Productivity and the Joy of Doing Things the Hard Way
This story is part of a series on how we make time—from productivity hacks to long walks to altering the function of our own circadian clocks.
Suppose you were on a business trip in a city you’d never given much thought to—not an obvious tourist attraction like Paris or San Francisco—and your schedule included a few free hours. What would you do with that time?
I once asked a really smart acquaintance of mine that very question, randomly using Cincinnati as an example. He happens to be a productivity expert, always quick to suggest rules and tips and hacks, and I thought he might have clever strategies for adventurous exploration. But his answer had nothing to do with in-the-moment discovery. “I would work in my hotel room on other projects I needed to get done,” he told me. “Because I don’t care about Cincinnati.”
Don’t @ me, proud Cincinnatians. I didn’t say it, and really this guy was making a broader point: The way he sees it, wandering around a place that you weren’t already interested in just isn’t a very efficient use of your day. The response stuck with me because it simultaneously encapsulated the (admittedly attractive) idea that we should always squeeze tangible payoffs from the time we have, and seemed to fly in the face of the (also attractive!) notion of being open to and present in the moment. It captured the tension inherent in what we do with the time we have, and how we try to make more.
A Tour of How We literally and figuratively Make Time.
Mr. Productivity sounded so cold-blooded, implying that maximum efficiency depends at least in part on ruthless incuriosity. Could that be true? I hoped not, because I was talking to this productivity guru while researching a book about attention, particularly the value of tuning out distraction and noticing what others have missed. I take it as a given that a spontaneous ramble through a random place I’d never thought about before can prove not just entertaining, but also enlightening and useful.
I don’t oppose productivity. I need to get things done just like anybody else; I enjoy a helpful efficiency hack. I just worry that our obsession with productivity, and the explosion of technologies designed to boost it, come at a cost. “A tool that simply smooths and oils our way, that speeds us to the execution of an impulsion,” as writer Nicholas Carr once put it, “has a deadening effect.”
For better or worse, there are a lot of tools to smooth our way. No need to waste time browsing a carefully curated book store, consulting thoughtful criticism, or listening to an adventurous radio DJ when Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify will save you time by telling you what you want to read and watch and hear next. (Thanks for insisting that I try out The Standups, Netflix.) I’ve stood on a street packed with restaurants, waiting for a companion to pick a place based not on a whim, but on what his apps advised. Why risk a surprise dining experience when you can defer to the digital crowd? I’m certainly not immune to the appeal of the efficient. When I hear a new song I like in a bar, I no longer quiz the bartender, I consult Shazam. It’s faster, and it’s right.
Meanwhile the routine productivity hacks that ease the work day can morph and migrate to our personal lives. Gmail offers scripts that save you the effort of thinking up and typing routine email responses—and those scripts are often eerily appropriate. Thanks to social media, we can “keep in touch” with many more friends, much more efficiently. Dating sites and services claim to, in effect, optimize romance. At some point you have to wonder if the thing we’re hacking away isn’t just annoyance or inefficiency, but potentially delightful serendipity. Or, you know, life itself.
Rob Walker writes the Human Resource column for Lifehacker. His new book is The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday (Knopf).
We can’t just blame the tools for our slide into the comfort of efficiency. Certainly, they make it easy to do things the easy way. Google Maps is undeniably effective at reducing the friction of moving through the world, tracking the traffic, finding public transportation, keeping us from getting lost. But there’s value in not giving control over to ease sometimes. We can become disengaged, passing through moments instead of inhabiting them, losing the ability to relate our own footsteps through unfamiliar territory to a broader notion of spaces we inhabit.
Sometimes—whether literally or metaphorically—it’s worth making the effort to get there the hard way. Make a habit of challenging your most comfortable habits. Use a paper map. Call a friend on the phone instead of texting. Go to a book store with no agenda, browse at length, and walk out with a book you’ve never heard of. Ask the bartender what that song is. Make an inefficient decision.
As it happens, I’ve been to Cincinnati, once, on business. It’s a city I’d never given any particular thought to. But when my hosts explained there was a hotel shuttle that would take me to our meeting point a mile away, I decided to walk instead. When I arrived, they were excited to tell me all about the interesting history of the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood I’d passed through.
That said, I used Google Maps to determine my basic walking route, as I typically do when taking an exploratory walk in a new place. And if I’m meeting someone for work-related reasons, getting flat-out lost (a sensation I’m old enough to recall very distinctly from the pre-smartphone era) is not a good use of my time. Score a point for productivity there. Or maybe half a point. Once I get started on my walk, I try to consult my phone as little as possible, and sometimes I veer off course. I allow extra time for that.
For now, this is one of the ways I try to resolve, or at least confront, the push-and-pull between the efficient and the unstructured. And I really think this has less to do with technology than with our own behavior. Our tech addictions exploit human nature—the tendency toward instant gratification, the instinct for paying attention to what everyone else is paying attention to. But one of the things that makes humans human is our ability (not always utilized) to override our immediate instincts, exercise personal agency, and act rather than merely react.
At a time when the pressure to maximize productivity seems particularly intense, we should give ourselves permission, now and then, to pass some time that serves no obvious purpose. We should allow ourselves to be surprised, to encounter the unexpected.
After my work appointment in Cincinnati, I walked back to the hotel, stopping for a leisurely beer. I fell into conversation with a stranger who was in an interesting line of work that was unfamiliar to me; I got his card and, later, I wrote about his company’s business, using him as a source. My time-wasting meandering not only felt good—it was, in ways I never could have planned, productive.
More Stories on How We Make Time
10 Productivity Hacks From WIRED Staffers
On Pooping in the Dark—No Lights, No Phones, No Distractions
Optimization Smackdown: Hustle Porn vs. Zen Porn
Drugs That Boost Circadian Rhythms Could Save Our Lives
How to Manage Your Time: A Book List
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