I recently wrote about my digital spring clean. I deleted a number of my social media accounts because I felt that I was spreading my efforts too thin and also because I felt that it would help me to be more productive. Productivity is something that I worry about constantly, sometimes to the detriment of my ability to relax at the weekend and when on holiday. I always feel as though I need to be doing something productive and lately I’ve been striving to use my time even more effectively.
However, I recently came across an article about Alan Watt and his writings on happiness and living with presence, which made me question my relentless drive for productivity.
Watts, writing in 1951, argued that our tendency to live for the future and our inability to live in the present is a deep source of unhappiness and anxiety. We require the assurance of a happy future and yet the future “cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead.” Watts goes on to argue that this desire for an assured and secure future is a source of anxiety because we live in a world of constant change. Thus, by seeking security we are seeking to be separate from life and the fundamental characteristic of life – flux, change, metamorphosis. This sense of separateness leads to the loneliness that makes us feel insecure in the first place.
I was particularly struck by Watt’s argument against self-improvement and resolution making. In order for the notion of self-improvement to make sense, there must be a “good “I” who is going to improve the bad “me.”” Rather than attempting to improve our lives, we should instead learn to be fully present.
This reminded me of a book I read recently called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. In the book, Rubin recounts her year-long attempt to be happier. It sounds cheesy, but it’s actually very well done because Rubin reads into the topic in great depth and cites examples from ancient philosophy right up to modern day psychology. From the start she states that her aim isn’t to transform her life, but to be happier with the life she is already living – to be happier with the reality of her present situation. She sets about doing this by creating resolutions for each month. However, one of her resolutions for September is to ‘forget about results’, to “potter around, tinker, explore, without worrying about efficiency or outcomes.” She also creates a list of commandments or guiding principles, one of which is ‘Be Gretchen’. This commandment is about letting herself off the hook and accepting her limitations, at the same time as attempting to improve certain areas of her life.
Over the long Easter weekend, I have tried to put this thinking into practise. I resolved not to worry about productivity and instead simply try to enjoy the present, to wander and explore without aim. It has proven quite difficult and I have constantly had to remind myself that I don’t need to be productive. Despite this, I’ve still done a few things off my ‘to do’ list and I’ve written two blog posts. But on the whole, I’ve managed to let myself off the hook. I’ve spent entire mornings reading or blogging without feeling guilty, I visited a new city and wandered without a goal, and I even managed to have a few lie-ins (sort of, 9.30am probably isn’t a lie in by most people’s standards!).
Watts also argued that there is no ‘I’ that can be separated from present experience. As he puts it, “To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.” Alan Watts was influenced by Eastern philosophy and I found this aspect of Watt’s writing difficult to swallow. For Rubin, who also explores Buddhism and Eastern philosophy in The Happiness Project, this idea is also a sticking point. As she notes, “the Western tradition emphasizes the expression and the perfection of each unique, individual soul; not so the Eastern tradition.”
I also don’t think that self-improvement and productivity are always necessarily bad things. I agree that self-improvement does bring with it negative implications – that somehow the person you are now needs improving. That is why a balance is needed between the drive for productivity and moments of presence. I’ll certainly be making more effort to be in the moment: simply enjoying the peace and quiet of the morning and savouring that first cup of tea, instead of checking my emails; looking out of the train window more, instead of burying my head in a book; taking in my surroundings as I go on my lunchtime walk, instead of thinking about the work I left back at the office; wandering aimlessly and without purpose, instead of rushing to the final destination. All of these moments offer opportunities for presence and I need to grasp them more often.
However, I don’t think I’ll be abandoning my efforts to be more efficient with my time and I probably won’t be able to completely stop worrying about productivity – but perhaps I can let myself off the hook for that too!