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Feeling Great About Creating Nothing: Misunderstanding Productivity

by Gip Plaster on July 19th, 2011

Last Thursday, I experienced the worst kind of day a person living a simple, deliberate day can have, and I’m astonishingly quite pleased with it for reasons that will become clearer as the paragraphs proceed.

You see, the word productive means — at least by one definition — “to produce abundantly“. Other definitions rely on the production of large amounts of goods, ideas, crops or commodities.

And last Thursday, I didn’t produce anything.

But in modern practice, people seem to call the act of accomplishing one large errand or many small ones being productive. That can’t be right, can it?

I think that by truly simple, deliberate standards, my day was a failure. Why, then, did I initially feel so good about it?

The Sordid Details

Last Thursday, I finally visited an optometrist to see what I could do about the eye strain I’ve been having while using the computer. Since my vision is better than most people’s, the solution was as simple as some better eye drops than the ones I had been using and some low-strength computer glasses (which haven’t arrived yet since I’m too frugal to go to a one-hour place and they aren’t available locally over the counter).

We also visited two banks to take care of financial matters and did a small amount of book-business shopping. There was also some other taking things from one place to another and getting things from there to bring here.

Overall, it seemed like a good day. I even bought a new belt. How can a day that includes a new belt be a bad day?

I accomplished some important things, but I didn’t produce anything. How can I be proud of that?

While the visit to the eye doctor was overdue and necessary, much of the rest of day involved what I often call silliness. I spent Thursday occupying my day with nonsense.

Misunderstanding Productivity

My glee in successfully doing things that aren’t very important in life’s grand scheme indicates that I may have bought into society’s ridiculousness more than I realized.

When people call a day productive that involves only errands, appointments and purchasing, they’re missing the real point of life, aren’t they?

Isn’t the primary point of any life to create something? As a lifelong writer, I’m serving my purpose when I’m arranging words.

Even in my used bookselling business, there’s creativity involved in taking items in which one seller sees no potential and offering them correctly to buyers who do. Making something of nothing or making more from less is creating — and it’s productive.

I don’t paint or draw, although I can. And I don’t bake, but I have. I don’t program computers, but I’ve written a few lines of code in the past.

I combine words in ways that please me and others. That’s what I do. It’s creative and it’s productive.

Visiting banks, doctors and stores may be practical — and it may even be necessary — but it isn’t productive.

Have you misunderstood the concept of productivity? I think I may have.

The Best Arrangement of Days

Ideally, a life is best when it involves as few errands and moments of ridiculousness as possible. The best days are ones that create something new to add to the story of the universe.

The second best days, surely, are the ones when nothing but thoughts are created — when there’s nothing to show for your efforts but the day ends with a brain that’s full of things to try and things to accomplish that add to life’s creative story.

I wonder if it’s right to call those best days work and those second best days rest? Isn’t creating something wonderful the work of a real life? And isn’t it during times of rest when your brain refills itself with more ways to work for the world?

I wonder about these things because I’m not sure myself. What do you think?

And the days when you accomplish a lot of things, but none of them are meaningful… What do you call those days?

Lost, perhaps?

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16 Comments
  1. What a lovely post. And true. A huge part of ‘busyness’ is about ‘losing contact with oneself’. So if you’re acheiving this and this and this mini task and always focussing on the next one then there’s no time to feel or think about the things that are most important to us, that we may be avoiding.

    As you say so well it’s impossible to create something meaningful when you’re constantly distracting yourself with the minutiae.

    That’s my take. What do you think is the main reason that people take this busy-ness approach?

    • I think you’re right: People fill their lives with nonsense to avoid having real, meaningful experiences. This allows us to avoid pain and discomfort, but it also forces us to avoid joy and celebration and creation and everything else that makes like really important.

      Thanks for commenting, Marianne. You’re on the right track.
      Gip

  2. Marti permalink

    “How can a day that includes a new belt be a bad day?” My husband feels exactly the same way. Must be a gonad thing. I feel the same way about a day that includes new shoes. It’s a girl thing.

    A day of errands of various kinds I consider a day of accomplishment, not productivity. Don’t you find a day of accomplishment, such as errands, a ‘feel-good day’? You can have a ‘productive day’, and still not feel all that good about it, depending, I guess, on what you produced.

    Maybe it’s only semantics. Or maybe for those of us living a simple life, a day of errands can be a pleasure, and not a chore.

    • You’re right that errands have a sense of accomplishment and are a pleasure to me, not a chore, but I’d still rather simplify my interactions with life’s systems to the point where many fewer errands are necessary.

      Doing errands does feel good, but productivity is the only way to really contribute to your own life or to society.

      Gip

  3. Perhaps the days that you don’t actually produce something are still necessary? After all, your mind is still working, even if subconsciously, obvserving your surroundings, generating ideas (do you keep a notebook or audio recorder handy?) or maybe just resting and regenerating. I don’t think that just because I don’t produce something on a particular day that it is wasted. In fact, consolidating several errands is efficient use of your time, freeing up more time to be productive.

    As for the confusion between “busy” and “productive” I have had many bosses in the past that seem to think if you don’t look busy you aren’t working. To them, appearing to be busy seemed to be more important than how much work was actually accomplished. I think that’s a common illusiion that many of us, even when we know better, can fall for.

    – Mike

    • I would like a life where errand days aren’t necessary, but they are still necessary at the moment. I feel more strongly all the time that real productivity is what’s missing from my life.

      Bosses need to make themselves look good to their peers and to customers, so they like to cultivate a busy-looking workforce even when there’s nothing to do. It’s part of the silliness of real-world jobs…

      Gip

  4. Robert Wall permalink

    I like the definitional nature of this post.

    “Productive” comes from “produce”, which would seem to imply that something was created, manufactured, repaired, etc. Whether or not errands are productive, I suppose, would depend on the result of performing them.

    If my dad goes to the store and gets some plumber’s tape to fix the sink, the trip to the store isn’t necessarily productive – but it’s part of a productive process (which, in this case, yields a non-leaky sink).

    But that all pales in comparison to, say, him going out and putting a furnace in for somebody (which is his Real Job).

    On a different note, I used to study tai chi. We had a practice called “push hands”, where you and your partner alternate pushing each other (far less violent than it sounds), and allowing yourself to be pushed (and redirecting the energy). You both can’t be pushing, and you both can’t be receiving. It only works if you’re taking turns.

    It occurs to me that for you to be productive (pushing), somebody else has to be receiving – and vice-versa.

    In the best of all possible worlds, you’d push and receive in a nice rhythm. In confrontational scenarios, you find yourself trying to push against other people pushing. And sometimes, you just both stand there looking blankly at each other – nobody is pushing, and nothing is getting accomplished.

    I’d say the goal is to have the rhythm, and to make the pushing you get to do matter.

    Just some thoughts. 😀

    • I like this comment very much — and I like the idea of a rhythm of producing and receiving. Your comments are always great, but this one is particularly good.

      I still want less nonsense in my life, however. I know it can’t be completely eliminating, but I also know that eliminating stuff and obligations eliminates the need to service them.

      Gip

  5. Fields are left fallow to give the soil a chance to rest and rebuild, and thus be more productive the next time crops are grown.

    Your productivity will be maintained or increased by seeing the computer better, by not having your pants fall down, by keeping things happy at the bank, by having books to sell in your bookselling business.

    And you know this, down deep inside, so these things still made you happy.

    • Great response Meg.

      Gip – Chances are you’ve already decreased the number of errands that you run. And by combining errands into one trip, you’re only essentially making one trip rather than several.

      That said, I agree that some of the annoyances (or systems) in which we choose to participate end up adding to our productivity in the ways Meg described above.

      By reducing the unnecessary errands you’re running, you have already opened the space needed to produce your creative gift to the world (writing).

      And sometimes it’s after we’ve been out in the world handling the mundane necessities of Earthly life that we come back feeling the most inspired and productive. This post is a perfect example! 😉

      • Sorry for the delay, Jenny. You’re right, of course. I’ve cut down on everything that I dislike, but there’s still a lot of it! It does get better every day, though.
        Gip

    • I’m a bit behind on comments, but I really like what you said. I appreciate you saying it, Meg.

      There’s a whole story about the glasses thing that will probably be a post soon. I still don’t have the situation completely under control…
      Gip

  6. Mack Reynolds permalink

    now you’ve got me questioning whether my life means anything. j/k but seriously, i sometimes wish things weren’t the way they are, in that i wouldn’t have to work for pay, to pay to the govt, and to get stuff. that’s just how it is, but i wouldn’t mind not being a race of “highly intelligent an advanced” beings; i’d rather be a caveman, hunting, eating, and sleeping. ok, i might be exaggerating a bit but i think you get it right?

    • Thanks for joining the conversation, Mack. I’m not sure I want to be a caveman-type, but I would like to be less involved in systems and more independent in supporting myself without involving so many other people and companies.

      For now, I stay off the grids as much as possible and benefit from them when I can!
      Gip

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