(For reading in Chinese, please scroll down to the end of the English text.)
(For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long, long way – 13 time zones to be exact – from my original home town of Rolla, Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork creek.)
Is it possible to go too far with being efficient, focused, and productive? Can we become too concerned – obsessed, even – with being productive and filling every waking moment with carefully prioritized, high-value activities? We make our cars and public transportation into rolling universities and diligently use transit time for self-education by listening or reading on our digital devices. We break down the day into small blocks of time and try to optimize the use of each block. But… are we making ourselves happy with these frenzied attempts to fill every minute of the day with baby steps of progress – or are we making ourselves crazy?
In his story Nothing to Do for Three Weeks, Gordon MacQuarrie wrote about spending some time alone. He wanted to be away from home, family, and work; he needed a break from his routines and his busy life in the bustling city. The setting for his story was a small, isolated cabin on the shores of a beautiful lake. Nice; I am envious. But, while a small, isolated cabin on the shore of a beautiful lake is ideal, the location does not really matter. The most important element was being able to get away from his daily routines so he had time to relax… and putter.
“What is this puttering?” you may ask. Well, my dictionary says it is originally a British English term meaning “occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant manner, doing a number of small tasks or not concentrating on anything in particular. For example: Early morning is the best time of the day to putter in the garden.”
In that story of his three-week holiday, MacQuarrie wrote, “After the dishes, I put in some licks at puttering.” Note that he cleaned up the dinner dishes first, before he began puttering. Puttering is not intended to be an evasion of duties. An essential prerequisite for peaceful puttering is to have your work completed so it is not lurking in your mind, distracting you while you are trying to relax. It was only after the necessary work was completed that MacQuarrie could look around to see what caught his attention. He had no more to-do lists, no plan of action, and no deadlines. Now, he was truly free to relax and putter.
He wrote about his puttering. “Around the cabin there were incessant chores that please the hands and rest the brain. Idiot work, my wife calls it. I cannot get enough of it. Perhaps I should have been a day laborer. I split maple and Norway pine chunks for the fireplace and kitchen range. This is work fit for any king. You see the piles grow, and indeed the man who splits his own wood warms himself twice.” Splitting chunks of firewood may not be your idea of puttering so feel free to substitute your own set of small, desultory activities that “please your hands and rest your brain”.
In reviewing my published articles and my personal library, there is an abundance of evidence that I take efficiency and productivity seriously – despite a frequently dismal level of actual output. On the other end of the scale, I find only a few books that urge me to spend more time thinking about how I should live, rather than what I should be doing to fill up the hours of my day. (There is a difference.) I recently saw a short video of older people saying that their biggest regrets are the many things they didn’t do (lost opportunities and lost pleasures) because they were too busy spending all their time working. One lady summed it up perfectly, “I would have spent less time doing and more time being.”
In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl led the Kon-Tiki expedition on a drift voyage from South America to the Polynesian Islands, a trip of almost 8,000 kilometers – the distance between Beijing and Rome. A drift voyage meant that their balsa wood raft had no motor, only sails. There were no engine noises; they could hear the trade winds blowing across the water and they traveled exactly as fast as the wind and currents carried the raft. The crew of six took 101 days to travel to reach a tiny atoll near Tahiti. During the voyage, they had time for some world-class puttering. As Heyerdahl wrote in his best-selling book, Kon-Tiki,
“The weeks passed. We saw no sign either of a ship or of drifting remains to show that there were other people in the world. The whole sea was ours, and, with all the gates of the horizon open, real peace and freedom were wafted down from the firmament itself.
“It was as though the fresh salt tang in the air, and all the blue purity that surrounded us, had washed and cleansed both body and soul. To us on the raft the great problems of civilized man appeared false and illusory – like perverted products of the human mind. Only the elements mattered.”
I recently began my own drift voyage, a 100-day adventure in simplifying and reinventing myself. No, I did not run away from home to sail across the Pacific; I could not abandon my responsibilities. I could, however, conduct a serious review of my behaviors and values – and I didn’t like some of what I saw. Much of my life was good and simple; most people would envy me. Still, I found that I wasn’t happy. Why not? Further self-examination provided some answers. Perhaps they will be true for you also.
Over the years, I had evolved into an increasingly efficient consuming/producing economic unit. The implied promise was that if I produce more and consume more, I will get more happiness. It wasn’t working out that way; despite all the good things in my life, I wasn’t happy and fulfilled. Instead, I felt resentful, guilty, and overwhelmed. In one of my daily walks, I asked myself what had happened. Why was I not happy and excited with my life? I had abounding freedom and opportunities. Most people around the world would eagerly exchange places with me. What was missing? What had changed? What was wrong?
Upon further reflection, I realized that I had almost completely stopped doing many of the things that were my greatest pleasures in the past. Why? Too busy. What a sad excuse. Furthermore, I realized that, most of my day, I wasn’t even doing anything constructive and worthwhile. I was just checking items off a to-do list. That was when I identified the real villain, my greatest time robber. That was when I began to examine how routines become rituals.
I have long advocated the conscious formation of habits and routines. Routines are simply habitual actions in their optimum order. They reduce the time and energy required by the constant monitoring, selecting, and adjusting of activities. Really, we could say that routines are an alternative to thinking. There is nothing inherently wrong with routines. As labor-saving devices, they are highly effective; you don’t have to take time to think about how to do something. Plus, by having a specific, unvarying order, they keep us from forgetting something that might be important. For example: My morning routine is smooth, unvarying, and efficient. I don’t have to think about my first actions in the morning. I do things the same way, in the same order, every day.
However, there is a danger in using those routines. Over time, conditions change. Even values change. Problems can arise when those routines become rituals. It is a short step for our routines to become fossilized into rigid patterns. Subsequently, it is easy for our days to be completely filled with endless repetition of those routines. Rituals are familiar and comfortable; they require no thought. However, if our life has changed, the rituals may actually be counterproductive. Huge blocks of time can be spent in religiously following our rituals merely because they are familiar and comfortable – no thinking required.
When routines have outlived their usefulness, they can hold us back with rituals that are not appropriate for our current conditions or values. Maybe they just have become filled with items of lesser importance. There is a great danger that, in allowing most of our day’s activities to become mere rituals, we may become fossilized ourselves and spend more time living in the past than looking forward into the future.
In my ruminations, I recalled some non-digital, non-desk activities which had been a pleasure in the past. I promised myself that I would make more time for them again. I have already begun. In the coming weeks, I will be spending more time on fun, non-digital things and spending less time in front of a computer screen. I spend more time being and less time doing. I will walk away from my desk and spend more time working with my hands – and I’ll be making more time for puttering, too.
(对于国际读者，请允许我解释一下。我是一个美国人，但我从2004年开始就住在中国。我的城市重庆，通常缩写为CQ，发音为Chong Ching，与Wrong Ring押韵。CQ是中国中南部的一个拥有3000万人口的特大城市，位于长江边上。我从我原来的家乡密苏里州罗拉市（Rolla, Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork creek）走了很长很长的路，准确的说是走了13个时区。)
他写了他的推拿。”在小木屋周围有做不完的杂事，让手高兴，让大脑休息。白痴的工作，我妻子称之为。我对它百看不厌。也许我应该当个日工。我为壁炉和厨房的灶台劈开枫木和挪威松木块。这是适合任何国王的工作。你看这堆木头越长越多，事实上，自己劈木头的人可以让自己暖和两倍。” 劈柴块可能不是你的推手主意，所以你可以随意用自己的一套 “悦手安脑 “的小活动来代替。