Close Call

This weekend I almost broke my writing streak – just three days away from hitting 500 days in a row. I went to Emerald City ComicCon with some friends, and didn’t get home until 9PM. I had some prep to do for Sunday School the next day, so that took priority. If I hadn’t gone back to my computer to check my Facebook one last time and reload a few pages, I might have forgotten completely and gone to bed without realizing I hadn’t written anything that day.

The streak is important to me and I’m glad I remembered in time. But more important is the habit that I’ve built. I know that even if I had broken my streak, I could pick up again the next day. I might be more willing to make excuses on hard nights when times are tough, but I would know how much I can suffer through and what it really means to say that I “didn’t have time to write today.” I’ve certainly had those days. I’ve had days where I was staffing youth conferences and had to wake up at 7AM, spend every moment of the day chaperoning kids or meeting with the staff, and then go to bed at 11PM after an hour of cleaning the church. I didn’t have time to write on those days. I still did it.

Recently I read about the ‘100 Times’ method to habit forming and productivity. When you’re about to make a choice you know isn’t the best, you ask, “What would happen if I made this same choice the next 100 times?” It’s easy to say you’re just going to miss this one workout, but you know you’d get really out of shape if you missed the next 100 workouts. Likewise, I know that I wouldn’t be failing as a writer if I genuinely forgot to write for just this one busy and unusual day, but I know what would happen if I ‘forgot’ for the next 100 days in a row. I would stop producing. I would stop practicing. I would stop writing.

I don’t want that. So at 12:06AM on Sunday morning I was still in front of my computer. And these were my 372 words for the day.

Things That Don’t Need to Be Done

I’ve been reading about productivity for a long time now. I’m long past the point where every article sounds the same and it feels like there’s no new advice out there. But there’s one piece of advice that I’ve been hearing for a long time, and only recently was I finally ready to listen:

Don’t do things that don’t need to be done.

It sounds stupidly simple. Of course you shouldn’t do things that don’t need to be done. But it’s easy to fool yourself. After all, you can tell yourself exactly what you want to hear.

Stacked PapersI’ve been slowly going through all my old college papers and scanning what I want to keep. It’s a slow process, but we have a commercial scanner at work which makes it a little easier. One day after work I was standing over the copier with my computer, slowly scanning old script drafts. They were for a play I wrote many years ago. I like to keep the scripts from the readings because people write on them and it’s interesting to read comments about my old work.

These scripts are arguably the lowest priority of things worth scanning. These are old drafts, and the play that was actually performed ended up being very different. But they hold a certain sentimental value. And as a writer there is an education to be had from occasionally reading your old work.

The scripts were originally printed landscape and double-sided, so when I ran them through the scanner I ended up with a PDF where every other page was facing the opposite direction. I was clicking around and rotating pages when I realized how utterly unnecessary the task was. I might never look at these files again. And if I do, I’ll be going page by page to read them, and could easily rotate pages then. Plus it’s very possible that if I wait six months they’ll have invented a way to tell the PDF reader to only rotate odd pages, without having to click each individually.

This is what they meant when they said I shouldn’t do things that don’t need to be done. I felt the need to rotate the pages because it was in line with my habits of proper organization and storage. But even I know that I may never open these files again. I can barely justify scanning them. The time spent rotating is a complete waste.

Once I figured this out I realized something even more important: I don’t have to name them either. I was on auto-pilot, assuming it had to be done because that’s usually the case. Most of my files need to be named, but not all. I had eleven scripts that were going to be named after the person who had made the notes, but that information is already written on the first page. I can do it later if I need to. Instead I threw all the files into a single folder labeled “Reading Scripts” and called it a day.

Wasting time on over-organization is a problem of mine, I know that. Most of the time I can justify it because I like organizing and it can be meditative and satisfying. But I don’t like naming files or rotating PDFs. And not everything has to be done. Don’t do things that don’t need to be done.

A Holy Waste of Time

This piece was written last summer while I was on retreat. As we speak I’m staying at an isolated retreat village several hours out of town, the first vacation I’ve taken since that weekend trip and the first long vacation I’ve had in 16 months. It seemed like an appropriate time to post this.

View from St AndrewsAs I write this I’m sitting the the freshly refinished deck of St. Andrew’s Retreat Center on Hood Canal. I have a view of the water, a warm breeze, and the surprisingly comforting smell of fresh paint. I’m here as part of a retreat weekend for young adults called “A Holy Waste of Time.” The point of the weekend is to simply relax. There’s activities to do, but all are voluntary. There’s a hike to go on if you feel like it, and a movie tonight if you want. Right now I’m choosing not to play dominos with some of the other young adults, and in a little while I’ll choose to go to an evening chapel service with them.

In the last few years I’ve developed a real fixation with doing things. I have trouble unplugging and relaxing. I’m always working, always moving, always searching for that elusive secret to perfect productivity. I feel guilty when I sit around doing nothing for too long. I feel bad when items on my to-do list linger. I chastise myself all the time for minutes wasted and activities left undone.

It’s one of my favorite phrases, “left undone.” I know it from the written confession used by the Episcopal Church, the same church that’s putting on this retreat. In the confession we confess that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” The congregation I grew up in didn’t say the confession much, which is a liturgical policy I support. But I always loved that phrase, I suppose because it reminds us that living a good life isn’t just about refraining from the so-called evil temptations, but also about proactively doing good in the world.

I spent the first few years out of college getting rid of the bad in my life. I got rid of unnecessary spending. I got rid of eating junk. I got rid of so many unneeded possessions. And in that way I took care of the sins I had done, and was left with what I had left undone. I had the writing I never got around to. I had the languages and instruments I wanted to learn. But what I didn’t realize was that I had placed myself on a hamster wheel. There is no limit to what has been left undone. Because every inch of the world may have been explored, but not yet by me.

This is not what is intended in our confession, and it’s not what I intend for my life. But the focus and drive that allows me to do so much of what I want also blinds me to the world as it goes by. I’m rarely able to casually waste time anymore. Wasted time is a productivity sin. If I want to sit back and enjoy myself, I have to define it clearly as free time. I have to proactively tell myself to stop being proactive.

AltarAnd that’s why I’m here, wholly wasting time. I might normally feel guilty about not playing with the other people, but not today. I wanted to use this time to write. Granted that’s because I still feel the need to keep up my 200+ day streak of writing every day, but the sentiment is there. I want the freedom to watch the movie later, which means finishing my writing now.

I know that I push myself harder than I need to, but I also know that the road to my goals is paved with my accomplishments. I keep working because I still want the things that only work can provide. And intellectually I understand the value of taking breaks, of letting go, of closings one’s eyes. But it’s difficult to stop the wheel once it’s turning. It may be hard to keep running, but it’s harder to jump off.

But I try. Right now, I’m trying. The deck is getting a little dark and a little chilly. The house caretaker showed me how to turn on the fireplace earlier. Perhaps I’ll go sit by the fire. Perhaps I’ll read a book. Maybe I’ll take a nap, and not feel bad about it at all.

Spinning My Wheels

I like to think of myself as a highly productive person, and by many measures I am. I don’t waste time very often. Even my break time is spent productively, reading books or watching movies I believe are in some way important. I learn constantly, I work constantly, I produce constantly.

But sometimes I find that for all of my production I am not actually producing anything of note. I write every day, but can go days or even weeks without working on a specific book or play. I read everyday, but still only manage a few pages at a time. The truly awful thing is that sometimes I’ll even manage to rest in an unproductive way. I’ll listen to an intense podcast while on lunch break and end up going through the motions of taking a break yet feeling no restorative effects.

These are not constants of course, but when my incredible productivity hasn’t produced anything for several days or weeks, I can feel it. I feel it every time I sit down, every time I get home. I stare at my computer with a sense of hopelessness. I realize that I’m about to expend effort and achieve no satisfying result. Even though the majority of my work both at home and in the office is self-generated and self-managed, somehow I’ve managed to make it unfulfilling.

I know what I ought to do in such times. I ought to take a break – a real break. I ought to stop all my normal routines and just waste time for a day or two. I ought to do a full reset. Turn it off and on again like a malfunctioning computer.

I don’t take vacations like I should. I think it’s because I know that even if I had a day where I truly took a break from everything else, I would still think. I would still know all the things I am not doing. I would still know all the things I want to be doing. And I would grow impatient with my vacation. I would want to get to work on something – anything – to feel like I’m being productive. I must learn, I must work, I must produce. It is my natural resting state.

In the end, the thing I struggle with is learning to let go of possibilities, and forgiving myself for not going after them. There are so many things in the world that fascinate me, so many things I want to do and know, that I will always have to say no to what I want more often than I get to say yes. I make lists all the time. I make lists of languages to learn, books to read, TV shows to watch, skills to acquire. I’m constantly re-writing my goals in hopes of one day figuring out how I’m going to accomplish them all in the one short life I have available. This means sometimes I fall so much in love with the the What and How of doing that I forget about the Why.

Snow on Trees landscapeI booked a vacation for February. I’m going to Holden Village, a retreat community three hours out of town that you can only get to by boat. I’m told that the winter community is small, and there’s a good chance that my aversion to cold will keep me bundled up in my own room the whole week. They cook all the meals and there’s no access to the internet. Hopefully it will be the kind of reset I’m looking for, and a chance to forgive myself for only having 24 hours in a day. At very least, I’ll have plenty of free time to make more lists.