Choose Your Hard Things: You’ll Never Be Productive Enough for Everything

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I was catching up on some longreads and enjoyed Why time management is ruining our lives by Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian. Here are some quick notes.

Inbox Zero. I’d heard of “Inbox Zero” where you keep your e-mail inbox completely empty, but didn’t know that the inventor Merlin Mann later gave up pushing the concept because he found himself “typing bullshit that I hoped would please my book editor” instead of spending time with his daughter. Meanwhile, we now have the (finished) book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford that proposes that being messy can create better results.

My personal theory is that the organization level of your e-mail inbox simply doesn’t matter. If something is truly urgent they’ll get in touch somehow, likely by sending you another e-mail!

The productivity treadmill. Most of us have never had to walk a great distance to gather water. We no longer have to chop wood; we just turn on the heater. We have separate appliances to both wash and dry our clothes. There are countless ways to avoid cooking. Yet, we are all so busy. I found this paragraph quite observant (and sad):

The time-pressure problem was always supposed to get better as society advanced, not worse. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that within a century, economic growth would mean that we would be working no more than 15 hours per week – whereupon humanity would face its greatest challenge: that of figuring out how to use all those empty hours. Economists still argue about exactly why things turned out so differently, but the simplest answer is “capitalism”. Keynes seems to have assumed that we would naturally throttle down on work once our essential needs, plus a few extra desires, were satisfied. Instead, we just keep finding new things to need. Depending on your rung of the economic ladder, it’s either impossible, or at least usually feels impossible, to cut down on work in exchange for more time.

I would add that the average person spends hours of time watching TV to recuperate from the stress of each day.

Less is more. Don’t work harder to fit more stuff in. Sit quietly and figure out the really important stuff. Do that. Drop the rest.

But in the meantime, we might try to get more comfortable with not being as efficient as possible – with declining certain opportunities, disappointing certain people, and letting certain tasks go undone. Plenty of unpleasant chores are essential to survival. But others are not – we have just been conditioned to assume that they are. It isn’t compulsory to earn more money, achieve more goals, realise our potential on every dimension, or fit more in. In a quiet moment in Seattle, Robert Levine, a social psychologist from California, quoted the environmentalist Edward Abbey: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Being productive doesn’t help if you just add on more things. Don’t use being busy as a form of psychological avoidance:

The more you can convince yourself that you need never make difficult choices – because there will be enough time for everything – the less you will feel obliged to ask yourself whether the life you are choosing is the right one.

With so much noise, is it any wonder that “mindfulness” is in? When your mind is quiet, it is easier to realize the life that is true to yourself, as opposed to the life others expect of you. To loosely paraphrase Merlin Mann: Choose a select few hard things and stick with them. Because they’re your things.

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  1. Hey Johnathan,

    I definitely agree with your post. There’s only so much time in the world for us that we should pick things we like and stick to them.

    A way I found to do this simply is by being a bit more minimalist and downsize what I have and own. From there, I take a look at what I have left and choose what is important me, then I work on those whole-heartedly.

    Smart Provisions

  2. Great food for thought! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I’ve mulled this over for a while now when I get worried about not doing enough. I’m incredibly busy with all the things that ARE going on in our lives, and yet I was counterproductively looking for more to add to my plate. It’s quality that matters, much more than quantity.

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