Interesting stuff always lives in the cracks between aspirational plans and the monotony of everyday life. That’s why morning showers are a temple to existential thoughts, and why when walking home from the store you finally think of the witty one-liner you should have used in a conversation that ended days ago. It’s the beauty of white space. The things you see when you’re not really looking - the treasure in the gaps.

We rarely give ourselves room to think. We’re always in one place, running towards another, with metaphorical blinders on, and machines in our ears playing something just loud enough that we’re oblivious to the world unless we’re about to be smushed by a bus. When do our brains actually rest? Or better yet, when do we actively use them to do nothing but what they were made to do - for thinking.

Strangely, we know how to recognise the power of great thinkers - isolated geniuses and wise monks on mountain tops, hidden from the world. What the hell are they doing up there, if not creating space to think? Revelation lives in our distance from disarray.

The power of cognitive artefacts

We should make better use of complementary cognitive artefacts. Reading, writing, walking. Great ways of chewing a little time and doing a little useful ‘nothing’. But these tools are also powerful because they unlock our brains in indirect ways.

Cognitive artefacts are tools that help us think - you can do maths in your head, or you could use an abacus or even a calculator. All three are tools. Artefacts become parts of our minds when we use them, but the difference in value is in the impact they leave behind.

Complementary cognitive artefacts (maps, pen and paper, abacus, walking) are accessories that build on your knowledge even when removed, whereas competitive cognitive artefacts (computers, calculators, cars) detract instead. Mastering the calculator leaves you no better off when it is removed. If anything, over-reliance on competitive artefacts just erode our existing knowledge bases. To be clear, the divide between competitive and complementary artefacts isn’t as clear cut as digital vs analogue. Coding is a complementary artefact in the same way all languages are.

The benefits of complementary artefacts reach further than you might expect. You may already know that walking has the direct effect of making the heart pump faster, circulating blood and oxygen to the body and brain, but indirectly it also promotes connections between brain cells, stalls the natural deterioration of brain tissue as we age, increases the volume of the hippocampus, and stimulates the growth and transmittal energy of neutrons.

Other artefacts have a similar impact. Doing mental math has indirect effects on linguistic competence and geometric reasoning. Drawing helps with spatial reasoning. Writing in cursive helps with the acquisition of literacy - the rhythm of writing and spacing of letters is linked with learning to read clearer and faster. This only works when you’re using your hands rather than typing.

These artefacts make us better in more ways than we can anticipate. Progression with practice isn’t just linear, the number of dimensions they touch can make it exponential.

The illusion of productivity

The irony of our modern preoccupation with productivity is that it is largely mimetic. Its sense of necessity is largely prompted by others around us, even from a distance. Millions of people watch videos studying the morning routines of everyone from Pablo Picasso to Maya Angelou. I’m sure there’s a kernel of useful knowledge in these pursuits but the practical utility is often limited.

More often, people spend hours watching productivity videos while actively procrastinating as a form of masochistic self-flagellation concerning their apparent inability to do the things that really matter. Sounds brutal but I’ve been there too.

Productivity at its core is a form of movement. It’s positive inertia; finding traction over distraction. Often, the things we do to feel productive are simultaneously the things that create the most noise.

Bullet journaling is an easy example. Can it be useful? Yes. Is it often used as a tool to simulate something being done while actually doing nothing? Yes. It’s meant to be a tool for getting important things done and keeping track of what matters, yet a quick glance at youtube tutorials on the process indicates they’re more often devoted to the honourable art of to-do lists via scrapbooking.

Step one of adopting your new productivity system is to consume seven articles and eight videos on the topic. Step two is buying the recommended utensils. Obviously, in order to buy the right utensils, you must watch more videos and read more blog posts. Then, under the tutelage of your digital instructors, you spend a few hours tinkering with the layouts and grand page designs you’ll never actually use. Now, finally, you have permission to make the list of all the things you could have completed or iterated on in the time that elapsed since you opened the first youtube window.

Maybe I’m just speaking to myself here. I’m currently reading a book on how to tidy my room. I know how to tidy my room. I’ve done it a million times. But these last few weeks my room has reflected the whirlwind of my mind - hence the book. The question right now is whether it would be faster to spend 10 hours reading this book, or one hour tidying my room. This is the illusory magic of modern-day productivity. Brb, I’m going to tidy my room.

Beyond the binary

Is the secret to your newfound productivity the shiny new thing, or is it procrastinating long enough to find the bravery (or urgency) to put one foot in front of the other?

Distraction is cute, but distraction dressed up as productivity is downright gorgeous. It’s the honey glaze on a fine crust of tolerated misery.

Now we’ve touched on two seemingly binary options: doing the thing, vs doing the thing that feels like doing the thing. I’d like to briefly advocate for a third way. Doing nothing. As often as you can, in as many bitesize chunks as you can make time for - do nothing, intentionally.

Your nothing may not look like mine. It means different things to different people. You can put the time for nothing in your calendar if you need to, but it’s not on your to-do list. You can do nothing at any time by meditating or taking a walk, or journaling. When you’re trying to decide between doing and procrastinating, stop completely and take a little time to marinate in the stew of your own thoughts. Play with your complementary cognitive artefacts.

And once you’re done with your moment of nothing, think about what you need to do next. Not all the things you could possibly do, just one thing. To take a leaf from the book of the same name, ask yourself “what is the one thing I can do, such that by doing it everything else is easier or unnecessary?” That’s it.

It’s not always the shortest task, or easiest one, but it’s the task that unlocks the others - or at least the one that gives you the mental clarity to tackle the rest. The smallest possible domino that generates necessary inertia.

Do nothing, then one thing, then another.

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If you have any thoughts on productivity and free time, I’d love to hear from you! Reply via email, leave a comment, or send me a tweet!

I’d also love any thoughts on what I should write about next.

Read on for this week’s recommendations >>

 A woman wearing hijab holding a disposable cup while walking in New York: A photo by David Elikwu
Photo: by David Elikwu, in New York

Reading list

Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. Recommendations from newsletter readers are always welcome:

  1. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng - impulsively bought. I don’t quite remember what led me to buy this book. Traditionally I make purchases on a whim and then pick my next read from an anti-library of books I own but haven’t read. All of that to say, I really loved this.
  2. The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish - wishlisted. Shane Parrish writes a brilliant blog called Farnham Street, which is a great resource for thinking clearly.
  3. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman - read. The second installment in His Dark Materials - a great series I read as a kid and recently revisited.

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