What's the next
I’ve noticed a recurring theme in much of the best productivity advice, the kind that seems to make life more meaningful, as well as merely more productive: it’s that you should think about your work, and life-projects in general, in terms of concrete physical actions and artifacts in the material world.
Of course the Master himself, David Allen, makes the point in Getting Things Done: a good to-do list consists of physical next actions, things you can do with your limbs. (So not “get the car fixed”, which is a multi-step project, but “call Jim the mechanic”, which is the next action you can actually take.) It’s also implicit, I think, in Jordan Peterson’s repeated insistence on tiny, difference-making tasks – most famously, “tidying your room” – as the path out of misery and meaninglessness.
And in a recent episode of his podcast, Cal Newport makes the excellent suggestion (also explored in his book Deep Work) to set targets for focused work in terms of tangible products. If you aim to spend the morning planning a given project, aim to produce, say, a two-page strategic plan which you can print out and hold in your hands. Then print it out, and hold it in your hands.
This isn’t the place for a long rant about the pitfalls of the immaterial online world in which we increasingly spend our days. But it’s clearly one of the hazards of “knowledge work” – supercharged by the great pandemic-induced digital migration of 2020 – that it leaves people feeling disembodied, unrooted, “floating”, out of touch with their physical surroundings, perhaps also mildly depressed. And more prone to procrastination, distraction, and focusing on things other than what matters to them the most.
A big part of the problem is that in the purely mental realm of ideas, and the immaterial realm of the internet, it feels as though no limits apply. You get to pretend you’re a god. There’s always another initiative you could launch, another piece of preparatory research you could do, another message you could send or reply to. Plus you never quite have to confront the question of whether there’s enough time for all you plan to accomplish – because in a purely immaterial world, you can always squeeze more in.
But it’s a fantasy: since you won’t ever accomplish anything except in collaboration with the realm of the physical and limited, you feel a growing sense of dissonance, of having less purchase on life, and you lose the sense of having some effect on reality that’s central to wellbeing.
Confronting your limitations
Defining your work in terms of physical actions and outcomes slices through all that, because it forces a confrontation with limitation. When you replace “do some preparatory research” with “create a physical research summary document of up to five pages”, you make things more specific, which never hurts. But you also make them more concrete – a subtly different point, and which leads naturally to performing the work in a more discerning, outcome-focused way.
(Even “making decisions”, which can feel like the ultimate non-physical task, can be usefully re-expressed in physical terms, although you might have to risk feeling a bit silly: for example, you might aim to produce a one-page memo to yourself, expressing the decision you’ve made.)
There are vast philosophical dimensions to this topic that I’m avoiding here, partly because I don’t understand them. But in short: less Descartes, please, with his insistence on the mind and body as utterly distinct realms; and more Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French existentialist who saw that we could never flee the physical for the mental, because “the body is our general means of having a world”. Meaning gets made in the interactions between you, a physical thing, and the finite world in which you find yourself. Start by making sure that your to-do list isn’t full of things it wouldn’t ever be possible to physically, concretely do in the first place.
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