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An “Interesting” Experience and Playful Productivity

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Trigger warning:  References to imagined – not actual – death 

I had an “interesting” experience a few weeks ago that brought into focus for me the importance of using time well.
To make the story less stressful, I’ll tell you the end first.  I’m absolutely fine.  Nothing to worry about.
However, that wasn’t completely clear a few weeks ago.  I was getting chest pains.  My breathing was going a bit weird.  I was feeling dizzy and spacey. My blood pressure was all over the place.  Naturally, I was wondering “Is this nothing or am I about to have a heart attack?”  I saw a nurse. She said it was probably nothing but she’d refer me for checks.  Then for about two weeks it was coming and going.  Nothing dramatic, but a growing thought that something might suddenly happen or, going to bed, I might not wake up.
After a couple of weeks, it got worse and I went back to the doctors’ practice.  The receptionist asked some questions about pain, dizziness etc.  Unexpectedly, she said I should go straight to the hospital emergency department. 
Now THAT was quite an Uber ride.  Looking out of the window as we drove down familiar roads thinking, maybe this is IT.  This might be the last time. 
There was a bit of a wait.  And another hour or two of sitting with the possibility something was about to go pop.
In the end, it was all fine.  Not totally clear but a combination of a chest infection, muscle strain and the stress of not knowing what was happening all going around in a loop feeding each other.  All manageable.  “You’re safe,” said the doctor with impressive solidity.

Regret as a Compass

Regret can remind us to what we really care about.  

What came through for me in those two weeks and the unexpected Uber to the emergency department was the regret of wasted time. Time I’d wasted in distraction, overthinking and worrying about things that don’t matter.  And all the things I never got around to doing because I’d run out of time day by day, week by week, year by year. 
You know what I mean?  The things you genuinely intend to do, but somehow never quite get around to.  I think that’s how it is for many things.  We do mean to do them but at some point we run out of time.
February 13th wasn’t THE day.  But one day it will be.  Remembering that experience brings me back to spending my future time and energy in a way I won’t regret.  Maybe you’ve had a similar experience of your own.

Using Our Time Well

What could be more important than using our time well?  “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” as Annie Dillard wrote.

I find this lens of “using time well” much more engaging than “productivity.”  Productivity to me often implies “how to do more things.”  And usually implies work.
But “using time well” applies to all parts of our lives.  Playing with your child could be the absolute best use of an afternoon.  Or fully enjoying a country walk. Or doing some excellent work. 
Regularly slogging through a task that’s draining the life from you, or leisure that’s not really nourishing may not be.
As Oliver Burkeman writes in his excellent 4,000 Weeks, there’s no “life hack” that will enable you to do everything.  Instead, there are choices. 

Optimising for Joy

I’ve been enjoying doctor-turned-productivity coach Ali Abdaal around this.  One part of his approach is to “optimise for joy”.  If your only tool is more effort, you’re burning a lot of energy and attention.  So rather than constantly trying to force yourself through a task, instead think “How could I make this more enjoyable or fun?”  If you’re resistant to doing it, how could you make it easier or reduce your internal resistance.

“It’s usually not the doing that’s hard.  It’s the thinking about the doing.”  

Michael Neill

You could use Focusmate to work alongside someone.  Use the Pomodoro technique to break it down into smaller pieces.  Write a clear set of instructions for yourself so you’re not confused.  Remind yourself how this serves something you care about.  Or more radically – either don’t do it or pay someone else to do it.  Whatever works. 
Some things are hard.  That’s OK.  They can still be a good use of time.  But if you’re always forcing yourself against your natural joy, that’s unlikely to be sustainable.
Bringing more joy, play and alignment into work and life can help us stop pushing a boulder uphill, as Ali Abdaal puts it.  And help us find more joy, flow and ease. 
A playful, open attitude can support that by cultivating more joy, finding creative workarounds, and building our reservoir of fun.


If you’d like to keep connecting with creativity and joy in your how you use your time, improv can be a good support for that. You might also like these resources.

Oliver Burkeman 4,000 Weeks. He also has an audio series on Sam Harris’s Waking Up app.  Ask me for a link for a month’s free trial if you want it.  It doesn’t lock you into a subscription.  It just expires a month after you first use it.
Some Ali Abdaal YouTube videos I’ve enjoyed (He talks quite fast.  I hope it’s clear enough if English isn’t your first language.) 

If you prefer reading, Ali Abdaal’s book is Feel Good Productivity wherever you get books.

Michael Neill has lots on what’s called “Three Principles” – a kind of mindfulness style exploration of relaxing out of constricted thinking into a broader awareness. You can browse his YouTube channel here.

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