Playing it by ear

How best to spend my time is a constant preoccupation of mine. I worry a lot about being productive and I mean this not in so much in an economic sense, but in a wider sense of simply doing things that are of value to other people. Do I spend my time wisely enough? Are the things I am doing with my time (both in my work life and my spare time) worthy? Do they make enough positive contribution to the world? Will they ultimately harm me and my plans for my life? Will they harm others? Since finding myself on the other side of 7 years of marriage a few years ago I have worked back-breakingly hard to establish who I am again and it would seem this involves a lot of self questioning.

The subject of productivity came up in conversation with a dear friend recently. I can’t remember how we got on to the topic now. We were sitting on a beach on a lovely afternoon, which would seem like an unlikely time to start talking about productivity and we agreed that the feeling that we were productive was linked to happiness for each of us. I have discovered that being busy generally is a good thing and I feel at my most relaxed when I am absorbed in something. When I am busy the relentless chattering of my mind quietens. I stop worrying about what I should be doing and thinking and I just get on and do. The tricky bit when this applies to my free time is deciding what it is I should do that will absorb me enough. It is not just about being blindly busy. For a start, if I don’t really want to do something then it will be a struggle to motivate myself to do it and arguing with myself about this will then destroy any sense of absorption in the activity. Also it ideally needs to be something for which I can measure a positive outcome.

Judging whether or not I use my time wisely has an objective component. To want to create things of value to others inserts my activity into a progression of things outside me. It engages me with other people and leaves a mark in the sand that I was here, I did something and it created some happiness (mine and possibly even someone else’s). Examples of things I do that I consider to be productive are writing my blog, baking/cooking to share with other people, going to work and earning a living, helping other people out or supporting them in some way and singing in a choir. An appreciable something is achieved by the expenditure of my time, thereby at least partially fulfilling my criteria for measuring a positive outcome. Put simply, the feeling that I am doing something productive with my time gives me with a sense of security around my experience of happiness.

Unfortunately I can quite easily turn the objective bit, the bit that gives that nice sense of security that what I am doing is worthwhile, into a tool of torture. I have this nasty habit of latching on to the more objective outcomes of my activity and bashing myself in to them and this feels somewhat like throwing myself in to a brick wall, repeatedly. I get so busy with the producing that I forget that in the first instance I was trying to be happy and gain enjoyment from living. Without this very important human bit at the core of my activity I exhaust myself, get miserable and lose all motivation. I have done it time and time again and then I berate myself for losing motivation, which doesn’t do much to make me feel better about myself.

For example, I really enjoy cooking dinner to share with a friend. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy sharing food with a friend and I enjoy the company that comes with it. At some point I decided that the making of food bit must be the most important. So I got myself in the habit of making a huge performance out of cooking. It had to be something complicated and stressful, it had to be something I had never cooked before, it all had to be presented perfectly. Funnily enough I stopped enjoying the cooking and found myself bad company as a result of all the stress I was putting myself under. I have since learned that just the offer of cooking food and sharing with others is valuable enough in itself. Forgetting the less tangible reasons why I do something can undermine the whole endeavour.

As I have discussed this with friends, mused on it for the purposes of trying to be a better and happier person and wrestled with it to try and explain it in this blog post I have learned a lot about my impulses towards what I have labelled as productivity. While creating and doing things of value is important to me, it is more complicated than just that. The social element, of contributing to a collective effort of some kind is especially important as I have discovered through recently joining a choir. To be contributing to a shared project where each voice adds something to the whole without needing to be individually distinguishable is uplifting and pleasantly humbling. The importance of the community aspect of the other things I do has become more apparent to me of late. Writing and blogging for example is about my individual creations and getting recognition for my work. However thinking of it in terms of being part of a community of people who write, who read, who share, who support and who between them create a whole body of works that reach out much further than any individual writer could do makes the experience of writing more valuable for me. It is also about acceptance, that by doing things I value and enjoy it is possible to contribute socially because other people share my estimation of value in these activities.

Thus far, it would seem there are other people who feel some of the things I do are a worthy use of my time, who might even find what I do interesting or useful. For someone who is constantly questioning whether their perspective on the world and the things they want are correct, useful, harmful to others or not, worthy, responsible (and so the list goes on) this is immensely reassuring. I am learning to trust my own thoughts on what I should be doing with my life and to ask for feedback or help when I still can’t decide. Slowly I am building up a picture of who I am and what the benchmarks for navigating how I run my life nowadays are, which means that not every decision is invested with as much uncertainty as they used to be. Naively, I didn’t realise just how much work figuring out who I am was going to be. I always thought life was going to be a lot more cut and dried than that. I now consider this to be the grand work of art of my life, something I work on every day (regardless of all the things that invariably intervene in my carefully laid plans) and yet will never exhaust. I find that immensely reassuring as well.

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2 thoughts on “Playing it by ear

  1. Hi there,
    I can relate to your desire to fill your time with meaningful, impact-causing endeavour. I dislike most passive, solitary time-filling activity (hence my untidy house!). I obsess about a life where my days are filled with positive efforts to make a difference, even in a small way. The saddest times in my life have been when I had lots of free time. If I could start again, I think I’d spend more time writing. I had no confidence as a child, and wrote hundreds of stories, then ripped them up. Now, with 3 children and a lot going on it’s difficult to fit in the amount of self-indulgent, solitary and self-absorbed hours I would need to in order to write as much as I would need to in order to catch up. So, as much as I ‘hated’ being alone, with lots of time, now, I crave this status.

    1. Hi Lucy,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I too spent lots of time alone or feeling very isolated when I was younger and I now am driven not to find myself in similar circumstances again. This is important and positively informs my choices about what I do with my time now, though sometimes leads me to over commit myself and not leave enough time for other things that I need in life. Perhaps you should hold the thought about writing and earmark it as something to come back to as your children get older? I don’t think it is ever too late to pick something up again, but I suppose you may want to re-evaluate the scope of what you want to achieve through it. I don’t have children though, so I don’t think I am well placed to understand the impact they have on our lives and goals!

      Oh, I meant to say – thanks for the link to your blog, which I enjoyed reading. I particularly liked the post about the teenagers and loved the way you unfolded the scene(s) for the reader.

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