“Don’t know how you do it all”: Some Thoughts on Productivity

In my post on technical writing resolutions, Marcia Johnston commented, “Inspiring. Bravo, Tom, and good luck. Don’t know how you do it all.”

I get that last remark a lot, actually. I don’t feel it’s deserved. I don’t do it all … not at all. I let so many important activities slip through the cracks. But let me indulge in a fantasy where that remark is actually true. How do I “do it all” — even just a little?

First, a little background. I started thinking about this issue while reading Clay Shirky’s book on Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Shirky argues that we have a surplus of free time, but we often waste this time watching television. In fact, if we were to change our TV habits just 1% and devote them toward a productive endeavor, rather than slumping in front of the TV, we could create 100 new Wikipedias each year.

I’m not going to say that my secret is not watching television, because I’m guilty of TV sloth too. For example, tonight I admit I was checking to see if the new episode of V had been posted to Hulu yet.

But Shirky goes deeper than merely slamming TV as a timesink. He compares the situation to a gin-drinking phase that accompanied industrialization. As lives changed from farms to factories, the shift broke social structures; people turned to gin for escape and coping.

TV is a coping mechanism for a greater underlying problem.

TV is a coping mechanism for a greater underlying problem.

In the same way, I think after eight hours of typing and clicking in an office cubicle, with very little drama, interaction, or significance, we’re inclined to seek some escape and excitement through larger-than-life Hollywood media. In other words, TV isn’t the problem, just as gin wasn’t the problem. TV is just our coping mechanism to deal with the real problem.

And what exactly is the real problem, besides the humdrum boredrum of an office life?

I’m not sure. But last summer my wife tried an interesting experiment that shed light on the issue: an electricity fast. Forty days without electricity (mostly). For me, this meant I gave up television and light. I couldn’t quite tear myself from my laptop, though my wife did do it (and has never really been addicted since).

During those 40 days of candlelight and living in the basement, with our kids stretched out in sleeping bags on the floor, I woke up earlier than ever. For the first time in years, I was up at 6 am every morning.

But as the electricity fast neared its end, I grew grumpy for television. I seemed to need it, those moments of escape in front of the television. Even a couple of hours of World Cup soccer, listening to the vuvuzelas blowing and the spanish announcer saying “goal, goal, goal” in a flat voice on a poorly rendered Internet stream seemed to provide the relief I needed.

But relief from what? I’m not sure. Could not this grumpiness have been relieved in some other way, before television? Surely this problem is not symptomatic solely of 21st century society.

Let’s flip back a couple of millennia. What did the ancient Greeks do for escape? They flourished with unparalleled cultural and human achievement in every field, from philosophy to science, art, mathematics, and more. Some feel it was their political democracy, the first on the scene, that contributed to this achievement. But the Greeks also spent a lot of time playing athletic games naked in their gymnasiums and shouting at overly melodramatic soap-opera theater. In other words, they had their entertainment too, but they still managed achievement.

It’s clear that if you survey world cultures, cultures without television aren’t necessarily productive and brilliant societies. If you take away mindless TV, people find another mindless activity to fill the gap.

Given this conundrum, and the impressive hours of TV watching in America, we still have plenty of achievement to boast about. The amount of technical innovation and Internet entrepreneurship are mind-boggling. Both the masses and elite write about a million new posts a day on blogs. Information is expanding so much that in one year alone, you could fill 237 billion Kindles. And yet even despite this, many of us still drink away our time on hulu, netflix, and youtube — morally flagellating ourselves for our sloth as we slouch.

For me, while I would be more productive, perhaps, by banning television, I don’t think it’s the principal cause that dilutes human achievement, nor my achievement. Include or exclude TV from the productivity equation and the outcome is mostly the same.

What’s the real cause behind the failure to do it all? Precisely lack of cause.

Without a cause, time isn’t so meaningful. And with surplus time and no purpose, we will easily trade it away for mindless TV.  What allowed me to write about 150 posts last year is the inner drive to write. I feel it as a compulsion. The topic doesn’t matter — just write. I’m honing my craft, preparing for something more, something in the future. Exactly what, I don’t know yet. But one day it will hit me. I’ll find myself in a certain situation and just know — that all the promptings to keep writing, something every day, wasn’t a vain imagination without purpose. It was carefully leading me toward a meaningful end. That is my secret.

Others may have similar causes that push them toward productivity — a cause to create art, or to build a family, or to understand engines, or maybe even to perfect la dolce far niente (the joy of doing nothing). It doesn’t matter. What matters is having a cause.

I still watch television. Embarrassingly, I recently made it through three seasons of Prison Break. And I keep up with Nikita, and Fringe, and Burn Notice. I’m sure my time could be better spent. But usually after a bit of relief, I navigate away from the mindless entertainment and focus on something that matters.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

7 thoughts on ““Don’t know how you do it all”: Some Thoughts on Productivity

  1. Christopher Gronlund

    I always love reading your posts, Tom, but this one goes beyond technical communication and can be shared with so many people I know.

    I know a lot of people who complain about not having time to do things, but they talk about all the TV they watch, and spend their evenings on Facebook. I do, too, to a degree, and I’ve often wondered what the difference in my friends who produce content and those who talk about wanting to produce content is.

    That cause really does matter. That compulsion to keep a blogging schedule, even if you don’t have a huge following. The desire to keep writing or doing other things you love. And it carries over to work. As a technical editor, I’m not content just getting through a document as quickly as I can so I have time to slack off. I like learning new things as I edit, so I tend to read things a couple times.

    I love TV and other things some feel robs us of our time. I have friends who love videogames and play them for hours — but still get other things done.

    Thinking about it, everybody I know kills time with TV, videogames, or online to some degree. The only difference: those who have a cause get other things done, too.

    Thank you for another great post!

  2. Johnny

    I found your blog yesterday, and happened to have this conversation with myself last night as my wife asked me to find a movie to watch (as she likes the background noise to fall asleep).

    I would propose that part of the reason why people look for a time sink is because they don’t feel 100% fulfilled in their relationships. I see people who spend a lot of time chatting with each other on Facebook or through texting, but how often do people get together and have a real conversation with each other? I think you can have meaningful conversations through these venues, but how much do you lose by not seeing the facial expressions of the person with whom you are talking?

    While I am far from a Luddite, I think that sometimes technology gets in the way of communication—real communication that creates lasting personal connections between individuals and not just casual acquaintances. I know that I am not communicating enough in my life when I start becoming better friends with the characters on TV or in a book instead of with the people that I interact with every day.

  3. Gdub

    The proverb that without vision the people fail is apt. This post points that out for me. We most often find the time to do what we want, and without real desires for useful things we’ll turn to the low-threshold “work” of consuming. Creating takes more work, but if your priorities are to create you will easily dismiss the other activities.

  4. Tomasz Stasiuk

    From my own experience I know that I have used the instant gratification of twitter or Facebook as a way of keeping busy without actually accomplishing anything. It is certainly harder to delay gratification by working on a project (article, business improvement), when I could just see if anyone has responded to my bon mot.

  5. Cindy Pao

    Last night I put all other activities aside to knit and watch TV. But that was after I had worked my 8-hour day, finished laundry, and tried to help my kids finish homework and get ready for the following day.

    I personally think some of us veg out in front of the TV because we are just tired from all of the demands we can’t, necessarily, control. I can control what I do in my vast (LOL) amounts of free time, and that’s how I do it.

  6. Dave Egyes

    Great article, Tom, especially the part about how lack of purpose in life is the common malaise underlying so much rationalized self-destructive behaviors.
    I believe we do in fact need diversions, sometimes even ‘mindless’ ones, as by turning our brains off temporarily, we enable ourselves to later approach the important things in life — key relationships, work, personal growth, etc. — afresh. The challenge here is choosing our diversions wisely, and being able to determine when diversion instigates a slide into an escapism that, in turn, causes us to lose our focus and sense of higher priorities and purpose.

    Kudos on a wonderful piece.

  7. Kyle

    Ah yes, Tom. I liken the times I sit in front of Hulu or FB to flailing of an untrained swimmer. Think of the efficiency of motion (swim slow to swim fast) and purpose in cutting through water like that of sitting at a desk or in a meeting with purpose. You hit the nail on the head- one can spend much energy and time going nowhere without purpose. To take it a little further, training oneself to keep purpose in mind- like the daily writing practice- helps the meaningless fall away. Thanks for the reminder and assurance I’ll always pick something good up when I take the time to browse I’d rather be writing!
    cheers,
    Kyle

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