This is the Hidden Power of Being Unproductive

The Hanged Man is a reminder to step off the path and see the world in a new way.


Forty three days have passed since January 1st, which means I’ve notched 43 entries in my logbook. But, there’s no need for fanfare or celebration; it’s a pretty easy habit to keep: at the end of the day, I simply write down everything I did and guesstimate how long I spent doing it.

logbook

But if it’s so easy, then what’s the point? What am I getting out of it?

I have a few thoughts (more on that soon), but to be honest…I’m not entirely sure. I started this habit without expectation. There wasn’t any particular thing I was hoping to get out of it. It’s just something I decided I’d try because…why not?

You could flip that question around and ask, “why bother?” You could say it sounds like an inefficient and unproductive use of my time. You might be right.

But that’s kind of the point.


Creative people are often asked about their “process.” But creativity is not like making a sandwich—a series of replicable steps that always lead to the desired outcome. And so, the creative process ends up being a series of habits cultivated around creativity (e.g. making coffee by hand, taking walks, or scheduling time to think) in blind hope that they will lead to a creative breakthrough. But there is no guarantee of success.

Those kinds of activities might feel unproductive, but, as Austin Kleon says:

“It is always a mistake to equate productivity and creativity. They are not the same. In fact, they are often at odds with each other: one is often most creative when one is least productive.”

We are taught to value time in terms of productivity—the volume of emails answered, the number of words written, the amount of widgets produced—and not in terms of creativity—ideas generated (because 9 out of 10 are bad), skills practiced (which often results in work that’s simply discarded), or experiments done (most of which are failures or dead ends). Thomas Edison allegedly discovered 10,000 ways to not make a lightbulb—but would we remember him or his work had he not discovered the one way that actually worked?

If you want to be more creative, you have to stop worrying about being “unproductive.” You have to do things (like my logbook) without the expectation of a clear benefit. You must have faith in the fact that unproductive practices will eventually lead to some tangible good, even if you aren’t able to connect the dots immediately (or ever).

Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Reading Widely

Cormac McCarthy says it best:

“Books are made from other books.”

And the best way to make a better book (or better art) is to read a lot, and read a lot outside of your narrow field of interest. Surely you’ve heard this advice before—but maybe it’s seemed impractical or unhelpful? After all, how will a book on gardening help you write a book on starting a business?

It might not. But also, it might.

A recent survey of my own recent reads include a biography of President James Madison, a memoir on meat-eating, a blog about economics, a biography about Napoleon, and a newsletter about board game design. I choose these topics because they interest me, not because I think they’ll impact my work—but they almost always do.

  • A story about James Madison’s habit of writing private essays led me to reconsider my own journaling habits (or lack thereof).
  • The Napoleon biography and economics blog inspired a not-yet-published blog post about mastery.
  • A random, A-Z list of “tools” sparked the idea for my book, Improv ABC.

While I didn’t write specifically about Napoleon or economics, each of these reads influenced my work in ways I never would have anticipated.

Meditation

In December, I challenged everyone reading this to take on a small, 28 day challenge (shout out to Lynn and Marielle who followed through). Mine was to meditate for three minutes every day. I’d always heard about the benefits of meditation, but I never followed through because I was afraid it’d be a waste of time (the very fear this post is meant to address).

After the 28 days, I’m sad to say I did not become a master yogi.

So I started to wonder—was it doing it right? I asked my friend/meditation-expert Laura. She said I was doing right but was looking at it all wrong:

“It sounds like I did not mention the key thing about meditation, which is that the best way to approach it is without expectations of ‘getting’ anything (a clear mind, for instance). That is an unrealistic expectation. Meditators meditate simply to DO meditation. It is in the doing that grace descends. Especially at first, all one is really doing is learning to concentrate, and that in itself can take a very long time to master and master regularly, day in and day out. Even once one somewhat masters concentration, true meditation, i.e., clear mind, can be extremely brief (like measured in seconds or less). Through dedication to focus, one learns that focus is not about letting go of things you don’t want but by choosing, over and over and over again, what you DO want.”

The fact that I had chosen to meditate in the first place was a success, in and of itself. I had been so obsessed with the end goal (a clear mind) that I hadn’t noticed the benefits I had been accruing along the way, like learning to be calmer and having more focus.

Logbook

Although 43 days sounds like an eternity, it’s still too early to know how my logbook is/will help me. But I do have a guess—it’s all about noticing.

For example, I pride myself on reading for an hour basically every night before bed. But simply writing down if/when I’m reading made me realize that I was lying to myself. During the first 15 night of the year, I only read on 10 of them. As it turns out, 66% is very far from “basically every night.” I had stayed out too late, I had to get up early the next morning, I had been drinking—there was always an excuse. But the truth was that I just wasn’t prioritizing reading and had concocted a myth to delude myself into thinking that I was.

From there, I started making active choices to come home earlier, to drink less, or read for an hour during the day if I knew I wouldn’t be able to that night. I also started noticing on which days I made time for creativity versus those I didn’t—and I changed my behavior accordingly.


Productivity can beget creative success. After all, once you have a great idea, you have to actually do something with it. But a myopic focus on productivity above all else is incredibly dangerous.

Taking walks, doodling, brainstorming—all of these activities don’t feel productive because they don’t always produce tangible results you can point to. But you also cannot make spontaneous connections and dream up crazy ideas if you’re always engaged in “work.” You often have to be unproductive today—to do things with no expectations and no clear payoff—so you can be more creative and productive tomorrow.

Your One Task

Do something this week that feels unproductive (take a 15m walk without technology, meet up with an old friend for coffee, listen to a new podcast, etc). It may or may not lead to anything—and that’s A-OK. Then, reply to this email and let me know what you did.


Each week, I write a new article helping busy people find meaning and fulfillment through sustainable creative habits. If you enjoyed this week’s letter, you can sign up to get them delivered to your inbox each week by digital carrier pigeon.

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