Whenever you feel the Beast sapping your will, do something – anything – that will improve your situation in even the smallest way. Straighten a crooked picture. Put all your stray pencils into a cup.Taming the Beast
Cal Newport dropped Staying Productive on Distracted Days over on his blog and it’s a nail-on-the-head observation for me.
“Productivity” is a slippery term. It’s often used to refer exclusively to the rate at which you produce value for your business or employer. I tend to apply it more broadly to describe the intentional allocation of your time and attention toward things that matter to you and away from diversions that don’t.
A lot of days, this probably involves a solid push on professional activities, as craft is an important part of cultivating a deep life. But not every day. If there are consequential national events transpiring, or you’re dealing with a crisis in your personal life, or you’re not feeling well, a productive day doesn’t necessarily require steady progress through a task list.”
Since the switch to working from home as a result of Covid-19, this has become a daily reality for me. I’ve come to look at it more as being ‘productive’ on the project of what David Cain likes to call ‘getting better at being human’. Sometimes that means day-job work and sometimes it applies to other things as well. In the end, both streams benefit.
Went down a rabbit hole and came across this old piece from 2013 on David Cain’s Raptitude site. The whole thing is a must read for hilarity – even with the sting of the fact that it rings far too true – 6 years later.
David Cain: You have employees everywhere, but the United States is probably your most profitable venture so far. What’s been your secret to success in the US?
The Man: I love America. As much as I dislike the phrase “Perfect Storm”, it’s like all the right factors came together in one place. The big one is the hyper-normal level of consumerism and its relationship to self-esteem. I know you did a piece on that. [Here – Ed.] People in the US, more than anywhere else, respond to personal inadequacy by buying stuff or trying to get in a better position to buy stuff later. This is great, because buying stuff eventually creates disappointment, which creates more buying.
I also love its strange breed of future-focused happiness. Almost every young American thinks he’ll be rich at some point. Later is when life will be great. No matter what their salary, very few people think they make quite enough money now. So they’re willing to put up with “just ok” or even “not quite ok” for many years.
There is also, in the working world, this wonderful shaming of any hint of Bohemianism. Can you imagine an American taking a two-hour lunch, with wine, like they do in Europe? Nobody does it, nobody. Work is a virtue, no matter what the work is or what they produce. They are grateful for two weeks of vacation a year. Two weeks out of fifty-two! The culture does most of the work for me. Some people don’t even take those two weeks, because they’re afraid their colleagues will think they aren’t serious about working at all. Stopping to smell flowers is suspicious behavior there, unless you’re retired.
Despite that, there is a permeating sense of entitlement here, as if things should not only be good all the time, it should be easy to keep them good. Do you think the citizens of the world’s richest nation actually want fairness across the board? They think they’re getting the short end of the stick, can you believe that? If they only knew.
Mind if I smoke in here?
In the section of Atlantic Canada I’m parked in we average around 100 in/250cm of snowfall per year. It’s not uncommon to get 2-3 feet in a single storm, several times a winter.
A few weeks ago, we got a big dump of snow. Around 2 feet if I recall correctly. I went out to snowblow my driveway the next morning before heading to work and the snowblower wasn’t having it. It would blow snow, but the drive mechanism wouldn’t engage so it wouldn’t go anywhere. The machine weighs more than I do, so simply pushing it was not an option.
Was a time when I would have beaten the thing with a shovel and swore up and down at it – as if this action would have compelled the inanimate object to somehow change its mind and work. Instead I realized I had two options.
I could haul it back in the garage and take it apart and see what the issue was and if I could fix it. Bear in mind it was around -19ºC at this point – even in my unheated garage – and dicking around with some small mechanical parts in those temps didn’t seem too appealing.
Or I could shovel.
Either way I was going to be late for work, but just accepting that fact was half the battle. I decided on option 2.
I begrudgingly began to shovel, but as I did so I started to become more aware of things in that moment. It was a bright, sunny day – as weirdly enough, it often is after large snowstorms – it was quite still and quiet, and generally just pleasant to be outside (assuming one is properly dressed for the cold).
Once I’d accepted that I was going to be late for work anyway – and the fact that there was nothing really I could do about it – settling into work at a reasonable vs. rushed pace was actually quite satisfying. I felt good using my body to do work. It was much more meditative without the constant racket of the snowblower engine and the crisp air was untainted by exhaust.
Shovelling snow is one of those tasks where you can actually see your progress in real-time. You can observe that you’re actually getting something done and absorb the satisfaction that provides.
Sometimes, I wander the house, circling, not sure where to go or what to do. My wife will often ask me what’s up – I usually reply that I feel I have so many things I need to do, I don’t know which one to do first.
I was listening to a podcast the other day (I forget which one) and one of the people mentioned a story about Albert Einstein. Apparently, Einstein had a closet full of very similar, or indeed, the same clothes, and would often dress exactly the same every day. When someone once asked him why, he is said to have replied “to avoid Option Paralysis.” I get that. I have had that. I’ve been paralyzed by all the options. And consequently rendered non-productive at various times as a result. I don’t know if Option Paralysis is a real thing or not, but it’s real to me, and when it hits, and I can’t move forward, it really does a number on my frame of mind.
What I’ve started doing though is just pick one thing and do it. Do it completely. Do it with all my focus and finish it. Then move on to another thing. It often turns out to not really even matter which thing gets done first, because invariably what happens is when you can get one thing done – and feel good doing it – then that mojo translates into the next thing, and the next thing, and – you get the point.
In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki wrote:
“In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. You will have something remaining which is not completely burned out. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes. This is the goal of our practice. That is what Dogen meant when he said, “Ashes do not come back to firewood.” Ash is ash. Ash should be completely ash. The firewood should be firewood. When this kind of activity takes place, one activity covers everything.”
That day, shovelling snow became such a thing. And the next storm, when I went out to shovel three different times while it was still going (it’s easier to shovel a small amount of snow three times, vs. a large amount once). I dedicated myself to the one task, only that task. I wasn’t trying to do several other things at once – or worrying about what I was going to do when I was done. That would be then. This is now. “Burn yourself completely.” This doesn’t mean exhaust yourself into fatigue – I take it to mean put all your attention in that moment into what you are doing, whatever it is.
“But you’re shovelling freaking snow,” you say. “How satisfying or interesting can that be?” Well, quite, actually. David Cain over at raptitude.com mentioned this awhile back in his post “How to Enjoy Life” wherein he talked about finding happiness even in things society tells us we probably shouldn’t enjoy (or just flat out don’t):
“To the mind that’s looking for it, there is pleasure to be taken in the warmth of dishwater, the fresh air on a walk to the store, and the relaxing sensation of sitting in a chair, even if that chair is in the waiting room at the oil change place. We don’t do these things—or most things—for reasons of pleasure, but pleasure is available in most things.”
“The real transformative effect isn’t in the subtle pleasures you can find when you look (although they’re pretty great). It’s in the completely different way we’re aiming our minds in ordinary moments. We’re looking into our experience, not outwards from it, for interest and pleasure.”
It’s easy to give lip-service to this idea in the form of, “yeah well anything can be at least moderately enjoyable with the right perspective,” but how often do we actually employ those changes of perspective?
I still haven’t fixed my snowblower. At some point I will, but I think moving forward I will be more selective about using it (and saving gas money and getting more exercise in the meantime.)
I didn’t look or listen for anything in particular, I just let the details of this particular moment in the neighborhood come to me: the quality of the air—heavy and warm, the incoming summer storm kind; birds; two couples having a conversation down the sidewalk; the clinking of dishes coming from inside the house to my right; distant hammering from a construction site somewhere in the blocks behind my house.David Cain, The Alternative to Thinking All the Time
I happened on this quite by chance recently.
My oldest daughter has a job at the local fried chicken joint now. I often have to go pick her up. Her shift ends at time ‘X’, but really she has stuff to do after so I’m never sure when she gets out exactly so I sit in the car in the parking lot and wait.
Usually it’s around 9pm on a moderately busy street corner of a semi-residential section of town with a riverside park across the street. These summer nights at dusk by the river, there’s all manner of stuff going on.
Initially, I’d surf instagram on my phone, read a book, sometimes try to meditate, but eventually I just got round to watching and listening. Doing exactly what he describes here. Immersing myself in that moment and the goings on at that exact time, tuning out all the other irrelevant noise – stuff that is either unimportant or I can’t do anything about at that time anyway – and often yes – I’m sort of startled out of it by her opening the truck door.
I always feel really refreshed, awake and present after.