We Can Value Downtime Again

Ever wonder what you’re supposed to be doing right now? Ever get put off by having to switch away from coding or writing in order to have a meeting with someone? Or, vice versa, get pulled away into debugging something in the middle of a fascinating conversation? Ever tried to watch a video or listen to a podcast while also trying to finish off a document?

All of these things are different kinds of activities, and they each engage a very different way of thinking. Some of us prefer some types of work to others, but for pretty much everyone, we’ll find a pattern that balances all.of these types, a bit like the balance of differing weather within a certain climate. (Our calendar is the weather. Our career, or ourself, is the climate. THE ANALOGY WORKS I TELL YOU.)

Paul Graham’s essay on makers’ schedules vs managers’ schedules from 2009 is my jumping off point, here. It’s a good read that gets at one of the most common challenges in a knowledge-working organisation: how do you balance puzzle-solving and creativity, with communication and structure, without killing productivity or morale? (Is how I see it, anyway.)

I’ve found that both of these aspects are necessary – sometimes everyone needs to be in sync with each other, and communication is vital for that. Sometimes you need brainpower and meditative/flow state to find a way through a challenge in ‘the system’, and group think is often really bad for that. (It’s not an either/or, of course. "Augmented" thought is a continuum, taking in everything from talking to yourself or to a pot plant, to peer-working and collaboration through a variety of more-or-less immediate media.)

This month, I’ve moved away from the structure and routine of a team that’s shaped itself over time. that shaping process helped to smoothed out conflicting priorities, different stakeholders, and rapidly-changing calls for support and for meeting needs.

However, moving away from one team doesn’t mean sudden isolation – and even if it did, I’m interested in enough things, and involved in enough organisations, to keep myself overly busy for quite some time.

This, then, is a good chance to reflect on what ‘busy’ means for me. What does that "shaping" process look like when I start from scratch, and how can it account for a number of priorities and people interested in my time, especially now that those "stakeholders" are much less related now. (Previously, overlapping roles and the closeness of a single company made awareness of the whole system much more readily available. Not so, when each group is completely separate from each other.)

The first thing I’ve found is that if I divide all my time up (for simplicity’s sake) into "Meeting" and "Making", then I get worn out pretty fast. Both are pretty intensive (but usually fun) activities for me. And that goes against the principle of wu wei, or doing-by-not-doing. Constantly having a push on your own time is not sustainable, or natural. So what balances it out?

There are passive activities (passivities?) which are often overlooked, but which I value just as much as active activities – possibly moreso. On one hand, we can see this in the same way that we need to sleep and dream: our minds need to ‘catch up’ and process what we’ve been through consciously.

On the other hand, we can channel Chuang Tzu’s butterfly dream, and start to accept that our waking state is just as questionable – or as valuable – as our dream state:

The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself laying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, “Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?”
(via Daily Zen)

In the same vein of questioning the certainty of being awake, we can also question the assumption of doing things as an exercise in productivity. To adapt Chuang Tzu, "was I a busy person who is now relaxing? Or am I a relaxed person who was busy?" Of course, the story ends with the question, and it is not a question that can have a definitive answer.

So we can – and should – balance out the maker/manager ever-so-productive side with something more yin, more chaotic and subconscious and butterfly-like. We should value this ‘down’time as part of personal development, and actively become non-active, handing the reins of control over to the systems which keep us ticking without our knowledge.

To balance the idea of busy-ness, I’ve adopted a couple of more passive mindsets (perhaps there are more? perhaps it is personal?).

Firstly, the fairly straightforward approach of unthinking, that is – a distraction and a rest from being deliberate active and"productive". This could be an actual rest – a nap, sleeping on "it", etc – or it can equally just be a rest from thinking: "pootling" around the house, going to the toilet, playing a game.

All of these aim to let the mind "switch off", although it is only the conscious aspect that is really "off". Like dreams, this form of passivity allows thoughts to shape themselves without interference. It is often an essential stage in solving something non-obvious, or allowing unrelated concepts and ideas to bash into each other.

(A note on meditation here. While the goal of meditation is often to allow such a state of mind to come about, a lot of the time we are so concerned about "doing meditation right" that it becomes an active, productive task in its own right. A quick nap is usually much more passive than a 10-minute sit.)

The second passive mindset is absorbing, which is still a conscious approach, but a less productive one. This refers to the state of learning, in which the mind is open to ideas. We do this all the time – when we read, when we listen to a podcast, or watch an instructional video, for instance. However, we can also refine it so that we can absorb without any intent – we can watch a video that we’re interested in, but not actively look for any specific solutions. This is different to digging out videos to work out how to fix a tap, for example.

The state of absorbing is also subtly different to watching things for watching’s sake, as noted under "no-thought" above. Sometimes we engage in tidying, watching, reading but in a disposable way – as mentioned, this can also be valuable. However, when we are absorbing, we are more open to taking things on board. Our minds are taking in information and ideas like a whale sifting through water, filtering out things we find useful and storing them for later digestion.

When you are in an absorbing mood, you will be engaging with something you think is interesting, but you won’t necessarily know why, or what you’ll get out of it.

So from this, we have 4 basic states, or moods, or modes, each of which has their own benefits and drawbacks:

  • Active: Making, Managing.
  • Passive: Unthinking, Absorbing.

Some of us will be drawn towards some of these 4 more than others, we each have our natural inclinations, of course. But all of us will also have a natural balance between the 4 without completely lacking any single one. They’re all essential in some form, at some time, depending on what we’re working on and how we feel, what’s going on in the world and our own body rhythms.

But by being conscious of these 4 states, we can also fit the mood to what we’re doing. We can remember to take breaks, and we can encourage rest when it is a more productive approach to what we do. We can set our calendars and our environments up, depending on which mood we want to be in, and we can stop trying to force ourselves to solve problems by banging our head aganist a wall, or by having yet another meeting.

Are there more than these 4? In theory, you can divide up frames of mind however you like! These are 4 which I think work for me, and which give me a way to quickly work out where I am, and what I’m doing. It gives me ‘permission’ to feel lazy, or to work more or less, as it re-frames what I think of as ‘achievement’ instead of it being defined as hours worked, words written, or metrics incremented.

Any feedback or ideas on this are greatly welcomed. I doubt I’m the first person to write all this out, and I suspect – hope – that everyone does it differently anyway. I do think there’s so much scope, though, to raise the profile of resting, and the value of inactivity, in a world that seems to love burning itself out mentally and environmentally. There are ways we can be more honest and open about getting the balance right, to re-define (for instance) the antiquated approach of "work/life balance" which represents such a narrow dichotomy.

We can value downtime again.

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