Life as Nonproductive Act
Gather close as I tell you a vision of the future.
In this vision, I have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, all hanging on my every word. I offer them witty, well packaged, ideas that they can go off and use to become precisely 53% more productive (and they know, because I’ve given them the tools to measure it!)
I hate this vision.
I said in my opening post that I didn’t know where this newsletter was going, but I’ll tell you this: Wherever it ends up going, if I become a productivity guru I will consider that an extreme personal failure, both personally and ethically. If you see me heading in that direction, I’d appreciate it if you call me out on it and/or unsubscribe.
Is this a real risk? I don’t know. I doubt it. It’s certainly not where I intend for this newsletter to go, but good intentions can be hard to hold on to in the face of perverse incentives, and something like that sure seems to be the fate of a lot of newsletters and the like.
I’ve inadvertently rather leaned into the idea with a title of “How to do hard things” (I may change that title). “Doing hard things” sure sounds… productive, doesn’t it? As a partial counter to that risk, I thought I’d start with a highly unproductive newsletter.
Except… that’s not quite right, is it? The problem with deliberately seeking out unproductivity is that you’re still making productivity the defining feature of your actions.
I’m put in mind of the following scene Terry Pratchett’s “Thief of Time”:
Igor was puzzled. Igor had never worked for a sane person before. He’d worked for a number of…well, the world called them madmen, and he’d worked for several normal people, in that they only indulged in minor and socially acceptable insanities, but he couldn’t recall ever working for a completely sane person.
Obviously, he reasoned, if sticking screws up your nose was madness, then numbering them and keeping them in careful compartments was sanity, which was the opposite—
Ah. No. It wasn’t, was it…
Michael Ashcroft recently wrote about Total Work, a concept that comes from the book “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” by Josef Pieper. I felt extremely called out by this post.
I did what any right thinking person would do when faced with the realisation that his life is oriented around work and that he should have more true leisure time: I read a philosophy book. Fortunately, Pieper agrees with me that philosophy counts as leisure.
The book is… fascinating in ways that I cannot entirely recommend, but I’m glad I read it and am sure I will be returning to it. It contains a lot more Christian eschatology (“a part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity”) than I would necessarily have expected, but that’s a topic for another time.
Pieper defines Total Work as the state where work is the primary focus of life, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Work is not the focus of life, because you can be engaged in Total Work without being in work. e.g. the weekend as a break from work is still a part of Total Work. Even being unemployed is still, potentially, Total Work, because you are defining yourself with relation to work. Under Total Work, work is not so much a focus as an orientation - everything in life is defined by its relation to work.
In the same way that sanity is not the opposite of insanity, unproductivity is not the opposite of productivity, because both orient the world around work.
Michael thinks the solution to Total Work is nondoing, because Michael thinks the solution to everything is nondoing, and Total Work is an everything.
(I am a card carrying member of the cult of doing and Michael and I have scheduled a friendly beef on this subject, but that’s also a topic for another time)
He might be right. I’m agnostic on the question, and don’t yet understand nondoing well enough to say (Michael would probably tell me that there’s nothing to understand and I should just stop doing not understanding nondoing. I don’t understand that either).
Certainly, the concept of leisure described by Pieper is very like what Michael has described as nondoing:
Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real — a co-respondence, eternally established in nature — has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.
I agree that Total Work robs of this state, and that embracing nondoing is a way to reclaim it.
But I’d like to suggest an alternative.
I think the solution to Total Work is hermeneutics, because I think the solution to everything is hermeneutics, and Total Work is an everything.
Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation of things - originally the thing being interpreted was mostly the bible, but in a lot of philosophy the term is used for interpretation more generally.
A hermeneutic is anything we can use as a way of interpreting something (e.g. words, analogies, conceptual frameworks), and most of us are blessed or cursed with many different hermeneutics.
A particularly good source of hermeneutics (and itself a hermeneutic) is Personal Construct Theory, which argues that we look at the world through a series of constructs - schema which define a gradient between two poles that things can be fit into. For example one might define constructs of good vs evil, true vs false, or productive vs unproductive. You can also define more morally neutral constructs: Unpredictable vs predictable, gay vs straight, introvert vs extrovert, doing vs nondoing.
(Some people may, of course, disagree about these being morally neutral.)
Generally constructs are not right or wrong, they’re just descriptive tools, but they can be useful or not useful. That is to say, viewing constructs through the right and wrong construct is not useful, but viewing them through the useful and not useful construct may be.
Personal Construct Theory holds that constructs are the basis of how we organise our views of the world (I’d insert “often” there), and this has significant impact on our emotional well being and how we live our lives.
For example, bad person vs good person is a construct, and often there is significant emotional content to the question “Am I a bad person or a good person?”. Often we fear the answer is that we are a bad person, so the use of this construct causes us significant shame.
Some people are good people, some people are bad people, it’s true, but for the most part we’re all somewhere in between and this often isn’t a particularly useful construct - instead a construct that looks at whether given actions are good or bad may be more helpful.
This is particularly relevant to the question of productive vs unproductive, because we attach major moral significance to this construct. This is what is often called the Protestant Work Ethic - good people are productive, unproductive people are bad people.
(It may not surprise you to learn that Josef Pieper was a catholic.)
If you live in a culture informed by the Protestant Work Ethic, or anything like it, you will have internalised this, and being unproductive will make you feel bad. Even if you reject the norm and reconcile your aliefs with your beliefs, it will be an uphill struggle to feel that unproductivity is good, because everyone around you will be telling you these messages. The social obligation to be bad at things kicks in even when the thing you are trying to be good at is being unproductive!
The additional problem is that once you have a certain baseline of productivity, everything you do is in some sense productive. Time spent not working is time spent recovering. Play, or the development of nonwork skills such as cooking, may heighten skills that you use at work. Certainly practising mindfulness or, yes, nondoing will substantially improve your mental health and thus value as a worker (corporations are investing a lot in mindfulness practices, and it’s not because they think those practices make you a worse worker).
As long as you embrace this orientation around productivity, you will never be able to escape Total Work, because you will judge everything you do by how productive it is. Sure, your meditation practice might be productive, but is it the most productive thing you could be doing right now?
It is tempting to look at Total Work and think that the problem is capitalism and that if we could just smash the system and replace it with something better we would escape Total Work, but I don’t think that’s right: Capitalism (however you want to define it) is certainly part of the problem, but you can equally experience Total Work under any other social structure. Indeed, Pieper doesn’t even primarily talk about work as financial in nature but instead as contribution to society.
Pretend you’re an Effective Altruist. Go put on some goggles and imagine what it would be like to evaluate every major life decision you make based on a utility calculation that assumes all beings are roughly equal in their importance to you. I’ll wait.
Are you still allowed to paint, or sing? How can you justify that when you, and maybe a handful of others, are the only ones who will ever see pleasure from it? At the very most, you could justify them as strategies for keeping yourself sane long enough to throw yourself back into optimising the distribution of malaria nets to people in developing countries or something. They aren’t allowed to be real, meaningful activities in their own right, of course.
This, too, is total work, with every action evaluated along a simple axis of morality - how productive you are being in helping others.
The other issue is, of course, that smashing the system is hard (and possibly not even desirable) and it sure would be nice to step away from Total Work now.
The solution, I think, is to reject the construct. In order to escape Total Work, when asked if an action is productive or unproductive, we have to be able to answer “I don’t care!”
One important thing about the “I don’t care!” answer is that it doesn’t mean “This action is unproductive”. If you’re like me, the sort of person who as part of a goal of learning more about how to relax and enjoy life goes out and reads a philosophy textbook read by an obscure 20th century German theologian, a lot of your life is going to end up tacitly productive.
Hell, I read this book as part of writing this newsletter, I am literally paid to do this. Sounds like work, and therefore productive, right?
It does, but I don’t care.
The same action can be viewed through many different constructs. I had fun reading the book (fun vs boring). I feel enriched by reading it (enlightening vs mystifying). I literally found myself rolling on the floor laughing reading it (hilarity, albeit unintentional, vs seriousness).
(I was admittedly already on the floor when I started rolling).
If you let yourself look buy in to Total Work then quickly everything will become viewed through the construct of productive vs unproductive, but if Total Work is (as Pieper argues) a spiritual condition more than a state of activity, then one way out of that is to keep doing what you were already doing but to look at it differently, to reorient your life around those new constructs.
It may turn out that you already like what you were doing purely for productivity reasons. It may not. Both of these are fine outcomes, because we are not trying to be unproductive, we are trying to stop judging things on the terms of Total Work.
That being said, I would be very surprised if you remain entirely unchanged by reorienting the fundamental values on which you judge your actions. The point is that escape from Total Work must start with changing the orientation, not the behaviour, because Total Work is at its heart an orientation towards life.
I would like to suggest that we use nonproductive for actions engaged with in this spirit (following the mathematicians’ convention that the prefix non- means “not necessarily”). An action is nonproductive not if it is unproductive, but if it is not undertaken in a spirit of productivity.
I am, at present, not entirely clear on how this reorientation will work, but I think one thing is clear: If we don’t have fun doing so, I fear we’ve rather missed the point.