Universal Productivity

“The universe, the Greeks believed, was not indifferent. The gods take an interest in human affairs, and intercede for good or ill in our designs.” – Steven Pressfield

This post isn’t about being universally productive. ((That’s what Productive Anywhere was written for.)) It’s about how the higher forces of the universe conspire to help us get our work done – if we let them.

I know, I know: That sounds pretty woo-woo. But there’s a psychological motive behind it: Normally, we don’t procrastinate just because we’re lazy. We procrastinate for one of the following reasons:

  1. We don’t know with which task to start.
  2. The task at hand is too big.
  3. We feel too small or too unimportant to create something that matters.

One way to overcome these reasons is by turning to the universe.

1. Where to Start

My former boss at Cologne university is an inspiring person. While he normally won’t show up at the office early in the morning, he gets a lot of stuff done: He delivers classes, does his thinking and his research, writes books, and organizes extracurricular courses for students interested in the liberal arts. To make things more interesting, he does all that while pulling off a painting career, living in two different cities, and taking regular trips to places like the US or the Maledives.

To be sure, his first productivity secret may be that he has en excellent secretary and a great support team. These are the advantages of being a professor, and I wouldn’t count on the universe to bring them to my mobile office anytime soon. But when I talked to him about productivity, I learned some interesting tricks.

The first thing my boss told me was that – like most of us – he sometimes struggles with deciding about which task to work on. This is a problem well-known to most creative types, because we might not have too many urgent tasks to do, but many matters of importance. ((We should always be aware of the difference!))

Here’s what he does: When he doesn’t know where to start, he writes a numbered list of the six most important tasks that occur to him. Then, he rolls a dice – and lets the universe decide where to begin. ((If you’d like this more prosaic, you could simply call it chance. But would that still be as helpful?))

As strange as this first sounds, it actually makes sense. From my own experience, a lot of time can be wasted with deciding about which issue to tackle first. By making this decision easier, we can spend more time creating and less time thinking about what to do next.

2. Slow Down Time

As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of working under (voluntarily imposed) pressure of time: Instead of reserving a whole day for my creative endeavors, I prefer to schedule a meeting in the park or some other joyful activity in the afternoon, so that I feel more commited to sit down and work in the morning. ((This also works for night owls – the enjoyable activity being a drink in the bar or a good night’s sleep!))

As it turns out, it is possible to reduce our working time in a manner that isn’t stressful – and that actually allows us to multiply its effectiveness! The trick my boss uses to achieve this is to use hour glasses. He owns several of them in different sizes, and he uses them to limit his work sessions.

The hour glasses give him an instant visual feedback about how much time has passed already. But I’d say that their importance as physical objects are just as important. A digital timer would have quite a different appeal. As my boss says, “time measured by sand counts twice as much.”

Interestingly, a similar approach is used by the users of the pomodoro technique: They spend their day working in 25-minute intervals, followed by 5-minute breaks. Originally, the approach recommends an old mechanical kitchen timer to measure those intervals – but the tic-toc sound of that timer is still being preserved in most digital pomodoro apps. While there may not be a hard reason for it, it still seems to work wonders for a whole lot of people – akin to a totem or a talisman: Having a physical object to accompany you during your work can be of great help. ((My favorite places when it comes to working under time pressure are trains: The steady movement of the waggon and the time limitation involved allows me to write much more focused. Altering my bosses’ phrase, I’d go so far to say that time spent on trains counts twice as much. (You may notice at times that small children and office commuters apparently feel the same and get rapidly bored during their train trips. I can only recommend to start writing books to all of them.)

So what’s the physical object involved in that case?

I don’t know, but an 86-ton locomotive with the equivalent of 8,600 hp at rail probably isn’t too shabby to get some support from the higher forces.))

3. Invoke the Muse

Steven Pressfield doesn’t look like an esoteric hippie to me. Still, he’s famous for writing about the “invisible psychic forces” that support creative workers all around the globe in his book The War of Art: “Our ancestors were keenly cognizant of forces and energies whose seat was not in this material sphere but in a loftier, more mysterious one.”

Pressfield calls the forces in our support our Muse – and he recommends to respect her, and ask for her support: “We’re never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our Muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly. […] The last thing I do before I sit down to work is say my prayer to the Muse. I say it out loud, in absolute earnest. Only then do I get down to business.”

Pressfield’s invocation of the Muse is taken from Homer’s Odyssee, but it could just as well be the lyrics of your favorite song or a poem written by your grandmother. It could be a portal, as described in Beyond Rules. It’s not about the text you choose, but about the meaning it has for you.

Psychological Tricks

Throwing a dice to decide on a task?
Having a talisman to slow down time?
Reading a poem to get into work mode?

You may think that these are nothing but cheap psychological tricks, and that you can do without them.

And maybe you can.

But the thing is this: These “tricks” weren’t invented just to get things done faster or be more efficient. They aren’t new ways to procrastinate, either. ((As is much of what Merlin Mann likes to call productivity porn.))

What I’d like you to consider is that these “tricks” have been working surprisingly well for a surprisingly large number of people over a surprisingly long time. They have been working so well, indeed, that they’ve brought us some of the most marvelous pieces of art, some of the most insightful books, and probably even some of the most entertaining blog posts.

The next time you find yourself stuck, cede some of your power to the higher forces and watch what happens.

Fear not: You won’t be cheating. You’ll still have to put the work in yourself, in order to win laurels. But maybe the universe will make things a tad easier.

Comments 7

Comments are closed.