From Task Lists to the Art of Enjoyment

It must be late summer, as the bindweed in the garden has begun to take over. I spent a few minutes today pulling out some of the runners and untangling the plants it had wrapped around, which gave me some time to think more about why we do things.

As per yesterday, I’m reassessing the general idea of task and to-do lists. A part of me wants to shift to something more enjoyable, and alongside this notion of “joy”, I’ve been mulling over what gives me joy. (Is there a big difference between “joy” and “to enjoy”? Perhaps not semantically, but there’s a lot to be said for thinking about things in terms of verbs – behaviour, temporarily in flow and change, rather than the asset- and accumulation-driven realm of nouns.)

What is that feedback loop that makes me enjoy things? Sometimes it’s the simple process of facing a challenge and resolving it in an inventive way. But there still needs to be a reason behind it – I feel like something should be improved as a result, and I think back to the idea that “if you’ve made the world better during your life, you’ve done ok”.

I had this vaguely in mind as I pulled up the strings of weeds with gloved hands. To-do style: “I must clear out the bindweed.” Enjoyment style: “I can improve the garden’s environment.”

But then. I wondered what I was improving. Or rather, who and what it was being improved for. Was I really clearing the weeds so that the small apple tree could grow more vigorously? Or was it to make the garden neater, for me, for the family, for the neighbours? What did the bindweed think about this, or the spiders that scuttled out of the way as I removed the undergrowth around them?

I didn’t have a firm answer. But with that, I kind of realised that there wasn’t necessarily an answer to be found. “Improvement” depended on your point of view – your own values and interests, and your position in the system. In your timescale for awareness, and in your appetite for change.

Plenty of land and cultures have been torn down and apart, based on one idea of “improvement” or another. Entire educational industries try to shoehorn attitudes into learning alongside skillets and opportunities. “Improvement” can be a form of wielding power, an ominous and subjective decision around what is good and bad. Can we ever say that improvement is a net-positive game rather than a zero sum one, that to improve something is always to deny something else?

It is not wrong to want to improve things. It is a natural (and unique) human desire. But it can be wrong to do it without thinking through the power balances involved, and to enforce an aim of improvement where consent, rationale and emotion are bypassed in the process.

Which leads back to a more nuanced perspective about what it means to enjoy something. It can be a delicate thing, if one is aware of the systems involved. Thinking too much about it can severely curtail that getting l hedonistic idea of doing something for the love of it, but perhaps that just means we should tread more carefully, and be proud of the smaller changes that we’re more certain of?