Aggressively Useless

There’s a dark shadow over my life. 

It casts itself on everything – what I see, touch, do, think.  It’s particularly concerned with how I spend my time.  How early I wake up, what I do once I’m up.  What I think about when I’m eating breakfast.  It envelops my morning routine like a thick fog, enveloping all around it.

It inserts itself in my choices about what to read, what to watch, and always, always, what to do.

It particularly likes to get its hands on thoughts around leisure.  Even on the weekend the shadow shows up – maybe even darker, more demanding than other days.  It drapes itself over my bed as soon as I open my eyes Saturday morning.  Sundays are no better. 

This shadow is a demand – a demand for progress, a demand for value, a demand for usefulness.  It permeates everything around me.  And it makes it hard to do things like write, just to write.  Now I have to write useful things.  Things that other people might find interesting, or valuable, or thought provoking.  Or things that might make me think more clearly.  Or things that will just make me a better writer, for some long term, as-yet-not-foreseen purpose.

It’s not just writing that gets ruined.  Watching TV?  That has to have some deeper value – some learning or insight.  Books need to be deep and philosophical, or maybe they need to be self help books, or best of all, books to help me succeed at work.  Exercise has to be as efficient and impactful as possible.  Can’t just run slowly because I feel like it.  I’ve got to be on a plan, perfectly prescribed, and backed up by science.  Or people who sound like they could like, know some science.  If I’m going to commit to ‘leisure’, fine, but activities should be carefully planned to maximize said leisure, thus ensuring that essential-non-productive time is kept to a minimum.

This shadow is everywhere.  Its presence dominates the lives of myself and the people around me.  I don’t know if I can stop that, I’m not at all sure I want to.  Still, a little rebellion is good, to keep things on balance.  Finding a little extra time to do something without greater value (a distraction, maybe) isn’t quite enough – to rebel, you’ve got to make sure it’s clear that this is no accident, not a slip up, but an act, a statement, defiance.

What better way to assert oneself as an agent in control of his faculties than to do something that no one could possibly argue in favor of.  Learn how to find water using a divining rod.  Binge watch an entire reality TV series.  Learn something – but make it something so esoteric that no one can possibly make an argument that it will be useful to you professionally or personally.

Just try, for a bit, being purposefully, aggressively, useless.

Social Media Does Not Count as a Break.

It’s Tuesday afternoon. 3:15. I’m at my desk, computer open, headphones on. I pull up Facebook. Then my email. Maybe there’s something new on Vimeo. Back to email.

I have things to do, of course. There’s always more work than there is time. I enjoy my work. I don’t loathe turning on my computer in the morning, or coming back from a vacation – in fact, I often look forward to it. So why am I checking Facebook again?

Like everyone (I hope), I sometimes just don’t have it in me. Maybe I didn’t sleep well the night before. Maybe I’ve been working on difficult problems all morning, and now I can’t face the thought of trying to create a new solution, or understand a new problem right at this moment.

So I type in F and let chrome autocomplete fill in again. Nonsense. Scroll down. More nonsense. Check email again. Go get a snack.

Except, when I get back from that snack, or discover once again that there’s nothing interesting on Facebook, I still don’t want to work. The little break I took didn’t recharge me, it made me more bored, more desperate for distraction. So, in most cases, I immediately, unthinkingly, start the process again. Facebook. Email. Reddit. Repeat.

Somehow this feels even more sinister when you work from home, or in any environment where you’re not next to your coworkers. When you’re at an office, or a grocery store, or a ski shop, (all places I’ve worked in the past) you are proving your value to the company on a superficial level simply by physically being in the correct location. Even if you’re not doing anything productive, at least everybody knows you’re not enjoying yourself somewhere else. Suffering is almost as good as productivity.

At home, no one knows what I’m doing – so I feel a strange urge to sit at my desk. After all – even if I’m not being productive, at least Im in the right place, right? That’s what my employment history taught me was important.

At some point, spurred by the particularly progressive environment at Automattic, it occurred to me to just give up the charade. Nobody cares if I’m at my desk from 9 – 5. If I don’t feel like working at 3:15 on a Tuesday, I can just stop working. Play a game, watch a movie – or better yet, get up and walk away from the computer. Go for a walk, or a bike ride. Read a book. Work on the bench I’m building. Take the kids to the park. Do anything except sit at the desk and suffer.

Initially, this feels really wrong – the reason I allow myself to check Facebook is because I can do it quickly, and come back to work. 2 minute break, I tell myself. I can’t get the kids to the park and back in 2 minutes. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon – a trip to the park will. The responsible employee just glances at Facebook and then gets back to it.

Except that’s not how it works. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon in theory – but depending on my mood, I won’t be back to doing productive work in 2 minutes. Sometimes I won’t be back to productive work in 30 minutes, or an hour, or 2 hours. What’s worse, I’ll be enduring a potent mix of boredom, self loathing, and irritation the entire time. By choosing a distraction that

  • I don’t really like
  • Is very short

I’m guaranteed to finish it almost exactly as I started. My brain hasn’t had time to recharge and there hasn’t been time (or reason) for my mood to change, so I’ll just start again. Except this time I know that I’m once again choosing to take a break, piling on a second helping of the self loathing that comes from knowing that I’m making a decision not to work when I feel like I should.

I’I haven’t found a way to force myself to do things when I’m not in the mood (with occasional exceptions – like pending deadlines, broken production code, etc). I’ll keep working on that, although I’m not sure it’s possible in any sort of sustainable way. In the meantime, at least I can make the best of my downtime.

Choosing to sit at the computer and consume social media when I feel like I need a break under the guise of “getting back to work quickly”, or “staying at my desk” is not innocuous. It’s bad for me, and therefore my work (and my employer), as I almost end up in a worse mental state than when I started.

So, you know, lay off Facebook in the middle of the day.