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Towards Devotional Productivity
Earlier this year, I ran a series of articles under a loose umbrella of “Experiments in Graceful Non-Linear Productivity.” The animating impulse behind the experiments was something like this:
Much of my productivity for much of my life was fueled by trying to dig my way out from feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, fear of authority, and avoidance. Over the past few years, those fuel sources have dried up—which is great for my general well-being, but has left me without the fuel to get as much accomplished as I’d like.
New fuel sources are available—namely things like curiosity, exploration, and love—but they seem to work differently than the old fuels. If the old ones work by brute strength and pure mechanical driving force, these new ones seem to require approaches more graceful, muscular, and playful. I’d like to get skilled at using them that way.
That was the idea. I tried out some approaches and tactics, and I did make a bit of headway approaching my work this way. But then I hit a patch of burnout, followed by a string of health problems (I’m mostly fine now, no need for concern), and the experiments fell to the side.
Then the other day, I saw this from James Stuber:
Something about the last sentence struck me. “It’s a practice, it’s devotional.”
I’m sure the topic will unfold over time if I keep at it—but without much time or practice, here are some things that stick out about the frame.
1. Take My Me Out of It
I’m no stranger to devotional practice, though much of mine has been in a very different context. I’ve practiced devotion to certain ideas, gods, values, and worlds in my life, and it’s hard to overstate the power devotion can bring when it’s practiced regularly.
When I practice devotion, suddenly nothing is about me anymore: everything I do, every action I take, every new situation I enter into, they’re all about the object of devotion, and how I can do what’s best for it.
The ego is taken out of the situation, and maybe more importantly, a whole lot of my own neuroses and blocks are suddenly no longer a factor. Maybe I have some self-sabotaging complexes that hinder my work; maybe I feel deep down that I deserve to fail, or maybe some load-bearing part of my identity won’t let me be the kind of person who can do this task. Be that as it may, once the work no longer has much to do with me, a whole lot of that baggage evaporates. Things move more smoothly. The knots just undo themselves and we’re good to go.
This strikes me as a significant advantage over non-coercive productivity frameworks—even in the attempts to soften the inner tensions that pit us against ourselves, the stuff I saw over there still had a lot of worrying and hand-wringing over me in it. Is this good for me, is this positive for my emotional state, am I stuck in old patterns, etc etc etc.
2. Lowers the Stakes
This goes with #1, but just to draw it out more explicitly: when my ego gets all wrapped up in something, the stakes feel high. Am I doing this right, will people like it, will it go over well, so on and so forth.
When it’s not about me, and it becomes simply about letting the task be done the way it wants to be done, with curiosity and love and devotion—the stakes just feel lower. Which makes it so much easier to do good work.
3. Clarity on the Why
Different projects require extremely different forms of devotion. This has become clear even with a very very short experimentation on my end. Writing a poetic and expressive book asks for a very different style of devotion than washing the dishes which asks for a different style of devotion than filling out paperwork for the bank.
In each case, what I’ve had to do is tap into what I’m actually devoting my actions to. The big question of Why Am I Doing This? has to be answered, even if only vaguely, in order for this to work. And not just answered intellectually, it has to be felt. I have to know in my heart why I’m doing it.
The book was the easiest one: it’s pure creativity and expression. My devotion is to the book-that-will-exist, and to making sure it finds the right form to be born into.
Washing the dishes connects pretty easily with devotion to my home and my relationship with my partner. When I can connect with a sense of nurturing those and caring for them, the housework takes on meaning.
The bank paperwork largely comes down to fear, it turns out. So did doing my taxes. In both cases, the drive that I could feel into was something like “if I stay on top of this now, They won’t make my life difficult later on.” So it’s good to know that’s a thing I’ve got rattling around in me.
Overall, the brief experiment so far has been excellent for feeling into the why behind my actions, for noticing what I’m already devoting myself to, and beginning to attend to it more consciously.
4. It Feels Nice
Upon brief experimentation, it turns out that taking a few moments to develop (and then more moments throughout the day to sustain) devotion for what matters most in my work just feels nice. It’s better than an anxious drive to do work, or a mechanical checklist to work through.
I’m going to keep at it, gently, and see what else comes of it.