Category Archives: productivity

The Stages of Quarantined Life

Stage one: I finally have the spare time I’ve always wanted to be productive!
Revoking your membership in the cult of productivity does not occur as soon as you’re stuck at home. Initially in quarantine, the mindset that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement gets repurposed at home: organize every room, become an expert chef, write that book, create that podcast and get in shape.
This American hustle-culture is incentivized by the promise of something better — a promotion, a following, a future that’s more promising than the present. But our current level of uncertainty has thrown some doubt on that promise: will there be a future where promotions, followings, or the possibility of one’s personal effort making a difference be possible?

Stage two: Sharpen the saw.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,” goes the saying. Maybe you won’t be so aggressive with deliberate self-improvement or capitalizing on more time at home; instead you’ll do some much neglected ‘axe sharpening.’ Pump the breaks. Take a deep breath. This down time will replenish your deteriorated skills of introspection. At the end of this, with a mind more attuned for creative thought and a more solid inner self, eventually you’ll be able to resume the hustle with a more grounded set of expectations for yourself. By being forced to slow down, to spend more time in personal reflection, away from the noise and heave of the world, the quiet time, the privacy and the stillness will provide the opportunity to think about who you are in the service of fine tuning what you want to do and being who you want to be.

Stage Three: Being.
What’s left is to accept things as they are. The notion of taking advantage of the “extra” time and “sharpening the saw” implies some degree of discontentment with the present, which is at odds with the ability to feel equanimity and a sense of calm. What the pandemic has proven is something we have always known but like to ignore: everything can change in a single moment. When we feel there is a high correlation between our decisions and the outcomes we seek, productivity and sharpening the saw make sense. But when something impacts everyone at once, and ruins the most financially prepared, the most risk-averse, and those with the most foresight — as much as the reckless, we feel a sense of powerlessness against the injustice. Fighting against this injustice is really just denial or avoidance of what has always been the truth — we have no control.
The answer isn’t to do nothing; but, rather, to keep on working with undiminished focus and effort even when there will be no external reward or recognition at the finish. In other words, the act of performing a function for its own sake entirely. This mindset quickly whittles down priorities.
Seeking joy in doing things solely for the sake of doing them is not a threat to the future. There is a natural balance, out there somewhere, between fully enjoying the present moment while not putting your future self at risk. As Seneca said:

“Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones.”

This takes constant calibration as our human brains are always scheming to hijack the present for the sake of amplifying or mitigating the effects that such actions have on our invented selves.
In an effort to just be it makes sense that practicing self-restraint will increase joy. The pleasure we derive from something expands and contracts depending on its context in our minds. When pleasures are more occasional, they’re more pleasurable, and that’s reason enough to limit how often we indulge in them. Of course, all the usual reasons we exercise restraint — to save money, time, health, and the planet — only add to the rewards.
Being quarantined makes being a logical and appropriate objective. I don’t want more accomplishments, more proof, more wins. I don’t want to be more calm, more focused, more “in the moment.” I want to not want anything. No expectations, no reasons, no better or worse, just glorious being.

All Means And No End

Douglas Rushkoff in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus:

“We have set in place an economic system whose growth works against our own prosperity.”

He explains that the central assumption of our economic lives — that further economic growth will create continually rising prosperity for all — is broken. Companies are designed to take money out of the system so in the end they vacuum up the playing field altogether, impoverishing the markets, consumers and employees–on whom they ultimately depend.


As we unfortunately absorb capitalistic principles into our daily lives, we also have inherited their flaws. One of them being the need to constantly grow. And just as much as it is unsustainable for businesses, it is equally unsustainable in our daily lives since we can never be certain whether we have achieved enough. The inevitable consequence is disappointment from endless ambition on the one hand, and bitterness when things don’t work on on the other.


Matt Haig explains wonderfully in his book Reasons to Stay Alive how our culture constantly threatens us to “improve.”

“The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”

To achieve what Haig calls ‘the revolutionary act of being calm’ requires constraints. We tend to assume that “keeping our options open” means living with more freedom. Harry Emerson Fosdick provides an important context for freedom:

“Self-denial is not the negative, forbidding thing that often we shake our heads about. In one sense there is no such thing as self-denial, for what we call such is the necessary price we pay for things on which our hearts are set.”

One must choose to live up to standards based on one’s own judgment about what is good. Then when the world incites us to improve in some way we can interrogate those ideas and ask whether they are opportunities to exercise our values and, if they aren’t, we can be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ Within simple everyday things like working, walking outside, talking with people, bathing, and eating can be found all the opportunities to live according to chosen values and be fully awake, fully alive and fully human.


Self improvement has infiltrated all aspects of our lives as if to suggest that unless an activity is doing some kind of optimization or fulfills some end, it’s not worth doing. I like to think of meditation as just practicing ‘being’ — a time to attempt experiencing a reality deeper than goals, narratives, expectations and desires. But as Mike Powell in Meditation in the Time of Disruption points out, even meditation has been exploited to serve some kind of means.

“Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.”

“All told, this is a bleak picture,” writes Alexandra Schwartz in Improving Ourselves to Death, published in the New Yorker. She asks, “If the ideal of the optimized self isn’t simply a fad, or even a preference, but an economic necessity, how can any of us choose to live otherwise?” And then provides this answer:

“This isn’t a message of hopelessness. On the contrary, what it actually leads us towards is a better way of finding happiness. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from your demands.”

Recognize the coercion being acted upon you and free yourself from your demands. Find things to do that will not improve you in any measurable way. Go for a walk in the woods. Think about the vastness of the cosmos. Go to a museum and look at art. Or read a book.


In The Bookish Life: How To Read And Why, Joseph Epstein explains how reading is one of those things that don’t need to be of concrete use in order to have value.

“What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.”

Creative Fulfillment Versus Financial Security

Inciting Incident


You want to be able to support a family. You want to enjoy the leisure activities that signal a successful life like golf, skiing and traveling to exotic destinations. There’s more to life than just work.

Did your parents love what they did? No, to them a job was a job and the stuff that counted was what you did outside of work: family, friends, community, church, hobbies.

Instead of looking inward to find what work you want to do, you look outward at the work that needs doing. If everyone just did what they felt like who would create the jobs, discover the cures and innovate the technologies needed to bring about the progress our society desperately needs?

Besides, if you’re honest with yourself, the only thing you’re really “passionate” about is hanging out with friends — who’s hiring for that job? Rather than being a preexisting inclination, passion in a career germinates over time. If you don’t feel passionate about your career, especially as you’re getting started, that’s normal. You start with effort — investing the hard, unsexy, long-term work that’s needed for it to grow it into something deeply fulfilling.


Life is short. You only get one chance and you have to be true to yourself. It takes courage to ignore everyone and do what you know is right for you. You refuse to be among the 67% of people who either aren’t engaged at work or actively disengaged.

You saw how depressed and stressed-out your parents were squabbling over money — it ruined them. If you’re not careful you’ll get addicted too — like Nassim Nicholas Taleb says,“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

The only way to do great work is to love what you do. Every great idea ever brought to life was thanks to a person with a dream and the passion to see it through.

The world is waiting for you to have the courage to follow your bliss. You have a chance and to not even try would mean living a life of “what might have been.” Sure it’s risky but with high risk comes high reward.

Progressive Complication


You never find creative fulfillment. You put your head down and get to work, putting fulfillment on the back burner but by the time you lift your head again you’ve overweight, overstressed and you can’t help but feel a gnawing anxiety that it has slipped by without you being able to enjoy much of it.

You thought you could work hard for a while and once you had financial security you’d be able to do what you really love. But you’re in too deep and have grown too accustomed to a standard of living so high that you have no choice but to keep on going. Your co-workers, your kids and your wife are all depending on you.


You never find financial security. You’ve considered giving up on your dream to start over with a “normal” career a thousand times but you’re years behind everyone else. Your friends are all married and having kids and you’ve got no career capital to speak of – you’ve been waitressing, working retail or being an Uber driver your whole adult life.

You’re in debt, living in an apartment with roommates — with not much more to speak of than when you were in college. Giving up on your dream will prove to everyone else they were right and prove to yourself that you’re a failure.



You squeeze in time on nights and weekends to work on things that supplement your creative longing but you’re so exhausted every night that most of the time you put off investing effort into your creative ideas and settle for Netflix instead.

You’ve taken advantage of the money you’ve earned to pursue leisure and hobbies – playing golf, skiing and going on vacations to hawaii — all of which gives momentary respite but it’s not enough. You’re living for the weekend but even those are becoming scarce as the demands at work begin to creep into every aspect of your life. Despite everything you do for them, you can’t help but read from their looks that your kids are disappointed in you and you’re afraid that they’re right.


You squeeze in time on nights and weekends to build something to supplement your measly income but if you added it up it would still be way less than minimum wage. The work is tolerable and better than being broke and you tell yourself that it’s still creative in a way.

The more you build your business the less time you have for auditions and gigs. Does the mere existence of this side hustle prove that you’ve given up? You’ve gotten looks from friends that you can’t help but read as them thinking you’re selling out and you’re afraid you are too.



You take the leap and settle for a new job as a middle manager at another company. You tighten your belt financially – no more membership at the expensive health club, no more car leases, no more eating out nightly. You brace for the comments from coworkers about being ‘put out to pasture’.

You start cooking dinner at home and try mending relationships with your kids who are weary of your new presence in the home. Are you too late to be a part of their lives?

At night you dust off your brushes, canvas and easel and begin to paint. Alone in the garage with a painting in front of you that’s indistinguishable from a kindergartener’s, you begin to weep.


Pathetically, all of your earthly possessions fit easily into the back of your 2005 Nissan Centra when you moved out of the Valley to a condo in the suburbs where the rent is feasible and you have the space needed to work.

You sell your guitar amp for a round trip ticket to pitch your first big client. You land the sale — which is only because your bid was the lowest — and as soon as you get home and see your measly condo, everything still half packed in boxes, an overwhelming feeling of dread falls over you. The new client will see through the facade any moment and realize you’re an imposter.

You get a text from your roommate back in the city who forgot to remove you from the group text. They’re meeting up for a drink at your favorite bar. You begin to weep.



You pay for an overpriced booth at the county fair where you put your paintings up for sale, fully knowing there’s little chance you’ll even break even, but you’ve got to ‘put yourself out there.’

On the last night of the fair you sell your first painting. Your family is there to celebrate with you. Amid the hugs and high-fives your son pulls you aside and confides in you that he’s glad you stopped working so much.

That night, feeling wise, you tell your kids, “life is short – don’t worry about money, do what you love and enjoy life.”


Business has grown slowly but surely. It’s a stretch but you surprise your family with plane tickets to Hawaii — the first vacation you’ve ever been able to take them on.

After a long, satisfying day of body surfing, while eating pulled pork sandwiches at a food truck, your son looks across the table at you and tells you he’s proud of you.

On the last night of the trip, as you watch the sunset on the beach with your loved ones around you, feeling wise, you tell your kids, “life is short – get an education so that you can get a good job and enjoy life.”

All the best lists

Now is the golden age of lists. I have different kinds of lists that serve different purposes, but the main reason is summed up well with this quote:

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them”

David Allen

Here are my favorite lists:

  • Things to do for fun. I keep this list in a GoogleDoc. I’ve got camping & hiking destinations, local attractions I haven’t seen and yearly events I’d like to go to. It’s like a vacation itinerary for where I live.
  • Things to buy. I keep this list as an Amazon wish list. Adding things to the list usually suffices and I don’t end up buying anything. Instead I look at the list of neat things from time to time and feel empowered by not having to own them.
  • Things to buy other people. Gift ideas are hard. Whenever something comes up that a friend of family member would like, it goes on another Amazon wish list.
  • Todo’s. The quintessential list. The reminders app on iPhone takes the cake for this kind of list. The ability to set push reminders based on time or location is killer.
  • Music to listen to. I use playlists in Spotify marked by year and genre to dump bands and songs I’d like to listen to when I’ve got the time. Those playlists get refined into best-of playlists as I go.
  • Books to read. GoodReads is my go-to for keeping track of what to read next.
  • Books I’ve read. GoodReads again. I rarely buy books. Instead I keep a list of all the books I’ve ever read. This is just as pleasing to look at as a bookshelf but without the cost and space.
  • Articles to read. The majority of content I read online is in Feedly the RSS reader. I use the feature that allows you to bookmark any post to read later.
  • Articles I’ve read. Any articles I’ve read that I really enjoyed get posted to Twitter.
  • Ideas in the moment. It’s important to capture ideas when they occur instead of holding onto them and hoping you’ll remember them later. I have a personal belief that by writing down ideas as I get them, the muse gains confidence in me that I’m taking her ideas seriously so she is willing to give me more ideas. I carry a little notebook and pen in my wallet for this purpose.
  • Ideas in general. Workflowy holds multiple kinds of lists for me: story ideas, post ideas, podcast ideas, business ideas, video ideas.