Another blast from the past. This article from the archives was originally published in September of 2018. Now, as I take a sabbatical for a few weeks to reassess my priorities and values before beginning the new decade, this topic is highly relevant again. What about you? Are you sacrificing your quality of life so you can be more productive?
Recently, my days have been filled with activities about getting my book ready for publication in the coming weeks. It feels like a hundred separate self-publishing tasks completely occupy my to-do lists. And, because these activities often involve transferring detailed information to other people, complications and miscommunications grow exponentially. All these book-related projects must be completed – “Quickly, quickly! People are waiting,” – plus all those repetitive but essential activities involving house and family, plus what I call “routine emergencies”. Stressful… confusing… exhausting.
Does all this sound familiar? Do you ever feel like turning off your computer, tossing your phone out the window, abandoning all your other digital devices, and slipping away in search of a little peace and quiet and no more to-do lists? What is the long-term result of all this busyness? This article explores one way to cope with the fast-paced lifestyle we have evolved.
Everyone wants to live a good life. But, when we begin to describe just what constitutes that “Good Life”, we quickly get entangled in vague generalities and highly subjective terminology. Specifically, almost everyone who is living above the poverty level would agree that a Good Life begins with a safe, comfortable environment, then adds their personal mix of the elements that constitute a high standard of living and a superior quality of life. (My own version involves a view outside my window of a warm, golden tropical beach – tropical flowers, tropical fruits, tropical breezes, tropical girls, etc.)
If given sufficient time to reflect and choose carefully, most people would probably follow Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs: Physiological Essentials, Security, Social, Esteem, and Self-actualizing. As each level is attained, we tend to focus on the next, higher level. That constitutes, with lots of individual variations, the Good Life. In modern times, accompanying those attainments come many possessions and services which use technology to make our lives much more comfortable and filled with conveniences.
Sadly, however, despite all our possessions and services, we want more and more and more. Technology creates the products, but marketing creates a perceived need for those products… which creates the pressure to work, work, work to get the money to buy them. This is the origin of our overly busy modern lifestyle. To begin my own reflections on this subject, I want to introduce a short conversation that attracted my attention. It is from a famous book, Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, in which the literary world was introduced to Sherlock Holmes.
The relationship between the two characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, has been called the most famous friendship in literature. In this famous conversation from A Study in Scarlet, the two characters have just met and are considering sharing a flat at, that’s right, 221B Baker Street. Before reaching a final agreement, Watson insists that they should each disclose any personal weaknesses and failings that might irritate a roommate. Holmes mentions some of the characteristics that later made him such a fascinating character and Watson reciprocates, “I keep a bullpup and I object to rows because my nerves are shaken and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours and I am extremely lazy.” The two characters decided to become roommates and the world is richer for it.
“I am extremely lazy,” Watson said. What’s wrong with being lazy? This is exactly what I wish to explore here, especially in light of my own perpetual busyness. Like many people today, I have always idealized the busy person, the person who gets up earlier than others, the hard-charging leader, the person who works “smarter, faster, better” as Charles Duhigg puts it in his book of the same name. Indeed, in our modern lexicon, “success” is more synonymous with the result of that work (money) than with mastery.
Every day, we read about people who devote themselves to a single pursuit for 80 and 100 hours a week. We use glowing terms to praise their monomania which resulted in that individual rising to the top of their chosen field. Indeed, it is popularly accepted that one must devote 10,000 hours to becoming an expert. Dabblers need not apply.
We speak in adulatory terms of people who are eternally busy, filling up every waking moment with something “productive”. We are admonished to use the little windows of time sprinkled throughout our days as opportunities for increased productivity or of furthering our education by making our cars, buses, trains, and planes into “rolling universities”. There is a huge industry devoted to educating us on how to make tiny, incremental changes to become more efficient, more productive.
I am not exempt. For example, I have long had the habit of carrying a Kindle with me everywhere I go… in case I am stuck somewhere for five minutes. Borrowing a phrase from an ancient American Express advertisement, “Don’t leave home without it.” Recently, thanks to the wonders of Bluetooth headphones, I have also begun listening to educational podcasts whenever I am walking or riding public transportation to further ensure that no moment of my day is “wasted”. Our technology now allows us to fill, literally, every second of our waking hours.
Yet, as I strived to occupy every moment of my day with something meaningful and valuable, I found that it wasn’t making me happy. Was I irremediably flawed, unable to focus long enough to make myself a master of something – and, by implication, become a happy, self-actualized (i.e., rich) person?
Upon reflection, I find this compulsion to be sad. On deeper examination, I find myself unable to justify it. What’s so wrong with Watson being “extremely lazy”? Why is that phrase such a damning description? It certainly didn’t make me happy to feel it was necessary to fill every moment with some kind of work. Actually, it has the opposite effect. As I create pressure to cram some meaningful, carefully chosen activity into every minute, I often feel both guilty (that I often failed to discipline myself to achieve that unattainable 100% efficiency) and resentful (that I never had time for relaxing and doing nothing more “productive” than watching an old movie, listening to music, spending irreplaceable family time with my young son, baking something that would fill the house with wonderful aromas, or just reading more Sherlock Holmes stories.)
The conclusion I finally reached and which seems to be the proper balance (for me, anyway) is a blend of planned productivity and guilt-free indolence. I still have my daily routines, the urgent/important activities on my calendar each day, and my highest ROI projects – currently, self-publishing my book. But, after I finish my each day’s essentials and consider the activities I will pursue during any discretionary time for the remainder of the day, I now interspace those tasks equally with what I call my Watson activities – whatever I damn well want to do.
And I am happier for this division of my time between focused, meaningful work and guilt-free, planned relaxation which includes but is not limited to pure indolence. For I, like John Watson, find my nature to be “extremely lazy”.
P.S. In that quote, Watson said, “I keep a bullpup and I object to rows because my nerves are shaken and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours and I am extremely lazy.” Whatever happened to that bullpup?