I first felt the urge to “fix” my productivity almost twelve years back. As an anxious teen, I was only beginning to understand the number of skills that I could learn, books I could read, and things I could do. I had an overwhelming sense of preciousness of time; that wasting it was almost immoral.
I must have toyed with all to discipline myself. Blocking websites, setting goals, and trying all sorts of productivity tricks to make sure I was cramming as many “productive things” in my day as possible. Nothing worked. I mean, it did for a while, until it didn’t.
In every case, I ultimately succumbed to the “evil” called procrastination. A key feature of my 20s was a combination of anxiety and guilt seeing how I was failing the high standards I had set for myself.
Recently, the absurdity of all of it hit me.
The expectations that I had for myself weren’t my expectations at all. They were of the society I lived in, and the stories I had consumed. The associated guilt of “wasting time” was nonsensical. There’s no one at the end of the tunnel grading me on how I used my time. Time as a resource to be used is a human invention. As Oliver Brukeman writes in his book, “Four Thousand Weeks”:
The medieval farmer simply had no reason to adopt such a bizarre idea in the first place. Workers got up with the sun and slept at dusk, the lengths of their days varying with the seasons. There was no need to think of time as something abstract and separate from life: you milked the cows when they needed milking and harvested the crops when it was harvest time, and anybody who tried to impose an external schedule on any of that—for example, by doing a month’s milking in a single day to get it out of the way, or by trying to make the harvest come sooner—would rightly have been considered a lunatic.
There was no anxious pressure to “get everything done,” either, because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing toward some hypothetical moment of completion.
In rural parts of the world, it’s fascinating how casually people “waste” their time, because they are under no pressure to utilize it efficiently.
Tea or chai is a staple drink of the Afghan people and the tea house—the chai shop—is a favorite meeting place. Throughout the day you will find groups of men sitting around drinking tea and talking and this is an important and integral part of their social life. In general, the Afghan has time for himself and others. He’s not tied to 9-5 routine as most people in the west are. Here the time has quite a different meaning and it’s one thing that even the poorest man is a master of.
Afghanistan before the Russian Invasion (Documentary, 1979)
In contrast, we are habitually in a race to keep doing more and more things, and to keep raising the bar. I look back and see how on days when I did nothing induced a tremendous amount of guilt in me. But why? How exactly had I failed? Who was I failing?
This is not to take away credit from personal growth, which is awesome, but being constantly under pressure to utilize time doesn’t sound very healthy to me. In fact, I now believe it harms more than it helps. It harms because the mind is clouded with the thoughts of ‘need’ to do something, restraining the ‘free-flowing creativity’.
In Chinese philosophy, specifically Taoism, wu wei (“effortless action”) is the practice of doing things without excessive effort or desired outcomes. It’s the state when our actions align with the Dao, an abstract concept that describes the natural order of things. The modern-day term for this would be ‘being in the flow’. We must have all experienced flow at some point, where work just flowed effortlessly. It’s because our actions are aligned with what we want deeply. We are not forcing ourselves to do things.
No surprise that productivity-obsessed mindset often gets in the way of wu wei. We might think reading a book was worth our ‘precious time’, but if it was finished out of compulsion, and not genuine interest, we would neither enjoy it nor get much out of it.
Similarly, we can force ourselves to finish an article, but if our mind is utterly opposed to ‘writing the damn thing’, an eternity would be wasted ‘feeling blocked’ and the result might not even be pretty. Long term, we might even burn ourselves out.
Seldom it’s realized that it’s easier to get things done by letting things take their due time. Most writers have experienced that writing is sometimes better served when abandoned, and returned to on the next day. Yet, they fail to connect the dots. It’s a difficult concept to grasp that unsolved problems are better solved when we are not thinking about them.
I no longer define my life by how much productive I am. I do make an effort to do things, but I am happy wasting a weekend not doing much at all. My #1 priority is to do work that feels natural to me, and keep my creative spirit alive and healthy, not finish 100 books because someone on Twitter did it too.