Drop lists, choose pleasure

Does making a self-improvement list or reading articles with lists help?
Shoba Narayan

A sense of malaise combined with a hankering for change is a deadly combination. Photo: iStock

A sense of malaise combined with a hankering for change is a deadly combination. Photo: iStock

The new year is a good time to examine life, and so I did—mine. It was about time. I owed it to friends and family who had been nagging me to change my bad habits for years. Heck, I owed it to myself. I would manage my time better; I would stop procrastinating and get on that diet; I would, as David Allen’s books exhort, Get Things Done—GTD to aficionados and addicts.

A sense of malaise combined with a hankering for change is a deadly combination. It manifests itself in ways big and small. You scour the local library for self-help books with nauseatingly cheery titles that manage to challenge and inspire, like You Can Win or (and I am just making it up here) Eternal Optimismor End Codependency Now. You start exercising and doing yogic headstands if possible. You force yourself to take long, calming breaths, ignoring the fact that your diaphragm is constricting because of all that mental pressure. You start making lists. Worst of all, you read lists or, rather, articles with lists in them. 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; 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’s eggs all over the Internet. 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.

In theory, I was the target audience for such lists. After all, I didn’t merely bookmark them to read at a later date (which usually never came), I actually read them. My friends were of great help in this regard. They all followed such systems and principles even though they were busier than I— which meant that they not only bought into these ideas but they actually found time to incorporate such ideas into their lives. They were all busier than I. Their life was built around big words—maximizing and incentivizing productivity and efficiency—while mine was built around improvising.

When I let it drop that I was—once again—in the market for self-improvement, my friends began forwarding me essays and lists with gusto. I dutifully read them. 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.

Rather than do the work, I chose a novel approach to address the problem (that is entirely in keeping with the theme of this column). I began questioning the whole premise of such articles. I questioned the assumption that increased productivity was a worthy goal. The more I thought in this way, the faster I realized that productivity was overrated. It seemed like the whole point of becoming more productive was so that you could become even more productive; get lots more work done. For what?

Choose pleasure, I say. And if you make a T-shirt with that sentence, spare some of the royalties for me.

Shoba Narayan tries to choose pleasure—except when she is exercising, at which point she is forced to confront pain. Write to her with your tips, tricks and short cuts. She blogs at Shobanarayan.com, tweets at @shobanarayan and Instagrams at #shobanarayan

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