Posts Tagged ‘productivity’

Against Busyness

I have been reading Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work and Play When You Have No Time recently, and enjoying it thoroughly. It is one of those books that looks like one thing but is almost another: it looks like a productivity/business/personal development book on the surface, but it is also a rich cultural history of time, leisure and what constitutes a good life.

There’s so much to recommend about it: it’s sharply written, well-researched, and does a phenomenal job of tracing how these “natural” ideas about time and productivity are deeply tied to gender, economics and other factors in social context. I’m really enjoying it thoroughly, to the point where I kind of don’t want to return it to my local library! It’s a real smartypants read, but very accessible and non-academic.

But this isn’t a smartypants review of it. Because, as I was reading it, I noticed my underlying emotional reaction and realized it was: Boy, am I so happy I don’t relate to this book! Which was weird, and worthy of deconstruction.

It was kind of embarrassing thing to realize. Schulte writes a lot about herself in the book, in a good way — her harried juggling of her work as a reporter for the Washington Post, her marriage, her childrearing, her householding. But it wasn’t that I didn’t relate to her role overload — I have plenty to do and lots of projects, relationships, and priorities to manage. It was that I realized: I’m not that frenzied anymore. I don’t periodically announce, “I’m so busy!” like I used to when I was living in New York.

If you read the book, you know how insanely profane such a statement is. No matter who you are or what you do, you must be busy. Or, you just aren’t important, a successful human being. If you aren’t busy, you are lame, a slacker, not fulfilling your potential. And reading Overwhelmed, I felt maybe there was something a little wrong with me. And then I opened my hippie productivity planner and tried to find a list to make. (List-making makes me feel very important to myself.) It was a bit of a crisis, oddly: am I not fulfilling my human potential? Am I wasting precious time? Am I a loser?

But then I backtracked, slowed down, stopped the shame spiral. Not-busyness for me, I realized, is the end result of many major shifts and decisions, some of which I’ve covered here. My notions of success have changed; my desire to have different kind of relationships as well. Changing my approach to finances and prosperity played a role in keeping me less busy. It wasn’t a deliberate move, but slowly I reconfigured my life towards a less frenetic, jam-packed existence.

I’ve always been deeply interested in our experiences of time, and have written about kairos time (the way we “lose” time when we’re immersed in something we love doing) vs. chronos time (the sense of time represented by stopwatches, deadlines). I guess you can say I’ve made more of an effort to shift my life to privilege kairos time: time that hasn’t been sliced up by distraction or obligation or competing priorities. I’ve refused well-paying jobs that demanded 60-70 hours workweeks, for example. I moved from New York, which reduced my expenses considerably and gives me more flexibility in the type of work I take. I don’t work in film anymore, or any job that requires significant “face time” on someone else’s schedule. I’m very privileged to be able to be in a position to make these decisions, but it wasn’t like I had it right away — I chipped away at it slowly, incrementally. And this affects my finances, my social network and my opportunities. But it also gives me swathes of beautifully open kairos time. Reading Schulte’s book makes me realize what a rare approach this is. Or perhaps not rare, but not framed in these notions of kairos vs. chronos.

(You may think “Big deal!” but kairos time is vitally important to our happiness and perhaps to our progress overall. Kairos is where we invent stories, innovations, works of art. Our brains need kairos time to fully rest and revitalize — just grabbing a quarter-hour of rest here and there won’t truly relax you. Schulte makes the sharp observation that socially, historically, and culturally, institutions and individuals have privileged men’s kairos time over women’s — she has loads of historical and statistical information in Overwhelmed, and makes a strong case for time as a feminist issue.)

Ironically, as I was reading Overwhelmed, I actually did consult my planner and agenda a lot less than usual. Partly because it’s kind of senioritis season and a lot of major projects and work stuff wrapped up, but maybe, after reading so much about the toxic effects of our cultural elevation of busyness, I was just more well-aware of the larger imperative to fill our lives to the brim with perfectionism, over-achievement and fueling acquisition. I wanted the mental space to think about what’s important — after all, no one’s eulogy or obituary will ever read, “And you know what else was so awesome about this person? They were so busy!” And so I closed the book when I was done and felt relieved. If I don’t directly relate to Overwhelmed, I must be doing something right!

I Love My Paper Planner So Much, It’s Ridiculous

Sometime during the middle of spring, I decided to go back to a paper-based planner. I’ve always been slightly in love with planners, agendas and organizers — part of my ongoing stationery fetish, I guess. I had the most intense relationship with the free weekly agenda they gave out to undergraduates at Duke, where I went to school — it was just a simple little notebook, divided up into weeks, with a blue leather-y cover embossed with Duke’s official seal. I used it all the freaking time, and covered every bit of free space with lists, brainstorming, doodling, and random information. Early on, I realized I liked a weekly view of time from this planner, and I haven’t really wavered from that format since.

After graduation, a generous friend gave me a fancy-schmancy Louis Vuitton pocket agenda — it was made of yellow Alma leather with a purple leather interior — and I used that pretty regularly for a few years, until they stopped making the paper for it. (Insert sad trombone noise here.) Plus, it was tiny, and at some point, I think my life was just getting way too complicated for it to fit into the pocket format. After I gave the LV planner away, I tried experimenting with larger planners and different systems, but nothing really took. A planner is a deeply personal thing, especially if you’re a creative person, I think, and I didn’t quite find my planner soulmate for some time.

Without a true paper home, I experimented with various apps, devices and other electronic gizmo-magic in the past few years. For awhile I used the calendar on my BlackBerry to keep track of appointments, as well as a series of notecards for to-do lists and project planning, but I didn’t like how my time and planning was split. Then I went all-electronic once I got an iPhone and tried out various apps — there are sooooooo many of them, but I ended up settling on WorkFlowy, which I liked a lot for its simplicity. It’s a list-maker’s dream, and it’s an incredibly well-designed app. And I did use it a lot for both personal and work — which it worked brilliantly for — but I was just missing something. Something fun. Just that extra little something that would kick up my inspiration just a bit. I missed doodling. I missed making little star- and heart-shaped bullets next to my lists. So I decided to go back to paper, only I would have to do it my way. DIY planner, I suppose.


On Being Easy With Yourself

I couldn’t sleep last Sunday night. I had no caffeine during the day, and generally everything felt fine when I went to bed at 11PM, the remnants of a thunderstorm rumbling further in the distance as the cool air streamed through my bedroom windows. Post-thunderstorm cool nights are my favorite sleeping weather, and I drifted off to sleep comfortably.

But I woke up at 3AM, feeling hot and stuffy and distinctly uncomfortable. The air wasn’t moving at all anymore, so I put on the fan and went back to sleep. Only…I couldn’t fall back asleep. I had no idea why. My mind wasn’t racing. I felt relaxed. And yet I could not get back to sleep. After while, I got up, puttered around a little like they say for you to do, went back to bed…but still no sleep.

I started to feel stupid-anxious, like Oh my god I NEED to get to sleep, why can’t I sleep, this is so horrible. I could hear the birds chirping now, like they do before dawn. I could feel my body and mind worn out, but I had that weird raw feeling, like all your nerves in your skin are too alive and too sensitive, and even the bed feels wrong beneath you. I could feel myself beginning to agonize and panic, because I had a lot to do on Monday and I didn’t want to do it on so little sleep. Panic, pressure, a buzzing mind: not really the best way I want to start a week.


On Clutter, Digital and Otherwise: Part 1

I sometimes wish so hard to be one of those minimalists that have, like, five perfectly chosen books, 25 pieces of beautifully curated clothes and one exquisite piece of jewelry. I have lived with a few minimalists and marveled at their self-possession and self-sufficiency; I’ve envied their elegant asceticism, taking it as a sign of higher consciousness or something. But I am not this kind of a person myself. I attract piles. I fight clutter constantly.

I’m not a hoarder, and my approach to matters of adornment, decoration and ownership is simple and straightforward, actually — but simplicity and minimalism are not the same thing. So I still have my little bete noires when it comes to Stuffness, as I like to call it. For some reason, I like to hang onto clothing hang tags. I like to read, so I have piles of magazines and books sprouting in my bedroom like newly emerged archipelagos. Being my mother’s daughter, I clip coupons and forget to use them (unlike my mother). My Salvation Army pile tends to hang out in my closet until I can’t ignore it anymore, and then I must schlep it to S.A. to get rid of it. There’s a hoard of mini-fragrance vials, perfume pens and samples in one of my medicine cabinets. Perhaps I’d be more clutterific if I hadn’t moved so much and been forced to pare down possessions relentlessly. That might be my only saving grace, actually, because at this point in my life, my physical clutter and I are at peace, at a pleasant detente. It builds up and then I “manage” it, but it’s not onerous at all to deal with — maybe 5-10 minutes a day keeps it okay.

Alas, though, there’s another level of clutter altogether to deal with: digital clutter. Digital clutter is my true enemy.

You Know What I Mean By Digital Clutter

Bookmarks, e-mail, Delicious links, RSS feeds, contacts, old texts, Twitter favorites, Tumblr favorites, Facebook messages. There is so much electronic information to manage now. I feel guilty because I know I contribute to the mess in my way, but I’ll save that for another post. In this one, we’ll just talk about the effluvia, flotsam and jetsam I find from others. You don’t even realize you’re collecting it because it is virtual — there’s no mass or weight to it in the physical world. But it takes up so much space in your mental world.

My lightbulb moment about digital clutter came one day after scrolling up and down my browser’s Bookmarks bar looking for a link. Stupid link, I thought to myself, where did I put stupid link to something minute yet somehow so consequential to my thought process that I cannot proceed with the outline of my next novel without it! I finally realized I had spirited it away in some obscure folder within a folder. After 15 minutes. 15 MINUTES OF LOOKING FOR A STUPID LINK. How many seconds did I waste scrolling down my Bookmarks? How did that add up, day after day? It was too depressing to contemplate. Did I really want to spend more time wading through digital clutter? No: I had to deal with it like I had my real-life stuff.