How to be Productive

Personal, Politics, Rambles

I do a lot of stuff. I organise at least an event a week, alongside keeping a regular half-week job and running a dual career in theatre and poetry. I spend a lot of time in meetings, doing online publicity, holding back the incoming tide of email, capering around event spaces, and cycling between those various things. All of this, coupled with the necessities of artistic self-promotion and the inanities of the endlessly networked, gives the (not unfounded) impression of ceaseless productive activity. One of the effects of looking like I am always busy, always juggling projects, is that I regularly get asked “How are you so productive?” or, sometimes less kindlily, “How the hell do you do so much stuff?” So I thought I’d put all the answers in one place, and next time somebody asks I can increase my productivity by eliminating the vague hand-waving and just sending them a link. A quick word before the unsolicited advice: The internet abounds in productivity guides, life-hacks, self-help manuals, and other capitalistic detritus. This is not one of those. Apart from offering some potentially useful advice, the main thing I want to do is to point out all the ways that productivity sucks, provides no answers to the actually meaningful problems of existence, and largely stems from anxiety, neurosis and internalised oppression. All of this advice is entirely serious, and entirely not.

Productivity Tips

1. Develop an incapacitating social anxiety

If you find spending time in noisy crowds difficult, and if small quantities of alcohol and other recreational drugs make your anxieties even more severe, you will be able to justifiably avoid wasting so much time having fun. Less parties = more time to be spent productively. If meeting new people or deepening relationships with acquaintances costs you rather than gains you energy, you’re better off avoiding situations where you might have to make friends. While all your peers are wasting time enjoying themselves, you can be at home writing emails. You can also cope with your fear of intimacy by replacing your need for deep relationships with regular, effective meetings. This will give you enough social contact that you won’t feel entirely isolated, but avoid the need to have lengthy conversations about your feelings with more than one or two highly trusted people. This is a great time-saving strategy. For even more productivity, make sure that you have several discrete projects on the go at once, each organised through a different social network. Having three meetings with different affinity groups in one day will make you feel very connected, without you having to spend time and energy actually connecting with people. As a bonus, this will make you seem even more productive than you actually are, because you can hasten your exit from each meeting with the words “I have to get to another meeting.”

2. Play video games

There is a toxic cycle which many potentially productive people find themselves trapped in. It goes something like this: You wake up seemingly full of energy, and knowing that you have half a dozen extremely important things to do during the day. You’re quite sure you’ll be able to do them. Better get started. You shower, breakfast, and maybe tidy your room a little. Then you feel a twinge of self-doubt: maybe you don’t have as much energy as you thought. You think, “I’ll just play half an hour of Railroad Tycoon, so that I can build up some energy to do that work.” An hour later, you’re angry with yourself for not having closed Railroad Tycoon yet, and, now that it’s 11.30am, anxious that you won’t be able to accomplish everything you wanted to do with your day. So you play a little more Railroad Tycoon, because there’s no way you can start work in that frame of mind. Now it’s 2 in the afternoon, and you realise you should probably go get some lunch. You successfully make your lunch, and think maybe you’re getting your energy back, so you reward yourself with a little more Railroad Tycoon. Rinse and repeat. By the end of the day you have accomplished nothing, and you feel absolutely terrible, and when you wake up the next morning you will have a weird sense of inevitable self-defeat and will deliberately play Railroad Tycoon as soon as the day begins so that you can prove to yourself that you’re just as much of a failure as you think you are. The trick to avoiding this is to give up right at the beginning. Here’s how: Most of the things you need to do will have a soft deadline (when you’d like to get it done by) and a hard deadline (when it absolutely has to be done by). You can safely ignore the soft deadline, and generally miss the hard deadline by a day, without anything bad happening. After applying those rules, if you have found at least a day’s leeway, then the moment you feel that twinge of doubt, that suspicion that you might not have the energy to do everything that you need to do, at that moment, give up, and give yourself permission to play Railroad Tycoon all day. You can replace “Railroad Tycoon” with whatever other repetitive, unproductive activity you enjoy – watching HBO drama series, updating internet meme generators, following Twitter gossip. Give yourself permission to do it. In the best case scenario, by 3pm you’ll have got bored of Railroad Tycoon and you’ll find yourself able to do maybe half an hour of emails before you feel the need to play it again – this is OK, you’ll still finish the day feeling not too shabby. A common variation is that you won’t do any work that day, but will wake up genuinely full of energy and able to get stuff done the next day. Unfortunately, it may sometimes take two or three days of playing Railroad Tycoon for this to happen. As long as you don’t go too far past a hard deadline, this is OK. Some important notes on this strategy:

  • It only works if you honestly give yourself permission. No tricks, no double-deals, especially of the “I can play two hours of Railroad Tycoon now in return for two hours work later in the day” variety.
  • This strategy is necessary because that initial twinge is your body/mind telling you that you have over-committed (see point 5) and need to take a break.
  • As a result, this strategy means you will sometimes turn in sub-standard work, or turn in work a little late. This is OK: the important thing is to stay productive.
  • This strategy does not work when you are well past a hard deadline. No amount of Railroad Tycoon will dismiss your over-arching sense of failure in this case. For what to do when this happens, see point 5.

3. Consistently subject yourself to the judgement of others

You are far more likely to do something if somebody else expects you to do it than if you merely expect yourself to do it. To put this another way, you are more scared of other people thinking you are a failure than of thinking yourself to be a failure, because all of your work is predicated on the assumption that you are already a failure anyway (see point 4). The friendlier title for this section is thus “do everything collaboratively”. If, in a meeting, you commit in front of other people to completing a task, you are again more likely to actually do it than if you vaguely will it so in your mind, or even than if you write it on a to do list by yourself. Moreover, you’ll find your collaborators actively suggesting more things for you to do, or you’ll find yourself coming up with more things to do to impress them, thereby increasing your productivity again. The effect may be exponential – two people do more than twice the work of one person, four people more than twice the work again, and so on – or it may be logarithmic, with great initial gains as more people are added, but with diminishing returns and eventual asymptotic impediments. There is another productivity bonus here. If you are working with a supportive group of collaborators, you will eventually have other people to rely on. Thus, when you are exhausted, depleted, and spend whole weeks at home playing Railroad Tycoon, other people will be continuing your project. This gives everything you instigate greater longevity and resilience, allowing you to remain obliged for longer, and preventing you from giving up on your great projects. Even when you are better off giving up the ghost, you will find yourself drawing out your project’s demise in order to please all your collaborators, who are themselves wishing it could all be over, themselves unable to fail in the eyes of others, or in yours.

4. Allow your mind to be colonised by late capitalist conceptions of self-worth

Why do you want to be productive, anyway? It is because in late capitalism your measure of worth as a human being is how much you produce. This may be income, artistic success, strategic outcomes, or something else entirely – whatever the precise measure, it is always a measure of productivity. Late capitalism requires this measure because the basic economic operation of capital is to increase the efficiency of capital’s self-reproduction – which is to say, to drive down the cost of labour and to drive up the rate of productivity. In order for your boss to make a profit, the process of production needs to get more efficient (cheaper and more productive), so that your boss can compete successfully with other bosses. (N.B. Sometimes your boss is obviously a boss, but sometimes it is your friend, and sometimes it is you.) As capitalism grew into late capitalism, the insistence on being a productive member of society became increasingly internalised, shifting from an enforced rule to a social imperative to a personal neurosis. This is because it is far more efficient to install whips in your mind than to pay somebody else to whip you. It is because you are guilty. You are privileged. (You are reading this on the internet, and you have the time to spare to read a 3000-word essay on productivity, so I feel this generalisation is reasonable.) You feel the need to make up for your privilege – to give something back. Perhaps you feel you owe it to your parents, perhaps to society at large, perhaps to the oppressed of the world off whose backs you have profited, perhaps to the greater good, perhaps just to yourself, if you are an Objectivist. (If you are an Objectivist, please go and read some grown-up books now.) Whatever way, you are in debt, and you are working frantically to make it up. You feel that maybe if you do enough work Nobodaddy will not punish you. It is because you are already a failure. You can never do enough work. The more work you do, the more you will perceive the abyss between your accomplishments and your potential for redemption. This is especially the case in post-Christian societies in which the myths of delayed gratification and redemption are still extant, without the theology required to resolve the personal crisis. You are a sinner without a confessional, and so you work. If you ensure that at least one of these systems of neuroses is firmly embedded in your psyche, you will be a far more productive person.

5. Regularly over-commit, but never by more than 10-15%

There are physical limits, and temporal limits, and emotional limits. If you are anything like me, you will want to do far more work, perhaps infinitely more work, than you can actually do. This makes over-commitment – where you have promised yourself (or, if you follow my advice, others) that you will do more work than is actually possible – extremely likely. Over-commitment is not in itself an impediment to productivity. You can’t bend time, but you can work your body and your mind harder than they can take. This is called “pushing your limits”, or, if your boss (again, sometimes your boss is you) is particularly cunning/brutal/disingenuous, “pushing your boundaries”. Your initial judgement of your limits is probably correct, and so pushing your limits will make you ill, but it will also make you more productive. If you’re smart or lucky, you can time your illness, which may manifest itself as anything from a head cold to a nervous breakdown, to coincide with your holiday; or, if you do not take holidays, then with your period of least commitment. In addition, over time you will become accustomed to these bouts of productivity-induced illness, and you will have pushed your limits back; the down-side here is that you will then need to be even more productive in order to satisfy yourself and your boss, in much the same way as regular ecstasy users have to take stronger and larger doses in order to reach the same level of euphoria, thereby always pushing up their threshold. One trick to managing all this is not to push things too far too quickly. I find that an over-commitment level of 10-15% above capacity is enough to avoid the illness ever being a nervous breakdown, but you are likely to find your own level, partly dependent on how many other coping strategies you have. The other trick, again, is to know when to give up. If you regularly over-commit to increase your productivity, you will occasionally totally fail, you will occasionally have to pull the plug on a project – or, at least, pull yourself out of it. This is OK. Sometimes your projects will fail: the important thing is to stay productive. Collaborators are often helpful here, in that they can keep the project going without you, but occasionally a hindrance, in that they delay the plug-pulling (see point 3). The best way to kill a project is to kill it before you make yourself ill through over-commitment. That way you can keep going on the catastrophe curve for longer. If you let yourself get ill first, especially if it’s a particularly serious illness, you’ll find yourself having to kill more projects than you would otherwise have needed to. The more regularly you over-commit, the easier it will get to see the crash coming and to throw out the ballast before it happens. You will hurt people doing this, and you will fail them. This, of course, is the price of productivity. A final piece of advice on this subject, then: make your apology as soon as possible, and make it short and simple. The people you failed do not need a lengthy explanation, because the longer the explanation the more it seems like an excuse, and nobody wants your excuses. Just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this, because I over-committed”, and leave it at that. They will then forgive you quicker, which helps, because you’re probably pretty terrible at forgiving yourself (see point 4). The quicker you make your apology, and the simpler you make it, the sooner you can pick yourself up and start being productive again.

6. Get a bike

Really. It’s the quickest way to get around most towns, so that you can fit more in the day; it gives you regular exercise, which is good for consistent work-flow and supports enough emotional well-being to keep all those productivity anxieties at bay; and it will probably make you sexier.

Last Words

You may have found the self-loathing in this essay a little repellent. That’s fine: self-loathing finds itself repellent; that’s the whole deal. But here’s the thing: I know almost no-one in my society who has successfully entirely beaten off the internalised oppression that is the productivity drive. Some people get there by smoking a lot of weed, but there’s often a certain desperation and self-delusion there. Some people get there through lots of practise in meditation, which is less prone to the same self-delusion, but at the same time is often used reprehensibly as a “retreat” or a “detox” designed to increase year-round productivity rather than as a daily practise. Some people get there just by being really awesome anti-capitalists, and I love them for it, especially because anti-capitalist movements are some of the social circles most prone to burnout I’ve ever encountered – even more than poetry. But very few people get there, and you are unlikely to. This is OK. This is OK, because in many ways the quest for self-improvement is just another thing to be productive about (fitter, happier, more productive, &c.) Anxiety reproduces itself like capital: the most pernicious anxiety is the guilt you have for feeling anxious. The last thing I want you to feel is “Oh great, now I get to feel bad for wanting to be productive, on top of feeling bad about not being productive enough”. You are what your society has made you, and you are not obliged to struggle against this any more than you can. It’s healthy to be an anti-capitalist, but it’s also tough, so you don’t need to push your struggle harder than you can take. Or, at least, not more than 10-15% harder. Besides, there’s a world that needs fixing outside yourself, and for all that I once wrote a dissertation on a Daoist theory of political practise, it’s pretty reasonable to want to work hard to fix it.

CrisisArt: Day Five

Personal, Politics, Theatre

Collective Project

The final day was a change of process: a collective project involving the whole festival community of 40-50 artists. Most of this post reflects on the use of non-hierarchical consensus decision-making in artistic contexts: for more on what this stuff is about, try Seeds for Change.

The Festival has been organised by a collective working on non-hierarchical consensus principles. Throughout the week, they’ve encouraged us to be part of that process – invited us to meetings, opened decisions. I’m not sure how much this has been taken up by participants, though: the invitation is there, but I haven’t felt hugely empowered or motivated to join in the process, whether through tiredness or having so much to do already, or through something more structural.

Yesterday, however, the group as a whole very much entered the organising process. The collective had planned an ensemble project – the idea was that we’d spend the day in smaller groups devising a series of performances to be given in the town of Arezzo. As the format was explained, a number of concerns started coming from the group about what we were doing: Could we develop a quality performance in time? What was the point of performing in public? Were we parachuting in with a message that didn’t respond to the town itself? What kind of responsibility did we have as artists to show the importance of art, given Italy’s funding crisis?

These questions gradually transitioned into a full collective decision-making process. This is not something we were prepared for, or which many of the group had extensive experience with, which made it challenging, exciting, rewarding, tiring – all of that. I was struck by the willingness of the group to embrace what was happening, even though it was emotionally difficult. The longer the decision-making process went on (about four hours in total), the more willing people were to make it work, and the harder they worked.

A lot of what happened confirmed my faith in consensus, because the more we applied formal consensus strategies, the clearer the process seemed to get for the group. As we creaked into discussion, there was a lot of distress, confusion and frustration, but as we gained trust in each other and our ability to reach a conclusion, things began to feel exhilarating.

We did achieve a consensus: we agreed to try and create not so much a performance but a happening, an exercise we could conduct in the town to explore our responses to it (and to crisis). This, we hoped, would keep the stakes low, make it less a definite communication to the audience and more a way of taking the artistic process to an outside space. Having got this far, the applause we gave ourselves seemed deserved.

What happened next is also very interesting. As we moved into preparation, the group’s lack of consensus experience showed: we reverted to type, relying on the guidance of a clear director, and as a result defaulting to rehearsing a performance rather than preparing an experiment. When concerns were raised about the direction of the work, the pressures of time and the need to perform, plus the presence of clear leaders, prevented fully engaged discussion from taking place. In the end, it reached a point where I personally didn’t feel comfortable performing what we’d created, because I didn’t feel ownership of it and didn’t feel it addressed the concerns we began with.

I didn’t feel too bad about this. I didn’t feel any anger or frustration, really – more guilty that I wasn’t to keep going with the process and had to explain why, which would inevitably hurt feelings a little. Despite doing a lot of consensus work, I’ve never before felt that the group was going in a direction I couldn’t support – I was going to need to stand aside from the decision to take the performance into town. This cost me, emotionally, as it did the other three who felt similarly.

These negative feelings, though, were very much outweighed by a real sense of pride in the group. I was so pleased that we had tried to go through this process, that we had attempted to embrace the collectivity we were aiming for. It’s hardly surprising that I felt the process failed – given a group of 40, with very little consensus experience, was trying to make a piece of art that mattered in just eight hours total, from scratch. It would have been surprising if we succeeded! I was delighted we gave it a shout, and it was one of the most productive artistic failures I’ve ever been part of, as such a learning experience for everyone involved.

The End

We reached the end of the festival. It’s been the most intense festival I’ve ever been part of. My brain hasn’t felt this awake in a long time. I’ve had so many brilliant conversations and debates, done some really good thinking about what my work is and where it’s going. As an artist-led project, the combination of workshops, discussions and performances was particularly valuable, creating a real sense of shared learning, and an excellent format for combining theory and practise into praxis. There have been occasional failures and frustrations, but I’ve mostly been excited by them too. I’m delighted to have been part of it.

CrisisArt: Day Four

Personal, Politics, Theatre

Morning Workshop

I spent the morning with Joe Culpepper of Ars Mechanica, looking at the role of magic effects in theatre. I really went along out of dorky fascination with magic, and in memory of the kid who bought terrible magic kits way back when. And that kid was pretty satisfied by the workshop: I learned some cut-and-restored rope effects that were tremendously fun and I hope will stick in my mind.

At the same time, though, there’s a body of theory to chew about what the particular role of magic is. One of my preoccupations in performance theory is the Stanislavski-vs-Brecht dialectic: whether theatre is reminding the audience of its artificiality, or seeking to make them forget that they’re in the theatre at all. Are they suspending disbelief and having critical distance, or are they caught up in illusion and belief? And in any given show, what can a magic effect do? It can have narrative power and spectacular delight, but what does it do to the audience’s experience? When the audience has forgotten they are in a theatre, does the effectiveness of its illusion remind them again? When the audience is knowingly suspending disbelief, does an effective illusion make them believe again, and is that itself a kind of estrangement?

Afternoon Presentations

Jane Lawson talked us through her art project Bioremediation – a combined portrait series and durational piece, in which she painted almost faceless portraits of architects of neoliberalism and then introduced oyster mushrooms to eat away and thus detoxify their images. Bioremediation is a name for the process whereby fungi clean toxins from an environment – in a way, their application to the portraits was a simple metaphor for cleaning up capitalism, but at the same time the portraits served as a food source to produce a viable mushroom crop for the future. Beautiful, beautiful! I thought a little about the role of useful and useless acts in arts-activism: this in a sense was both. The metaphor has no direct productivity – all its results are emotional, psychological, in a way indirect – but at the same time the food of the mushrooms has a more direct, physical effect. But then which is the more effective? Which, if either, changes the world more?

Some of the organising collective, under the name UnRuly Women, presented a first draft of a performance called “Mother Courage Can’t Stand Her Children”. It’s a contemporary version of the Brecht original, in which Mother Courage sells merchandise to profit from the Occupy movement, and her feckless children are gradually persuaded by its ideas. The metaphor works, and the choice of source is a strong way to look at the inter-generational conflict which characterises much of the more psychological discussion of Occupy. Here I thought less about the politics, though, and more about the artistic effect. What does it mean to reframe an established text or myth? When does it work, and when doesn’t it? The thing I thought most regularly was that direct parallels could sometimes be a very shallow aesthetic device, but could sometimes be a hugely productive metaphor (“carrying over”). For example, when this Kattrin banged on the car (cart) roof at the cops’ approach, it served no dramatic function because there was no village to warn, and so to me seemed for shallowly aesthetic; but when this Mother Courage did not push her car manually at the end, but instead leaned against it and lit a cigarette, it meant something very powerful indeed.

Evening Performances

As with yesterday, I’m not blogging the discussions of the performances separately, instead writing up that later discussion through my thoughts on them.

I was first up.  I gave what might have been the strongest performance if This is not a riot, which is good, considering it might be the end of the project. Perhaps me deciding it would be the final performance freed me or made me less anxious – either way, I had a blast. My performance was tighter and more invested. I changed and added some elements – for those who know the show, during “Ultra Violence Pop Quiz” I had the audience answer verbally rather than physically, which made it both more fun and more confrontational, and I added an Epilogue in which all the stuffed animals were given away is talismanic “riot bears” for the audience to take with them to give them strength on future protests, which finally gave the show a strong dramatic, or in this case ritual, ending. Anyhow, I couldn’t be happier to say goodbye to the piece, and this was the perfect context to wish it a fond farewell.

Commentary later gave me three key criticisms which I’ll take with me into further pieces. First, in my discussion of violence, I entirely overlooked gender violence, which I really should have talked about given  the context – gender is a big issue for the politics off riot. It’s important for me to realise that, even as a committed feminist, I can forget about gender dimensions in politics if I’m not careful. Second, I was brought up on my disingenuousness: I keep claiming that I try to give space  for the audience to disagree with my arguments, but I definitely didn’t give enough space in this show – something I’ve already started addressing in Class Act. Third, someone very perceptively spotted  an inconsistency in my dramatic motivation: for most of the show, I’m very clearly trying to open up the audience’s idea of what a riot is, but in the final third my aim is more clearly to train them to deal with one fixed idea of riot. I know how this happened during development, and I know that to prevent this happening again I need to bring trusted, incisive outside eyes in earlier. The depth of that commentary shows that I couldn’t have hoped for a better audience, something I haven’t felt since Buzzcut.

Second was a pair of dance pieces from Joan Gavaler. Both explored the combination of poetry and dance. As a poet, this was fascinating. I wrote yesterday about how dance excites me for its ability to open up contradictions and problematics in its subjects through the freedom of abstraction; these were both interesting in that they took a much more illustrative and representational approach to the texts – more beautiful than challenging. More important, though, was how Joan introduced them: “I’ll come clean,” she said, “My crisis is professional stagnation.” I was very moved by this honesty, and reminded of the many roles a laboratory like this can have: while I was seeking to make an argument for a particular type of performance, and sign off on one edition, she was seeking something more processual, something more about personal discovery.

Finally was a performance by Greek company Angelus Novus of a text loosely translating as Damn You, Sons of Bitches. It was physically and musically beautiful, but of course all Greek to me, so it’s hard to discuss to explicitly political context, though there was much to think about artistically. Most of all, though, without being overly aesthetic, something about a person talking passionately and urgently to you in a language you cannot understand is impossibly tragic, in a way that says something perhaps about the tragedy of all art.