Something that I’ve been debating about with very productive friends
There is a virtual explosion of “productivity” lists on the Internet. You know the kind: 10 ways to make your life more productive; nine habits to ditch if you want to squeeze the most from the first hour of the day; 12 mistakes that losers who don’t get things done are making; how to be the top performer at work in 10 days or less; and the final straw, 36 things to do if you want to get away from making to-do lists. I mean, is the irony not lost on these people?
Such lists are proliferating like turtle eggs. Some headlines are straightforward, and follow the military dictum of saying it quickly and concisely: “End email addiction now” or “Throw away that time-wasting device”. Others do it more artfully by suggesting the opposite, as if they know the thoughts in your head: “When your mind says, ‘I can’t’, know that you can” is a typical headline that is best faced after a double shot of caffeine which, as it happens, is good for you according to the latest research.
The problem with such lists and apps is that they treat life as if it were work. The workplace is about productivity. Life is about messiness and being in the moment. Work is about efficiency; life is about experiences and emotions. Work is about incentivizing and motivating yourself to Get Things Done, as author David Allen says. Life is about improvising and coping. Work is about action. Life is about people. Work is about planning. Life is about spontaneity. Work is about compartmentalizing time into conference calls and meetings. Life is about flexible time.
How then to achieve work-life balance? The current approach is through lists, apps and reminders: using the tools of work to tackle the vagaries and pleasures of life. That is wrong, in my view. Sure, you need boundaries to differentiate between work and life. In the past, it used to be through time, 9-5, and place, office and home. Now that everything has merged and we are available and “on” all the time, the trick is not how to be more productive. It is how to live better. As a species, we are working more than ever. We are producing; we are effective; we are ticking things off our to-do lists. What we have become “inefficient” at is life; those moments and hours in between work.
How then do all of us who value productivity integrate it into our lives? One way is to prioritize life the same way that you prioritize work, but using a different methodology. Unlike work, which involves chalking out chunks of time for tasks—brainstorming, memo writing or business plan discussions—prioritizing life requires a different skill set: waiting, alertness, openness, saying Yes, saying No, improvising, being spontaneous.
To capture and savour life, you have to be alert and in the right frame of mind. Do you hear the songbird call for rain? Do you walk out into your balcony and try to spot this bird that seems to be going hoarse? Can you feel the wind on your nape? Is it moist or dry? Can you hear the squirrel scurry up the trees? Where is it? Are you able to see what’s ahead of you or are you preoccupied with your thoughts? That is life.
Life is about waiting. It is about being open and receptive to a child’s question when it happens instead of when you carve out time for it. It is the ability to pause in the middle of a task to see the hurt in a loved one’s eyes. It is about listening to sighs and silences; about inferring their meaning and responding to it. It is about alertness and waiting.
Life is about putting yourself in the way of joy and pleasure. It is about saying Yes when a neighbour calls you for water polo or a hike; saying No when a colleague asks for a conference call (again) at night simply because that is the most convenient time in the UK, US or Germany. It is about rescheduling overflow meetings for a later date and leaving your desk with the same discipline that you use while coming to your desk. It is about unplugging your phone or mobile device for an hour a day, if possible.
Life is about choosing pleasure when possible. About massaging yourself with essential oils or expensive lotion; about refusing to answer your work-mobile phone while you are indulging in quiet time; about figuring out what you love to do and making sure that you do it; about sipping a single malt and reading a book. Or playing golf. Life is about cultivating hobbies that can see you through retirement. About imitating children; about frittering away time in meaningless but absorbing activities.
I have tried productivity. I have read essays and lists with gusto. They gave me a halo effect for some time and made me feel that I could actually implement the suggestions. It took several months and nearly 20,000 such forwards before I realized that I was diligently reading and deleting everything without doing a darn thing. I wasn’t changing a single behaviour or even a thought process. I was merely feeling that I was in the throes of change, thanks to all those lists. It was like continuing to eat ice cream while watching aerobic exercises on TV. You felt fit without doing the work.
Life is more than productivity. I will go further. Productivity is overrated. Choose pleasure. Stop and smell the jasmine, tuberose and Oriental lilies wherever and whenever you feel like it. Stop scheduling everything. Remember, the Lord gave us Sunday for leisure and contemplation, not scheduling. Sometimes, life is not about analysing or achieving. It is about going off the script and off the schedule.
Shoba Narayan is choosing pleasure by slurping on rasmalai as she writes this. Her life-script does not include the weighing scale tomorrow. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org