The Art of Productivity

Dear readers: We interrupt the 168 Hours Challenge, going on this week, for this piece from The Huffington Post. If you are new here, welcome! Please poke around through the archives, and if you’d like to join the soon-to-launch monthly newsletter, email me at [email protected] to subscribe.

By Laura Vanderkam

Some warm morning, nearly 200 years ago, the poet John Keats was lying outside enjoying the breeze:

“My idle days?  Ripe was the drowsy hour;

The blissful cloud of summer-indolence

Benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and less;

Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower.”

It’s a lovely image — one captured in his famous Ode on Indolence poem, a delightful little bit of verse that showed up in my inbox when I told one of my more literary friends that I was writing a book on time management. I think it was meant ironically, especially when I mentioned that I’d be keeping logs of my hours, writing down what I was doing as often as I remembered, much like a lawyer billing her time.

Who wants to do that? Why would you think about managing your time when you could be drowsing on the grass?

It’s a good question. After two years of talking about this topic, I’ve realized that time management gets a bad reputation. We view it as the discipline of scheduling every minute, and analyzing those minutes to see if we’re being productive. Many of us viscerally don’t like the idea because, like Keats, we find lying in the grass doing nothing to be quite pleasurable. We also recognize that these fallow times are when our best ideas can come to us. We complain of being starved for time these days because few of us do lie in the grass letting the ideas in our brains sprout as they will. Therefore, we like to assign blame to society, capitalism, the monster under the bed, whatever for this state of affairs.

But this argument is problematic for a few reasons. For starters, we do have plenty of time for indolence. The easiest place to find it? The 18-22 (or 35, if you believe Nielsen) hours per week the average American spends watching TV. Keats lived before the electronic age, an age in which a spot of boredom could not be immediately ameliorated with 500 channels piping in everything from sex to murder to home repair, or email if there’s nothing on. We may claim to like indolence, but we certainly don’t choose it when it’s an option.

Second, Keats, who died tragically young at age 25, never spent time raising children. Some people would argue that having a family inevitably depresses one’s creative tendencies, whether you feel the need to support the family financially (as society often asks of men) or care for the children (as society often asks of women).

I don’t necessarily think this is the case, or at least I hope not! (And certainly people like mom-of-three J.K. Rowling might have something to say about that). But the reality is that if you want to enjoy hours of indolence as a parent, you’re going to have to understand your schedule very well, and then schedule them in. You are going to have to create space for indolence, because otherwise it will simply get buried under the joys and needs of small children, under the demands and triumphs of making a living, or it will steal away in the arms of (as Keats writes in his poem) “Love, Ambition and that demon Poesy.”

How do you create this space? For me, it’s a two step approach. This week, I’m keeping a log of my time. I find that by understanding exactly how I spend the 168 hours we all have each week, I can start to see where I do have space for daydreaming. And then, I can start to honor this time rather than just checking email, picking up the toy flotsam (loved that phrase from The Happiness Project) that floats through our living areas or reading the Pottery Barn catalog. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks of setting artist’s dates, and there’s something to this. I carved out an hour this morning to run outside (which I find relaxing). Some weekday afternoons, I block out an hour to sit in a coffee shop and jot down thoughts. If my husband takes the kids on a Saturday afternoon, I resist the urge to clean the house, and instead work on cleaning out the cobwebs in my head. I don’t think these activities are an unproductive use of my time, because I log my time and I know I’m spending plenty of hours interacting with my kids and working on more concrete projects.

But it is because I know where my time is going that I’m able to have lethargic, joyfully indolent hours. An “Ode to a Time Log” may not sound as enticing as an ode on indolence, but there is great freedom in logging time in our distracted age. Being aware of our time helps to create “evenings steep’d in honied indolence” to quote Keats, and time to lie “cool-bedded in the flowery grass.”


One thought on “The Art of Productivity

  1. Reading this, my mind also leapt immediately from Keats to television, because Keats wrote so many poems about Lethe/oblivion–which is pretty much the state we all sink into watching TV–as opposed to other kinds of indolence, like going for a walk or run outside, that are conducive to creativity.

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