When I’m unproductive

Statue of the Three Graces at Allerton Park
Statue of the Three Graces at Allerton Park
This statue at Allerton Park is called the Three Graces, but I like to think of it as the Three Muses.

I was pretty productive these past two weeks. I finished a major rewrite pass on a short story that the Incognitos had critiqued a while back, and passed the story on to a couple of first readers. I wrote several posts for Wise Bread. I did some preliminary investigation on a tech writing assignment.

I thought that was great, not only because it’s nice to get things done, but because it makes me feel like it’s okay to spend time on various less (or non-) remunerative projects, such as art, poetry, and Esperanto.

I’ve just come to realize, that this is a harmful way to think.

I’ve always had these recurring bouts of unproductivity. The previous several weeks were an instance of it: I sat at my computer and tried to work, but I didn’t get much done.

Back when I worked a regular job, these bouts were always terribly stressful. How do you tell your boss, “Sorry, I just don’t seem to be able to get anything done”?

I had several coping skills. Because of the kind of work I did, my managers never really could know how difficult a task was, so I could just say, “It’s turned out to be tougher than I thought.” Also, even when I couldn’t make any headway on my major tasks, I was almost always able to do something. I got in the habit of seeking out smaller, one-day tasks that I could do. That let me be productive (so I felt better) and gave me an excuse to be late with my main task (so I was less stressed).

Now that I’m not trying to work at a regular job, the stress level is much reduced. There’s no boss whose understanding of my productivity needs to be managed. There’s no job to be lost if that management goes poorly. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have these periods of unproductivity.

As I was saying, since this latest surge of productivity, I’ve felt free to spend some time on less remunerative projects, like doing some writing in Esperanto. And that brought me to a realization: It’s dumb to think that I shouldn’t work on stuff that I’m interested in, just because it’s not the most important work I could be doing.

I think part of the reason I’ve been doing it is that I thought it might motivate me to get my important work done. I know some people bribe themselves by withholding permission to play with side projects until they’ve done an appropriate amount of work on the main projects. But it has never been an effective technique for me. Maybe it helps a little when I’m just feeling lazy. But being unproductive is different from being lazy, and it doesn’t work at all for that.

More important, I think I’ve finally figured out that this behavior is actively harmful. These other things I do—drawing, poetry, Esperanto—probably help me be productive. They’re not a waste of time that I could be spending on important projects. Rather, they’re a pathway back into productivity. Being productive—even being productive on something that doesn’t earn any money or advance my career—is still being productive. And experiencing productivity after a period of unproductivity is positive. It leads to more productivity.

In the past, getting started being productive again has always been the hard part. Maybe this will help. Maybe, if I can be productive on some frivolous task (without agonizing too much over the fact that it is frivolous), I’ll be able to bootstrap that experience of productivity into productivity in other areas.

In the meantime, I’m being productive again in a wide range of areas. Go me.

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3 thoughts on “When I’m unproductive”

  1. A good meditation on productivity and its antithesis, and on how both are necessary.

    I am amused by your recollections about working in software development. I have some thoughts on your efforts to be honest, to be productive, and in floundering at times in that environment.

    First, most managers aren’t really very good at managing because they have no training in leadership, which is what management really needs to be. As Adm. Grace Murray Hopper said, “You don’t manage people. You lead them,” and that is what I learned both while earning an MS in Technical Management and in serving as the adult alumni adviser (and mentor, guide, role model, leader, teacher, friend, and older and wiser Brother) to my fraternity.

    Second, most managers in software development traditionally have had no insight into the process of software development because software development was chaotic, anarchic, dependent upon heroes. That is, they didn’t know what you and other software developers were doing, so they had no way of knowing what they were supposed to do. That is partly the fault of upper management for failing to provide guidelines of how one manages and leads software developers in the process of software development. If there is no repeatable, defined, managed, and optimized process, then there is nothing to judge effort against. Vague concepts such as “milestones” and “deliverables” outside of a well-define process are meaningless. Moreover, without productivity statistics and estimates based upon those statistics, all estimates are SWAGs (Stupid, Wild Ass Guesses), so it isn’t surprising that neither you nor your managers could tell how much time and effort would be involved. Fortunately, this chaotic and undefined approach to developing software is being replaced by genuine software engineering, that is, of the application of true engineering science and discipline to the craft of programming, much like that taught at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, where I was taught how to be a software engineer.

    And finally, most managers are idiots, not all, surely, but most are. Certainly most that I worked under have been idiots, primadonnas, strutting and mindless RickPerrys, stunningly neurotic, and occasionally borderline psychotic.

  2. I always felt sorry for anyone stuck with the job of managing me.

    Toward the end of my career, my last manager seemed to be trying to ease me into management. He had me “lead” a couple of tiny, short-term projects.

    On one of them, I was really busy with something else, so I just told the other guys, “Here’s what we’re trying to do,” and let them go do it without me, while I worked on the thing I needed to get done. And in a few hours, they came back with the work entirely completed. I was able to go back to my manager and say, “Hey, those guys you asked to help me did the whole job for me! Here’s what they came up with.”

    It was the first time I began to understand why someone might want to be a manager. But mostly, I’m sure being a manager would suck: Your entire success depends on other people doing work that you couldn’t do yourself. Ugh.

  3. Phil writes, “I always felt sorry for anyone stuck with the job of managing me.” As I recall, they weren’t exactly thrilled about it, either. 🙂

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