My first cubicle job was working as a graduate intern at Southern Connecticut State University. To be fair, it wasn’t a true heads-down-no-talking cubicle job. Being a graduate intern in Student Life requires a lot of energy, as well as considerable availability beyond the 9–5 hours. But, I was working in a manmade box, and some days were spent entirely at my desk, being — or trying to look — busy with menial tasks while dreaming of other things.
In retrospect, I’ve come to appreciate my job there, but it was during those cubicle days when I made an entry in “Thoughts”, one of my running Notesy files:
I wish I wasn’t so busy so I could get things done.
In rereading that sentence, I remember what it was like to be a busy graduate intern — busy in the sense of having lots of little things that needed to be checked off, none of which I truly cared about.
At the time, Quarter-Life Enlightenment was still just a pipe dream in the back of my head, waiting outside the bonds of 9–5 cubicle life. I wished I didn’t have so many obligations so I could focus on the things I was passionate about. I wanted to make things. Things that mattered. I don’t have time to fill out van request forms; I have a life to live!
I was reminded of this period of my life while reading Michael Lopp’s most recent piece, “A Precious Hour”, wherein he discusses the dichotomy between busyness (the “Faux-Zone” of productivity) and creation (the true Zone):
As a frequent occupant of the Faux-Zone, I can attest to its fake productive deliciousness. There is actual value for me in ripping through to my to-do list. I am getting important things done. I am unblocking others. I am moving an important piece of information from Point A to Point B. I am crossing this item off… just so. Yum. However, while essential to getting things done, the Faux-Zone is not a replacement for the actual Zone, and no matter how many meetings I have or how many to-dos are crossed off… just so… the sensation that I am truly being productive, that I am building a thing, is false.
My day job as a graduate intern was, for all intents and purposes, full of busyness. Many things needed to be done, but rare was the opportunity to create something. I may not have been conscious of it at the time, but this busyness frustrated me.
It wasn’t until I was asked to prepare a presentation for the annual Student Leadership Retreat that I found fulfillment. My “Simple Happiness” presentation was a labor of love and probably one of the best things to come out of my time at Southern (relationships notwithstanding). It wasn’t a to-do item to be checked off. It wasn’t some arbitrary task that had nothing to do with who I was as a person. It was a chance to build something I cared about and something that would have real meaning for people. It was a chance to create.
If nothing else, I appreciate my old cubicle for showing me that I will die should I ever be forced to work in one full-time. I need a creative outlet where I get to be nerdy and make things, whether it’s a slideshow about minimalism or daily articles on QLE.
As Lopp points out, though, busyness isn’t quite unnecessary. Things do need to get checked off, and at most jobs, that’s how you get recognized. The more things you check off, the more things you are given. The better you are at checking things off, the more trust and responsibility you receive.
But, if you’re like me, you can’t be busy all the time. You need to be able to make stuff. You need to be able to focus on the work you care about, even if it’s not the work you get paid to do.
But where do you find the time?
There are lots of productivity systems out there. Personally, I’m a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but the name never sat quite right with me. It always sounded like an endless quest to cross things off of to-do lists. Because what happens when you get things done? Other things take their place. Thus, there never really is a “done” moment. You’re always trying to get down to zero tasks — to “done” — but it never arrives. What’s the point?
It’s true: there will always be more things that need to get done. But what I realize now about the GTD system — and about productivity in general — is that it’s not about getting down to zero. That’s impossible; you’re never going to run out of tasks to do. What productivity does is help you control the busyness. If you don’t manage all the tasks that need to be done whether you like it or not, the time to create vanishes.
Thus, what we need to be able to do is find the space to create. We need to be able to get all the little things done quickly and efficiently so that there’s time for what really matters. Controlling the busyness, rather than allowing it to control you, creates space in your life. Beautiful space. And time. Time that can then be used for what’s most important, whether that’s spending time with loved ones, exercising, or creating.
Acknowledge the busyness. It’s here to stay. But learn to keep it confined. Do not let it run your life. Find the method that works best for you, and stick to it.
There’s a time to be busy, and there’s a time to create. The world will always provide us with busyness. Finding the time and space to create is up to us.
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