On not filling time: What is productivity?

IMG_2865Conventional jobs have a psychologically comforting aspect to them. You go somewhere, which in and of itself can feel like you’ve done something. In some of my early jobs, I recall feeling bored at times. What I was required to do did not fill 8 hours, and while there is much to be said for taking initiative and figuring out other things to do, not every day works like that, nor every job. And yet, even if I was just filling time, I was getting paid for the workday, and I put in my workday as required. I could feel like I had done what I was supposed to do.

I have been thinking about that this week. (A lot, as you can see from my blog posts this week on the topic. My apologies for sounding like a broken record on this. This blog is where I process various thoughts of mine in written form.) Maybe it was the giant snow storm in the middle, but the week has felt incredibly unfocused. Absent the trappings of a conventional job, it is never entirely clear if you’ve done what you’re supposed to do. I spent a lot of time feeling like I wasn’t doing much. Other than shoveling the driveway, of course. I know I needed to do that, and I spent many hours doing it and sure enough, it was eventually clear (and my back was in bad shape, but that is a different matter).

As I look back on the week, though, I see I have done several reasonably important things. I have spent some time thinking through the survey I intend to conduct for Off the Clock. I have been honing the questions. I finished a draft of Chapter 7. My speaking agency booked another talk that I think will be a great opportunity, particularly as I pivot my business more in this direction. Then there is this opportunity to celebrate my time dividends: I am registering my daughter for kindergarten today. We moved to this area almost six years ago in part because of the good schooling options. Friends who live in NYC have gone through an incredibly nerve-wracking process to figure out where their children will go, applying to half a dozen schools or more, with all the associated paperwork and visits and the like. Then there’s the time spent working to pay for tuition (if people wind up at private schools). It is always possible we will need to go that route in the future for a child, or for some grades, but for now it is nice to be able to send my kids to a good neighborhood public school that requires nothing more for registration than their immunization records and evidence of my residency.

So my time could have been filled with various things. It could have been filled with school applications. It could have been filled with writing listsicles I wasn’t all that excited about, or ghostwriting books for people, or other things I have done in the past and that took a lot of time. I’d rather be writing my own books and speaking and that is what my business is now. Speaking turns out to be as much a seasonal business as landscaping. April through June are going to be intense. September-early November likely will be too. March, not so much.

One of my secrets of people with all the time in the world is that they don’t fill time. Open space invites opportunity. Even open space while waiting around — better to stare at the clouds than read silly stuff online that makes you feel like you have no time even though you clearly do. While in many parts of life, doing something is better than doing nothing, sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something. It’s a lesson I’m trying to learn. I’m also trying to figure out how best to use less-busy time. The reading is certainly taking off! That had the upside of meaning that at my son’s fourth grade social last night, I was able to actually recommend some books for another parent’s book club. Four months ago, I would have had nothing.

Photo: From the Philadelphia Flower Show last weekend. 

2 thoughts on “On not filling time: What is productivity?

  1. Interesting that I have been mulling over similar types of thoughts lately. One thing I have realized is that it is easy to quickly label ‘unproductive time’ (i.e. not producing anything tangible or checking an item off my list) as ‘doing nothing’. In fact I find that in this time I am often doing a lot of thinking, quietly sorting and organizing my mind. Without this time ‘doing nothing’ I am far less calm and settled in my thinking at other times.

    1. @Sonya- yep, I’ve realized I need a lot of time to think and process too. And with four small children, that thinking/processing time is largely going to come during the work day. So it’s OK if there’s some open time for that.

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