Back in 2011, I signed up to write a column for the Carroll Gardens Patch. Each month, I was to turn in a five-hundred-word story, with photographs, then promote the hell out of it through my personal networks. My pay? Fifty dollars per column.
At first, I was just thrilled that I was getting published. Even though—if you counted time spent conducting interviews, typing notes, drafting, revising, copy-editing, proofreading, and taking, choosing, and cropping pictures—I was making, in a good month, maybe five dollars per hour. And when the editor expressed displeasure with the quality of my photos (taken with my iPhone device), I immediately started scrambling for a solution. No, I didn’t have a digital camera, but perhaps I could borrow one.
However, as I scrambled, I noticed something: the editor was asking me to do more than I’d signed up for. Yet she wasn’t offering me a raise. And fifty dollars per story was pretty dismal anyway.
So why was I scrambling?
Because—you guessed it—I’d joined my own cult. I’d created a false story, stepped inside it, and invested copious amounts of time and energy in keeping it tight.
Forthwith, I quit. The editor sent me a nasty note accusing me of letting her down. A few months later, she quit herself.
Well, fellowbeings, in the past few months I’ve joined another cult—the Cult of Busyness. Here’s how it works:
In the Cult of Busyness, you are not allowed to do nothing; you are barely allowed to read books. (The CoB, like Zendik, dismisses both literature and leisure as wastes of time.) You must plan, and account for, every minute of every day: once you’ve put something on your schedule, you must accomplish it, no matter what. You don’t get grace for handling plot twists.
In the CoB, results don’t matter—activity does. And that activity usually happens at the desk, and on the screen. Dealing with emails—and the tasks they deliver—trumps creative work, getting outside, and other aspects of analog life.
In the CoB, just hanging out with your fellow humans is a no-no. As is sitting still and having a phone conversation—if you’re going to be talking on the phone, you’d better be walking, or darning, or prepping dinner at the same time.
In the CoB, you must stay occupied with legitimate tasks, all day, if you want to feel good about yourself. If those tasks generate cash, so much the better—but they don’t have to. They simply have to keep you in motion.
In the CoB, everything has a time limit; it’s not okay to start a project and keep working on it till you’re finished, or till you’ve come to a stopping place. Timers and stopwatches prevail.
In the CoB, if you receive an assignment—from a friend, family member, work associate, or even your own brain—you must take it. You must add it to your to-do list. You may not say, “No, I don’t want to do this—I don’t think it will take me where I want to go.”
In the CoB, people are annoyances. Hindrances. Even people you love. They will try to interrupt your schedule. Converse with you at inconvenient times. You must protect yourself from casual interaction.
In the CoB, the earlier you get up in the morning, the more work you can do. So it’s a plus to jolt yourself awake in the wee hours, and ruminate for a few minutes on how far behind you are, before leaping up to start on your list.
Right. Not exactly a recipe for the good life.
So how do I exit? What precepts might I live by instead?
Identify what matters, and where you’re heading, and filter your activities accordingly.
Work at your desk no more than four hours per weekday (and persevere in staying the hell away from your desk, and the internet, on weekends).
Exercise a preference for being with people in person, being outside, and touching what’s alive.
Start each day slowly—maybe write in your notebook. Assure yourself that, even if you don’t start work till seven or eight, you will be fine. If you wake before five, stay in bed! Listen to the birds. Read a book. Do not get up so you can get a head start.
Each morning, identify your number one needle-forward action for the day, and do that first.
If an opportunity does not align with your values and/or won’t help you reach your goals, say no.
Cool. Now how about a new story?
In my new story, I get to refuse busywork. I get to go on adventures, and open to mystery—especially the mystery of what might happen when I commune with my fellowbeings. I get to do art projects, and see everything I take on as art. I get to join the barf club (do things that feel generative but terrifying) as often as I want. I also get to remove myself from any newsletter I’m not truly excited about, delete tons of emails, and retire eternally pending projects and tasks that I know I won’t complete.
Charlie Gilkey, of Productive Flourishing, said on Joanna Penn’s podcast (The Creative Penn) that people tend to avoid the activities that are easy for them and capable of generating great rewards: one of his clients, for example, discounted public speaking, even though it brought her all kinds of business—because she enjoyed it immensely, i.e., did not find it hard.
What do I discount, because it’s easy for me?
Simply writing about my life, the way I used to in my LiveJournal, right after I left Zendik. Sure, I’m married now—but this is still my life. Just as Kara Loewentheil (founder of Unfuck Your Brain, the online coaching program I joined a couple months ago) has built a business—and a career—out of watching her own brain, so also might I continue to build a body of work by navigating, watching, and sharing “the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom.”*
Maybe, this week, I’ll give myself an hour a day to do as I please. I’m not allowed to decide in advance what that is; I’m required to listen for inklings when the time comes. And, if asked why I’m doing whatever I’ve chosen, I must be able to reply, “Because I want to.”
*Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm