Monday, September 22, 2014

On Productivity

Another one of those posts came across Hacker News today. You know the ones, they promise dramatic improvement in your skills and/or your life if only you do some thing every day. Want to see the world differently and be a better artist? Draw every day. Want to be a better writer and and have more insight into yourself? Write every day. Want to be more productive and get things done? Follow (your choice of Pomodoro, GTD, the Seinfeld method, etc.) every day. Granted, all of these things are probably true. If you really want to improve, a disciplined, consistent pursuit of self-education via practice will certainly help you. However, I can't help but feel there is a downside to such advice.

Sure, I want to be more productive, to use my time better. I've never met anyone who doesn't. We all have finite lives, and most of us weren't born with the monetary means to do what we want all the time. But what happens if you really are too tired? What happens if doing X every day simply doesn't fit into your (or your children's) schedule? The desire to be more productive can change into guilt or depression over not checking that box every day.

As I approach what I hope will be the midpoint of my career, I find less and less time for my hobbies because I have a house to take care of, food to buy and prepare, clothes to launder, and work responsibilities that consume more of my time and energy than ever before. And I don't even have children. This, and repeated exposure to suggestions offered on the internet have lead me to seek my own answer to the question of becoming more productive. And since people seem to like to write these things down, I will share my secret with you today.

I believe happy, healthy, well rested people are the most productive. Shocking, right? So you want to be better at X? OK then, find a way to pursue it that does not impact your health or your happiness and does not drain away your energy. It works the other way too. If doing something has a positive effect on your energy, health, or happiness, then by all means find a way to keep doing it.

I want to be a better writer, so I started a blog. The archives clearly demonstrate that I don't write every day, and yet, I'm a better writer than when I began. Am I as better as I could have been if I wrote something every day? Nope, but that's all right. I don't get paid for this. There is no motivation here other than internal motivation, and thus, I can write whenever I wish and not write when I don't. This freedom from pressure makes me happier.

I want to be a better artist, but I've picked up my pencils maybe twice in the last three years, what does that mean? Well, it turns out that for me, drawing uses the same brain muscles as programming. Attempting to do it consistently makes me less capable at work because I'm mentally tired. So I don't draw much right now. That's OK, there will come a time when I am less mentally taxed at the office, and the drawing mood will strike again.

I want to be a better guitar player, but I do a lot of typing and have a tendency toward joint inflammation. Thus, I don't often play the guitar these days to protect the health of my fingers and wrists. And that's good, because being in pain hits all three of the negative criteria.

It may sound like I have essentially given up my hobbies, but that's not the case. I have given them up for now because I can not do them without impacting other more important parts of my life. As soon as I can alter my circumstances to enable me to start doing those things again, I certainly will. All of life is a series of choices. What do you prioritize? The choice is entirely up to you. For better or worse, the needs of my job currently dictate what happens during my free time, because I have chosen to allow it to do so. You too can choose what you wish to pursue, based on the priorities of your life. There is no need to pressure yourself over things that are ultimately secondary.

My method will not make you a super-multitasking productivity machine. It will not grant you all of the skills you want at an expert level. Heck, my method may not work for you at all. But that's OK too. If you find it doesn't make you happier, healthier, or more well rested, I wouldn't recommend it for you anyway.

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