I have to say that I’m a bit sick of the narrative that we need time off / to recharge so we can be better workers. Instead, I’d prefer framing it as Jocelyn K. Glei does as asking yourself the question “who are you without the doing?”
The point isn’t just that it’s nice to goof off every so often — it’s that it’s necessary. And that’s true even if your ultimate goal is doing better work: Downtime allows the brain to make new connections and better decisions. Multiple studies have found that sustained mental attention without breaks is depleting, leading to inferior performance and decision-making.
In short, the prefrontal cortex — where goal-oriented and executive-function thinking goes on — can get worn down, potentially resulting in “decision fatigue.” A variety of research finds that even simple remedies like a walk in nature or a nap can replenish the brain and ultimately improve mental performance.
What would you do if you knew you had 24 hours left to live? I suppose it would depend on context. Is this catastrophe going to affect everyone, or only you? I’m not sure I’d know what to do in the former case, but once I’d said my goodbyes to my family, I’m pretty sure I know what I’d do in the latter.
Yep, I would go somewhere by myself and write.
To me, the reason both reading and writing can feel so freeing is that they allow you to mentally escape your physical constraints. It almost doesn’t matter what’s happening to your body or anything around you while you lose yourself in someone else’s words, or you create your own.
I came across an interesting blog recently. It had a single post, entitled Consume less, create more. In it, the author, ‘Tom’, explains that the 1,600 words he’s shared were written over the course of a month after he realised that he was spending his life consuming instead of creating.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the perils of modern technology. How it distracts us, how it promotes unhealthy comparisons with others, how it makes us fat, how it limits social interaction, how it spies on us. And all of these things are probably true, to some extent.
But the real tragedy of modern technology is that it’s turned us into consumers. Our voracious consumption of media parallels our consumption of fossil fuels, corn syrup, and plastic straws. And although we’re starting to worry about our consumption of those physical goods, we seem less concerned about our consumption of information.
We treat information as necessarily good, and comfort ourselves with the feeling that whatever article or newsletter we waste our time with is actually good for us. We equate reading with self improvement, even though we forget most of what we’ve read, and what we remember isn’t useful.
I feel that at this juncture in history, we’ve perfected surveillance-via-smartphone as the perfect tool to maximise FOMO. For those growing up in the goldfish bowl of the modern world, this may feel as normal as the ‘water’ in which they are ‘swimming’. But for the rest of us, it can still feel… odd.
This is going to sound pretty amazing, but I don’t think there’s been many days in my adult life when I’ve been able to go somewhere without anyone else knowing. As a kid? Absolutely. I can vividly remember, for example, cycling to a corn field and finding a place to lie down and look at the sky, knowing that no-one could see me. It was time spent with myself, unmediated and unfiltered.
This didn’t used to be unusual. People had private inner lives that were manifested in private actions. In a recent column in The Guardian, Grace Dent expanded on this.
Yes life after iPhones is marvellous, but in the 90s I ran wild across London, up to all kinds of no good, staying out for days, keeping my own counsel entirely. My parents up north would not speak to me for weeks. Sometimes, life back in the days when we had one shit Nokia and a landline between five friends seems blissful. One was permitted lost weekends and periods of secret skulduggery or just to lie about reading a paperback without the sense six people were owed a text message. Yes, things took longer, and one needed to make plans and keep them, but being off the grid was normal. Today, not replying… is a truly radical act.
“Not replying… is a truly radical act”. Wow. Let that sink in for a moment.
Given all this, it’s no wonder in our always-on culture that we have so much ‘life admin’ to concern ourselves with. Previous generations may have had ‘pay the bills’ on their to-do list, but it wasn’t nudged down the to-do list by ‘inform a person I kind of know on Twitter that they have incorrect view on Brexit’.
All of these things build upon incrementally until they eventually become unsustainable. It’s death by a thousand cuts. As I’ve quoted many times before before, Jocelyn K. Glei’s question is always worth asking: who are you without the doing?
Realistically, most of our days are likely to involve some use of digital communication tools. We can’t always be throwing off our shackles to live the life of a flâneur. To facilitate space to create, therefore, it’s important to draw some red lines. This is what Michael Bernstein talks about in Sorry, we can’t join your Slack.
Saying yes to joining client Slack channels would mean that down the line we’d feel more exhausted but less accomplished. We’d have more superficial “friends,” but wouldn’t know how to deal with products much better than we did now. We’d be on the hook all the time, and have less of an opportunity to consider our responses.
In other words, being more available and more ‘social’ takes time away from more important pursuits. After all, time is the ultimate zero-sum game.
Ultimately, I guess it’s about learning to see the world differently. There very well be a ‘new normal’ that we’ve begun to internalise but, for now at least, we have a choice to use to our advantage that ‘flexibility’ we hear so much about.
This is why self-reflection is so important, as Wanda Thibodeaux explains in an article for Inc.
In sum, elimination of stress and the acceptance of peace comes not necessarily from changing the world, but rather from clearing away all the learned clutter that prevents us from changing our view of the world. Even the biggest systemic “realities” (e.g., work “HAS” to happen from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) are up for reinterpretation and rewriting, and arguably, inner calm and innovation both stem from the same challenge of perceptions.
To do this, you have to have to already have decided the purpose for which you’re using your tools, including the ones provided by your smartphone.
Once you remove the specific details from the lives of the ancients, their lives were remarkably like ours. Take today’s title, for example, which is a quotation from Seneca. He knew what it was like to be so busy doing ‘productive’ things to the exclusion of almost everything else.
My good friend Laura Hilliger wears her heart on her sleeve, and is the most no-nonsense person I know. By observing the way she lives and works, I’m learning to set limits and say exactly what I think:
The thing is that western society, implicitly at least, assumes that people are ‘fixed’ in terms of their personality and likes. But that’s just the way that we choose to see ourselves:
I feel that the biggest thing that constrains us is our view of how we think other people see us. That perceived expectation becomes internalised, creating a ‘psychic prison’ which becomes an extremely limited playground. For better or for worse, we perform the role of how we think other people have come to see us.
One way many people find to avoid responsibility for their life choices is to play the ‘busy’ card. They’re too busy to make good decisions, to look after their mental and physical health, to ensure that they’re doing your best work.
The trouble is, that’s simply not true. We’ve got more free time than our parents and grandparents:
As the above chart demonstrates, it’s not true that we actually work more hours. Instead, I think, it’s that we’re so concerned about how other people see us that we spend time doing things that feel like work but are mostly to do with presentation of self. Hence the amount of time spent on social networks like Instagram trying to create the highlights reel of our lives to show others.
One way of viewing this is that we’ve collectively internalised capitalism. The logic of the market has become as invisible to us as an ideology as water is to fish. In fact, some people say it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism!
Of course, it’s become something of a cliché in our pseudo-enlightened times to talk of capitalism as the meta-problem behind everything. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
When we act as if we’re in a rush, things aren’t properly scrutinised. Yesterday’s news (and opinions, and facts) don’t matter. It’s all about today. Our politicians have no shame, and ethics are entirely subjective.
Our identity is mediated by the market, by what we produce instead of who we are. I keep coming back to a fantastic episode of Jocelyn K. Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast entitled Who Are You Without The Doing? in which she explains that we should learn to ‘sit with ourselves’, learning that change comes from within:
You have to completely conquer the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with your human nature, and that therefore you need discipline to correct your behavior. As long as you feel the discipline comes from the outside, there is still a feeling that something is lacking in you.
Jocelyn K. Glei
Derek Sivers uses the metaphor of ‘doors’ to explain where he finds value and wants to spend time doing. Some doors he opens and it helps him grow as a person and fosters positive relationships.
But one door is really no fun to open. I’m horrified at all the shouting, the second I open it. It’s an infinite dark room filled with psychologically tortured people, trying to get attention. Strangers screaming at strangers, starting fights. Businesses set up shop there, showing who’s said and done bad things today, because they make money when people get mad.
We keep wringing our hands about people’s behaviour online, but it’s that way for a reason. Hate is profitable for social networks:
Massive platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube “optimize for engagement,” and make automatic, algorithmic suggestions for every bit of content or action. From “you might also like” to “recommended just for you” to prioritizing things — anything — that will get you to click, comment, or share.
They know what will catch your attention. They know what will get you “engaged.” They know what will be more likely to lead you deeper into a rabbit hole, and what will make it harder to climb back out. Is it a literal, iron-clad trap? No. But the slippery, spiral path that leads people to the darkest corners of the internet is not an accident.
Hate is profitable. Conflict is profitable. Schadenfreude and shame are profitable. While we smugly point fingers, tsk-tsk, and think we’re being clever as we strategically dole out likes and shares, we forget that we are all just gruel-fed hamsters running on wheels deep inside giant, hyper-engineered, artificially intelligent, fully gamified, corporate-controlled virtual worlds that we absurdly think belong to us.
This all comes back to the time equation. Because we feel like we don’t have enough time to curate things ourselves, we outsource that to others. That ends up with handing our information environments over to others to manipulate and control. It’s curate or be curated.
Nobody cares about how much money you earn. Nobody cares how productive you are. Not really.
Also, without sounding harsh, nobody else cares how productive you are. Of course, productivity is important for important things, and “getting stuff done” or whatever, but it doesn’t define you in any way. What does is things like your sense of humour, where your passions lie, how you comfort a friend who’s upset, and that weird noise you make when the delivery guy calls you to say he’s outside with your food.
The trouble is that we don’t want to have this conversation, because it questions our identity, and everything we’ve been working for over our careers and throughout our lives:
But we don’t want to hear that because accepting this truth means asking a lot of complicated questions about our society, in which work is glorified as the pinnacle of self-expression, and personal earnings are viewed as a measure of merit and esteem.
Instead, we would instead read about buy into the idea that success in our work life is a merely a matter of being more productive. If you just follow the ‘right’ set of algorithms or rules, you too can achieve ‘success’ in your work life, along with fame and recognition and a fat bank account.
So, to finish, let me revisit a link I shared recently from Jason Hickel. We can choose to live differently, to recognise the abundance of time and resources we have in the world. To slow down, to take stock, and reject economic growth as in any way a useful indicator of human flourishing:
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can call a halt to the madness – throw a wrench in the juggernaut. By de-enclosing social goods and restoring the commons, we can ensure that people are able to access the things that they need to live a good life without having to generate piles of income in order to do so, and without feeding the never-ending growth machine. “Private riches” may shrink, as Lauderdale pointed out, but public wealth will increase.
It doesn’t have to be difficult. We can just, as Dan Lyons mentions in his book Lab Rats, decide to work on things that ‘close the gap’ or ‘increase the gap’. What that means to you, in your context, is a different matter.