With the COVID situation making all of us home-bound, many of us are in a fluid state of activity. You could cook whenever. Eat whenever. Have a meeting whenever. Clean whenever. Workout whenever. Many of us are in a state of ‘whenever’. You may have an office call at 7 pm or you may be able to watch Netflix at 2pm. But human beings usually don’t work optimally in such chaos. We can work. But it is not the best situation for us to be optimally productive.
Cal Newport in his book “Deep work” talks about how we are unable to contribute to the best of our ability because we are always distracted these days. Something is always pinging, buzzing, and calling our attention. Now with everybody at home, all structure has gone to the dogs with people having to respond to children, spouse, pets, parents, work calls, and sometimes all of the above, simultaneously. So while we are on that conference call on which we have been conveniently asked to go on mute, we can go ahead and tune it out completely not just by browsing social media, but we could even attempt to give our mutt a bath, while on mute. There is no structure. And human beings thrive on structure.
After completing my undergraduate degree, followed by post-graduation and after working for a couple of corporations, I imagined that having nothing to do at all-no alarms, no deadlines, no external pressures to be somewhere or do something was going to be amazing. My last job had me out of the house at 6 am and home by 7 pm and during peak seasons, it was a 6am to 11pm workday- 6 days a week. So when my life led me to a break from that, I thought it was going to be fun. I binged on TV shows, slept till noon, ate lunch at 4pm……. But after a while the lack of structure gets old. You realize that there is a fine line between freedom and bumming around. Suddenly one day, and that day clicks into place for different people at different times, one realizes that one needs to put in a structure for the sake of one’s own sanity, let alone productivity.
Structure gives us the predictability we need to get to productivity. It also frees up our brains to think about other things while the structured things run on autopilot. In David Allen’s book on ” Getting things done”, he expounds the value of getting every thought that comes into your head onto paper so that you can break it down, prioritize and get it done. My favorite quote from David is ” Your brain is meant for thinking thoughts, not for holding them”. When things overwhelm me, I write it down to give me structure- be it a list of things to do, stuff to buy, people to call or simply a cathartic cleanse. David recommends doing that for every single thought that comes into your head..
I am not a person who likes structure. I loathe doing the same thing repeatedly. So I try to outsource my discipline to the best of my ability. More than money, people get me committed to something. More than paying money to a gym, having a buddy waiting for me makes me turn up for a workout. Having a buddy commits me to a diet, reading a book, attempting meditation, writing a blog… I need the support of a social structure.
While not having anything to do sounds like a dream situation when your life is harried, it is ironic that we can also enjoy downtime or time without demands only when they have a little structure to them. Even at your leisure, it is important to list down your activities, prioritize them because otherwise, when you suddenly have a window of 60 minutes because of a magically cancelled appointment, you can easily lose it by surfing cat videos on Facebook instead of watching the TED Talk that you were dying to see. After all, you have only 86,400 seconds per day. Use it or lose it !