any activity other than sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom and meditating. We each decide how much time to apply to any given “electives” in our lives: how many movies to watch, how many barbecues to attend, how many blogs to read, how often to make coffee, and of course, how much we work. Right now I want to accomplish more work than I have been, and I think I have good reasons.  Read More

Post image for How to cross every item off your to-do list in one night

For the entire year that I have lived in this suite, a cardboard-velvet box piled over with envelopes and mail sat on the floor between my filing cabinet and my entertainment unit. Today it is gone because yesterday I took twenty minutes to file it all.

It feels very different in here now. Cleaner karma. Better Feng Shui. It almost feels like I removed something from my head.

That box was, ostensibly, an active part of my “workflow system.” Any file that ended up out of its home was to be dropped in there, the whole lot to be re-filed at the end of every day.

All of the other components of my system have been in a similar state of stasis for a similarly long time. It was months ago that my master to-do list grew so stagnant and irrelevant that I stopped even looking at it, which reveals an interesting fact about our to-do items: they often don’t really need to be done at all.

There are items on it that have been “urgent” for months. I have certainly experienced inconveniences and lost opportunities because of my ridiculous level of procrastination, but clearly none of the eighty forgotten items on my list were life or death, or I’d be dead. Life has been generally pleasant.

So the bulk of my supposed must-do items (and probably yours too) were completely optional, benign opportunities to get ahead, rather than the creeping imperatives they seemed to be.

Still, their undoneness imposes a persistent mental burden, on the clarity of your mind and your self-esteem. Unmet commitments represent personal shortcomings.

I am a career procrastinator. So are many of you, I gather. None of the articles I’ve written has inspired more heartfelt “Oh my god that’s me!” responses than one I wrote about procrastination. In the article I argued that procrastination is not laziness, but a symptom of certain kinds of private fear.

Fear is much less a part of my day-to-day consciousness now than it was when I wrote that. I feel like I’m game to take on my concerns as they emerge in life, including the fuzzier, scarier projects that made my to-do items into more of a permanent collection than a rolling list.

The two approaches

Everyone experiences a steady stream of to-do items in their lives. People generally subscribe to one of two philosophies in dealing with them: acting on them arbitrarily as they become salient, or by using a system to organize them. In other words, they either keep their list of concerns in their head or they put them on paper.  Read More

Post image for Let reality be real

When I go grocery shopping I never get a cart. I restrict myself to one of my supermarket’s large baskets, which limits me to essential purchases, and ensures that whatever I do buy will fit into the two nylon bags I bring with me.

Most of the groceries I buy are particularly dense items: tofu bricks, fruit, bulk nuts, tubers and the odd condiment in a jar. I don’t buy boxed cereal, lettuce, chips, or anything else that would fill up the basket without offering much nourishment. I end up with two bags so heavy that plastic wouldn’t do. My car is a two-door, so the bags ride beside me in the passenger seat.

I rent a condo in the city’s most densely populated area and I depend on street parking, so sometimes I have to march the mega-bags a block or two to get to my door. When I do my shopping on the way home from work, I also have to carry a backpack, a suitcase-sized GPS, and a big laptop.

I load up as evenly as I can, close the door with my bum, and begin my half-kilometer farmer’s walk. Often it’s in extreme heat or cold. Eventually, straps begin to slip, my shoulders and fingers begin to burn a little, and it invariably becomes more uncomfortable the longer I have to walk. There are two doors and two steps along the way

I used to really hate this particular part of my life. In my old apartment I had a reserved parking spot so the walk was never more than fifty paces and one or two steps to climb, but it was such a worse experience than it is now. I used to dread it. It was like a final kick in the chest after working all day.

Now, it’s like water. For a while now I’ve known that the way to deal with physical discomfort is to open up to it, rather than close up to it. I used to grit my teeth and, in my mind, lean toward the moment when I can drop the bags onto my table and the discomfort is over. This does not defend against pain, but it’s what I always did and what most people seem to do.

I now see all instances of minor physical discomfort as a chance to get better at being relaxed. I relax into the discomfort, I let it hang out with me. When you first try it it’s an exhilarating experiment — to voluntarily open up to minor pain when that’s what the moment brings you, to refrain from listening to the impulse to cringe or harden. It feels like you’re walking freely in an area you thought you weren’t allowed to go.

It’s relatively easy to do with minor discomfort. Life gives you endless minor discomforts, all of them opportunities to retrain this impulse, and then when tougher things happen, the impulse is still there. Instead of cringing, you release and allow. You look right at it. Nothing else makes sense. Read More

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