More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

Value Is Not Essence

There’s a popular productivity technique called time blocking. It’s where you set aside a number of hours each day for particular tasks, so you know exactly what you’ll be doing during any specified period of time. For example, I may have a block of time from 10 AM – 12 PM where I write everyday, followed by an hour in which I have lunch, and then a time from 1 PM – 3 PM where I write again.

Recently, I found myself struggling with time management, so I decided to try time blocking to get myself back on track. On Sunday evening, I outlined my schedule for the upcoming Monday, creating nice little visual blocks to indicate when I’ll be writing, when I’ll be doing administrative work, when I’ll be reading, and so on. Within a span of minutes, I knew exactly what I’d be doing the next day.

Well, Monday arrived, and so did my commitment to adhere to this schedule. I successfully checked off my first morning block of writing, and felt great about jumping into the afternoon. The afternoon arrived, and I finished the list of tasks I set out to do then too. The day was a total success from a productivity standpoint.

But… I’ve since discarded time blocking, and have yet to use it again.

That may seem odd, given that I should want to carry over my prior day success to the subsequent one. After all, isn’t that what it means to be productive? To systemize your day so that each one ensures you extract the most value possible?

Well, the answer is that it depends, but more specifically, it depends on what it means for you to have a “successful day.” And the problem with most productivity advice is that it assumes what a “successful day” is on your behalf.

It is this very issue that I want to delve into today.

There are two great truths that have profound implications on the way we view ourselves, but they live on opposite sides of a continuum.  On one hand is the truth that “you are enough.” That there’s something special about you – with your unique blend of strengths and flaws – that makes you worthy of being on this earth.

But on the other side, a different shade of truth is shared, which is just as poignant as the one just discussed. And that great truth is the imperative to “do great work.” That what makes you a contributor to the engine of human progress is your ability to create great things that people would find useful. This is applicable not just to the entrepreneur building products that millions of people use, but also to the mother working tirelessly to raise her child right. What makes life worthwhile are the challenges that keep you sharp and the hurdles you overcome to fulfill your potential.

These two truths – “you are enough” and “do great work” are contradictory in nature, and our great conundrum is to somehow make them cohere. How do we accept what we simply are, while also knowing that there’s something we’re trying to become?

I’ve thought through this question rather deeply, and have a couple of ways to answer it. But rather than provide all the answers at once, I’m going to just delve into one of my responses, and tie that into the question of productivity.

One of the ways to make them cohere is to first realize when there’s any part of your life that’s too skewed to either pole. Because when any given side is too strong, then it’s only a matter of time where you forget that the opposite truth lives on the other side.

For example, if you go around believing that you are enough but treat yourself like you’re God’s gift to mankind, then you’re one step away from falling off the precipice of sanity. Yes, you are enough, but also, you’ve forgotten that much of that enough-ness comes from being a decent person that thinks about the well-being of others. We are all interconnected, and believing that you are somehow exempt from means that you’re delusional.

On the flip side, if all you care about is doing great work that is useful to others, you will define yourself by what you produce. You will become a caricature of what others want from you, and you will forget what it means to be you in every sense of the word. The most common form of this is the existential crisis that hits workaholics once they burnout and realize that without their work, they struggle to identify who they really are.

Although an existential crisis is an extreme form of this lopsided dynamic, it’s an example of how little habits and perspectives can compound over time into something scary. And this is precisely where productivity culture fails us in many ways.

The reason why I stopped time blocking shortly after I tried it is because I noticed that I defined the “success” of a day based off what I produced. That because I got the requisite number of writing hours in, I felt proud of how that day materialized. And while that may sound sensical, I didn’t like how I forgot all the other happenings of my day as a result of this success.

I forgot about the way my daughter danced in a particularly silly way in between those blocks of work time. I forgot how nice the day was when I went for my morning run before my day “officially” started. I forgot about the gratitude I felt for my wife making a hot meal for me to eat.

In other words, I anchored the progress of my day wholly to the blocks of work I set for myself, which made the rest of the day a series of peripheral footnotes that I would forget to revisit. “Do great work” became my mantra, and “you are enough” was discarded from view.

With that said, I know that in the end, I can mindfully use time blocking or any other productivity technique without falling into the trap that my work defines me. There’s just too many beautiful things happening for me to lose sight of that.

But I also know how compounding works, and how it’s not just money that follows its trajectory, but perspective as well. And anything that asks you to view time through the lens of what you produce can easily make your week fall into the same pattern, which can then extend outward to months and years.

If there’s one takeaway here, it’s to be careful of when you believe that the essence of who you are is determined by the value you contribute. Without reflection, this is the natural pathway we take. So be mindful of the little moments in life where you may be making that error, and remove them before those seeds have a chance to plant themselves into the soil of your mind.


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For more stories and reflections of this nature:

The Time Trap of Productivity

The Function of Education

The Staircase of the Self

"How do you find your ideas?"

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