This is a story that may resonate with productivity geeks. Those of you who have dabbled, even successfully pulled off activities such as Inbox Zero, Getting Things Done and Pomodoro Technique. Those who have multiple lists, often incomplete, who journal and goal set, and are ‘hustling’ or ‘getting after it’.
I myself am the above. For the last 15 years I’ve spent more time thinking about ‘what else’ I need to do than what I’m doing, more time on perfecting a system rather than executing the task it’s meant to enable, more time thinking about if what I’m doing the correct thing rather than actually doing the thing.
The weekend, a time for leisure and fun is often the hardest time for me to enjoy because my head is on all the things I want to achieve instead of playing with my kids. I’m in the present for moments, but then I drift.
A moment of realisation
Recently on a holiday on the coast of Victoria, Australia I wandered into a book store and saw a title “4000 weeks, time and how to use it” with an idyllic lake as the cover image. The next 3 days I was consumed by this book and devoured it cover to cover. The opening paragraph my blog post here about productivity techniques and the like was similar to how Oliver Burkeman introduced his book. It felt as if he had written to book just for me.
He had a moment of realisation that you simply won’t get it all done, that it’s a game you’ve already lost, so you may as well declare bankruptcy now. This doesn’t at all mean to become sloth like and spend all your time playing video games, not at all. What it means is that even if you crammed in working days of 5am to midnight 7 days a week, you’ll still feel like you’re almost on top of things. This striver mentality of ‘getting after it’ is a complex topic of emotional and financial security, and certainly at different times of your life you’ll need to dial it up or down depending on context.
Realising the treadmill, quality over quantity, declaring bankruptcy up front
The argument though is that you’ll never get through everything you could or want to. If you read a book a week for 30 years you would have read just over 1500. A quick google shows that the average community library has between 100,000 and 500,000 books. The Melbourne library has 2 million books, the NY library has 55 million books. 500,000 to 1 million books are published each year, when you include self-publishing it jumps to 4 million. So at best you would have just read enough to cover a tiny corner of a tiny community library. So let’s say you read a book a day for 30 years, you now would’ve just covered 10,000 books, still not even a quarter of a tiny community library. So, accept defeat, you have a small time on this earth and you’re never going to nearly get through all the books you want to, so slow down, pick a good book, indulge in it deeply. Don’t bother learning speed reading and feeling pressure that you should be reading faster, or googling what the average reading speed is and trying to improve it. You are turning an activity that is meant to be rich, fulfilling and pleasurable, into one that is uncomfortable, judged and measured. To put this to rest, even if you read a book an hour for 30 years without any sleep or breaks, you’d still only clock in ~250,000 books, about 10% of my city library.
Delaying life, doing things “so that” instead of doing it for their own sake
One of the worst things we do in this hustle and productivity culture is the tendency to not perform activities purely for themselves, and that we’ll be in the present once that thing is done. We do things so that… We go for a run so that we can be ready for a 10km race. We read a book so that we can improve our work. We play with our kids so that we can teach them our values. As with everything in this post, context is important and there is nothing inherently wrong with signing up for a 10km race and then training for it, but it is worth keeping in mind that eventually life runs out and if we keep doing things so that we can achieving something so that we will then feel fulfilled and in the moment, our time will run out and we’ve spent no time in the present.
Should we drop all goals, of course not
So where does this all lead? We don’t have goals, we don’t have drive and we should just sit and read trashy novels all day at our leisure? Not at all. What it means is to say that the secret of life is to slow down, go deep and wholly into the task you are doing, be comfortable with the fact that you aren’t going to get through your to-do list, for if you did, the very fact that you’ve finished it means more work has been created, the average email reply generates 2 to 3 more messages (as my Inbox Zero days illustrated very well to me). Be comfortable that it takes you 2 weeks to finish a good book (or a month, or two) but that when you read it, you are in the present, phone away, with no rush at all.
It’s the same in whatever task you’re doing. Do good work for good work’s sake, go deep, in the moment, close your zoom/slack/teams/email and be present.
If you take only one thing from this post take this, you will never be on top of everything, there will always be something more to do, another person to get back to, another chore to take care of, another book you want to read, another restaurant you want to visit, another friend you want to connect with. Don’t let this cause you stress, realise that it’s a broken game and the irony is that the closer you get to being on top of everything, the further away you’ll become, as the nature of doing a task creates more tasks to be done (an email generates a reply).
Be content to sacrifice keeping everyone happy, including the ‘striver’ part of your personality, so that you can be in the moment, be present wholly and fully.