WHY WE MAKE.

This essay was originally published in The Human in the Machine.

the ear*

WHAT IS PRODUCTIVITY?

“Being productive” can be defined as using time, imagination, and energy efficiently. It’s minimizing waste and maximizing meaningful output.

the brow

We’re inclined to see productivity as a byproduct of effective process. It’s often considered an accident (“wow, I was productive today!”), a statistic (“the solar eclipse cost the U.S. economy $700M in productivity”), or a means to an end (the product). It’s more often predicate than it is subject, second to the fact that, say, a project has been completed.

But being productive is itself a meaty process. For me, it’s the most important one, and it is the process of making well.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

the other ear

We struggle constantly to define who we are: not only to others, but to ourselves. It can be frightening to think of our selves primarily in terms of output. It’s simplistic and ostensibly offensive: certainly, we’re more than what we produce or make public. We’re sublime, right? More than molecules and matter, cogs in a cold system, or mere parts of a massive machine.

Sure, human beings can be transcendent. But we’re mainly earthbound, ascending through what we consume and what we craft.

Ultimately, we are the way we choose to make our lives.

COMPOSE A BIG PICTURE

Consistent efficiency over the long term is what defines true productivity for me.

the spine

Nothing enrages me more than when I feel I’m wasting time. I was commuting to the other side of San Francisco one hectic Tuesday to run an errand. Halfway there, I realized I’d forgotten my wallet and ID. I had to turn back, my carelessness costing me an entire morning. Even the most fastidious of us are prone to negligence.

“Time well spent” is a notion that shifts with will and perspective. One can say that rage itself is a wasteful activity, and that I could be using extra minutes, even those garnered by mistake, more resourcefully.

I remind myself that the final impact of one mistake alone is trivial, much as how a letter or word taken alone signifies little. Meaning comes from the shape of collective forms and spaces, how they’re juxtaposed; the affinities that rise to form chapters, the typeface I choose to use, the way an exclamation point or period sets the color of what comes before, and what comes after.

Basically: do sweat the small stuff, but in the context of momentum and continuity. Measure productivity by how the big picture is coming along.

SEEK EQUILIBRIUM

“Being productive” is a practice of balancing stillness and activity, consumption and production. Learning how to achieve equilibrium (delicate and usually short-lived) is probably a lifelong process, one fraught with vagaries.

the tail’s tip

I do become anxious when I’m not making something. I notice a slow-creeping anxiety and feeling of restlessness, of feeling bad, like I do after eating too many consecutive meals at restaurants. Suddenly, there’s torpor and heaviness; a slackening of form.

I love taking recess like any other person, and being well-rested is necessary to make well. But there’s a difference between intentional repose and laziness. It’s supremely easy to pass from the first to the second, like a ripe fruit translating into decay when your back is turned. The only way to counter it is to not turn your back.

In that tricky interstice I become busy and social and considerate. I become absent from myself. I fill my days with administration: appointments, buying groceries, making plans, consuming idly, holding meetings. I lapse into deferring to the needs of others rather than to those of my work. Partly, this is because I greatly enjoy social interactions, good food, luxury, and pleasure.

But productivity isn’t an accident. I have to choose it, and adjust to what it requires.

TAKE ONE STEP AT A TIME

As an inexperienced product designer, I used to start with seeking solutions rather than questions.

Eventually, all makers learn how misguided and inefficient that approach to problem-solving is. I could argue that even unseasoned designers “know” this, but abiding by that knowledge is difficult. Not thinking — at least initially — in terms of closed circuits can be surprisingly challenging: truly taking things one step at a time is messier, less certain, requires surrender of control, and almost certainly throws nascent narratives into ambiguity.

After all this time, I’ve become friends with uncertainty but the relationship remains an uneasy one. What I do know is that in order to be productive, I must have a compass, a map, and a route, but I need to spend most of my time moving rather than staring at the map. The route has to be flexible, and I have to adapt my plans to both terrain and climate. Along the way a lot will happen. I will change. I will also be an agent of change; the landscape will be influenced by my passage.

I keep in mind that my destination is a shifting construct, so I look at what’s directly in front of me first. Then I move.

the rump & tail

Here’s a little more about how I wend my way:

  1. Keep an eye on it.
    I’ve kept a daily record of how I spend my time since age seven. For a while it was mainly a long-running log of what I ate for dinner. Nowadays it’s a set of pithy bullet points guided by weekly targets. Sometimes I compose at the beginning of the day, other times I recap at its end. I have a loose set of long-term goals which I update and reassess occasionally: what I want to learn, accomplish, where I want to go, and why. I don’t go crazy with this though. The point is simply to avoid complacency, to help me track how I use my time and stay on current course.
  2. Prioritize solitude.
    In order for me to be most productive, I need to be alone. I try to reserve Mondays through Wednesdays with six contiguous hours blocked out at a time for creative work. I’m disinclined to negotiate this. If I get lax, traction becomes difficult. I minimize interfacing with other people and keep my phone on Do Not Disturb when my creative process is most fragile. An exception is when I take on client projects, then of course my priority becomes the client, usually for 6 to 8 weeks.
  3. Remove distractions.
    I’ve always loved drinking and socializing. Lately I’ve come to favor less bacchanalian activities. I will go to sleep at 9pm given the chance these days; I’ve no shame. I’d be ecstatic if I could do so every night in order to wake up at 4am, because early morning hours are fecund and magical. It’s also important to be physically active. I go to the gym almost daily, albeit for only 20 to 40 minutes at a time. (Truth be told, what I really look forward to is watching the Food Network while sweating it out.) Feeling good in the body means one fewer distraction, and being more alert and energized for making.
  4. Put away the phone.
    I’m unfortunately quite addicted to my phone. I’m working on this. The worst of it is that I’ve a bad habit of checking Twitter first thing when I wake. This is a shame because ideas have been fermenting all night and are particularly vulnerable to contamination as well as dissipation. I’ve tried a bunch of things like getting rid of the Twitter app and just using mobile web, or using Moment (super buggy) to help keep my addiction in check, but both of these just ended up creating more work and anxiety. Practicing self-discipline and choice works much better for me personally than being curbed by technology or tricks.
  5. Take breaks, have fun.
    It’s really bad for you to be stationary (sitting or standing). Plus, work benefits from curing between iterations. I try to time breaks and meals with when I should put the pen down: am I stuck? Is this a good point to call it a draft? Going for a walk is very good for creative rumination. Take an hour to walk to your errands or that museum exhibit you’ve been meaning to visit. Also, indulgence and pleasure are not sins, so break your rules and do something unexpected if it feels right.
  6. Remain curious.
    I pay attention to how much time I spend consuming versus time I spend making. The quality of what I make suffers if I don’t take in enough of the “good” stuff. I can’t stress enough how important it is to seek diverse experiences in order to be productive. Eat something you want to like but don’t yet. Read literature (I have suggestions, DM me). Learn a new language. Listen to your Trump-supporting building manager talk about his beloved father, and what else has influenced his views. Work as a farm hand in Tuscany. You’ll be enriched, and so will what you make.
  7. Keep good company.
    Quietly turn away from those who take up time and energy but do not add to your life, and consequently, your work. Honor the time you had together, when you were different people and were able to edify each other. Then make room for the individuals you’re able to do this with now. Change is a sign that you’re growing, and the people you keep in your life are the ones changing with you in productive ways.
  8. Stay humble.
    Milestones don’t make you. Completing a project is merely an accomplishment. There’s no big trophy at the end! It’s just you and your process. Thinking this way will help reset your expectations and make making more fun, and more authentic.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. Back to work.

*The illustrations are based on Storyline 064, Drowsy kitty with lazy tail from the 2016 Storylines project.

Independent product designer, artist, advisor. @Twitter & @Wellesley alumna, the-line-between.com