A Year of Not
A Year of Not
My fingers have hovered over my keyboard a number of times this year, but I’ve not written. That’s been in keeping with 2018; a year of deliberately not doing many things. I’ve not worked, much. I’ve not tried very hard. I’ve not worried as much. I’ve not written. I’ve not done rather than done. Yet its been one of the best and, surprisingly, productive years of my life.
Back when I wrote and gave my TEDx talk, I was — as I deliberately made evident — in a state of contradiction. Talking about ambition negatively whilst still working hard at it. A year ago, with great relief, I finally quit and wrote my reasons for doing so in my article ‘A Founder not a CEO’.
Since then, I’ve not done a lot — which sounds unproductive, but it has been the opposite. I have, in fact, got far closer to the ideal self I described in my TEDx talk. One of the reasons why I started this blog was because I had an intuition that — if you’ll forgive the cliche — less is more. This year has reinforced that. My lack of focus on productivity has been so productive that I feel it important to share — or as ever, to write about it so I better understand it myself.
At the beginning of the year I was burned out and ready for a break. Armed with the resources from previous work and frugality, I didn’t need to earn money for a bit. So I set about focusing on breaking old patterns. I’ve gotten up late, ignored exciting projects, travelled, wandered the streets without a destination, chatted to people without needing to get away, pottered, done unproductive things, followed my curiosity, lounged and generally taken it easy.
What’s been most fascinating is how much I’ve got done without trying, and how much I’ve enjoyed myself. I’d assumed — as I believe many of those lucky enough to be educated at ‘elite schools and universities’ do — that if I stopped striving, things could fall apart. We’re taught that without goals, direction, desire, drive, rigour, focus and persistence then us humans will descend into a state of uselessness and worthlessness.
Yet the opposite has been true. There’s a somewhat subtle yet astonishing counter-intuitiveness which is hard to explain. Let’s see if I can capture it, if not very eloquently…
It goes something like this if you let go, you get a better hold of things. Or, if you work like it’s the weekend all the time (e.g. with no pressure), you can actually get more done.
Life has it’s own momentum and if you let it work its magic, you will make progress. If anything trying to go faster than the natural momentum can create more stress and fatigue than it can accelerated momentum.
For example, here are some more counterintuitive:
I’ve worried less about keeping up with friends, deleted facebook and yet this year has felt like I’ve made and continued connections more deeply. Less friends, perhaps but more intimacy and meaningful interaction with people. That feels much deeper.
I’ve only worked on the things that most interested me, regardless of ‘priority’ yet somehow I’ve started two businesses, a degree and feel more professionally fulfilled than ever — all in perhaps 3–5 hours at a desk each day, when I have worked. Priorities have taken care of themselves.
Other non-counterintuitive but important things have happened too:
I’ve not earned, but in the time and space opened up through not going to a desk each day, I’ve ended up spending less. Home-cooked food, travel by bus, deals and natural experiences are much easier to find and enjoy if time is on your side. A friend and I have guesstimated that half of our previous income was spent trying to ‘buy back’ time we’d lost by being busy — think Deliveroo, Uber, efficiency tools… Working harder seems to cost people money… oh and stress, sleep, intimacy, health and many more.
I’m healthier, having just had to put two new notches into my belt. The extra time has enabled me to research health, focus on it and then act on my learnings. Intermittent fasting, diet, exercise and so on has all been easier, because I’ve had time and space.
This all sounds easy, but one of the most interesting things has been how hard it has been to upkeep this rhythm, or lack of it. When at events, I get asked ‘what do you do’ and have often replied ‘retired’ or ‘unemployed’, mainly as a provocation. Yet the point being that society wants you to be busy, to categorise you into a role. Less is not more economically, or politically. Buddhist countries do not make for economic growth and GDP ratings. Top universities are not measured by happiness of students or holistic learning, but achievement and hard bloody graft. We don’t teach meditation, diet, how to regulate emotions, health etc in the classrooms today (a separate post is perhaps brewing on how terrible the curriculum is re: important tools for life). Imagine if we did.
I’ve found that advertising, facebook (until I deleted it) and my own education has me constantly challenging my desire to do not much. As per every good meditation session, sitting doing nothing is in fact, really really hard. But also like meditation, it’s only when you do give yourself that space that the good shit happens.
Boredom is a bad thing, our society might suggest. Yet it has only been through becoming comfortable with boredom, or not doing that the things I really want to do have emerged. There is another counter-intuition — the best ideas often come on the far side of space and time, not a busy schedule. Paul Graham reminds us of this in his Makers Schedule article: http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html
I’ve had to constantly repel attempts to snare me into meetings. I’ve unsubscribed from every email newsletter. Asked people not to leave me voicemails. I used to love staying in the loop and now I’m actively trying to stay out of it. Saying no to requests for advice, chats, lunches, coffees and so on is hard, because I love to help and understand new opportunities. But much like Ricardo Semler’s terminal days (https://tim.blog/2017/03/19/ricardo-semler/), my favourite days of all are the ones when my diary has no appointments at all. I’ve been optimising, perhaps unhealthily or in reaction to previous years, for freedom. A day with no appointments means I can do the things I want to do, not the things I placed in my diary weeks ago because I thought it might be useful.
All of this is, I admit, an extraordinary privilege. Tell this to my neighbours in Kenya who ride motorbikes, or go out fishing to feed their families, and this would reinforce certain stereotypes. Yet they also seem to understand the wonder of community, of time off, of lettings things unfurl at their own pace better than we do in the developed world.
For me, I remind myself every day of this privilege — but also to slow down, to not get caught up in advertising, desires and wants. Technology has served to give us all the information we need and efficiencies and yet we work harder and are more distracted than ever. I’ve had to let myself get bored. To actively not be active. To prevent the creep of desires and things and achievement. Ego mainly, wanting to push harder.
The most important thing to take away is that I have been the most fulfilled in my life, without actively working at my fulfilment. If there was a single lesson it has been that working at this — the cessation of wants, desires and activity — has brought me far more peace and satisfaction than achieving them. Yet I’ve got a way to go…
I recently purchased a coveted car and my main reaction has been to want more cars. How weird is that. It has cost me money, caused issues (been vandalised 2x), taken up time and yet my desire has been to get another.
Welcome to the madness…
Originally published at simpletom.co.uk on November 29, 2018.
A Year of Not
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