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"Don't know how you do it all": Some Thoughts on Productivity

Jan 11, 2011 • creativity, general

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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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.