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Productivity is NOT About Focus; It’s About Balance

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Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

I go around the productivity carousel quite often. The carousel consists of fairly established points: first, I feel I’m not progressing as much as I should. Then I implement various productivity hacks (e.g., planning my days, goal setting, and Pomodoro sessions). When none works, I consume productivity blogs/books/podcasts, looking for the “trick”. Finally, I remember that productivity is a capitalistic concept and try to allow myself to rest and not feel guilty about forgetting, again, that productivity is a capitalistic concept.

A lot of productivity advice would suggest that I must Focus on One Thing: choose my primary pursuit and invest all my time and energy into it. Of course, there are plenty of advantages to focusing on one thing. James Clear, for instance, who is the latest productivity guru, lays it all out very nicely in this post.

Don’t get me wrong; I respect James Clear. I think he gives great advice in a widely accessible way. But I have a couple of problems with the idea that focusing on one thing is the best solution.

First, it is privileged advice. You cannot focus on One Thing if you care for children or elderly parents, have to deal with physical or mental issues, or if your mind is eroded daily by microaggressions. In other words, it’s excellent advice for white cishet men. Our society prevents quite a lot of people from Focusing on One Thing by not providing us with free quality child care, free quality healthcare, etc.

But here is my second issue with capitalistic “productivity systems” that advocate Focusing on One Thing. It doesn’t allow for learning and experimenting. It doesn’t mesh with art.

Art is inherently unplannable, unfocused, and exploratory. If you only sit at your desk and write, pretty soon, you’ll start writing stories about writers. Julia Cameron offers the metaphor of filling the well; Ray Bradbury calls it feeding the Muse; Twyla Tharp collects inspiration into boxes. Artists have to get out, meet people, and experience the world. In Benjamin Franklin’s words, you either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. And Focusing on One Thing doesn’t allow for that because you always feel guilty for not doing that one thing.

Focusing on One Thing not only doesn’t mesh with art but also doesn’t mesh with humans. When did you last think, ‘Yes, I’m this one thing and one thing only’? It can happen periodically, sure, but overall? Overall, people are complex, multifaceted, and contradictory. We say one thing and mean another. We think we want something when in fact, we want something else. And that’s ok.

My point is that, at least for me, being a productive artist isn’t about focusing solely on my art. It’s about finding a balance between ‘applying bum to chair’ and letting myself explore without feeling guilty about it. In my limited experience, the breakthroughs come only when you are at your desk, working on the piece in question. But they cannot happen without all the exploratory stuff, the stuff that makes non-writers think that writing is easy because they see you travel or go to art exhibits or read books out in the park.


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