Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Time Wars: Productivity vs Blank Spaces

So there we were, a group of retired, unemployed, women on breaks. Guiltily, we broached the subject of how unproductive we’d become. One woman raised her hand and said, “I’m Sue, and I waste time.” One by one, we raised our hands.

In The Third Chapter, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s study of retirement, she writes of one high-powered woman who played online poker endlessly when she retired. Granted, none of us were playing online poker, but we felt just as decadent. Somehow, just as work expands to fill the time available under Parkinson’s Law, not working expands to fill the time available, too.

When I was a super-productive but nuts mother of a young child – working, picking up the kid from child care, getting dinner cooked, spending enriched time with family, child bathed, etc. etc., I stayed up late to write a novel titled “Blank Spaces.” I thought then – and always have – that the best of ourselves emerges in the blank spaces of our lives, the times when we can be contemplative, generous in spirit, and creative. My life had zero blank spaces.
Very soon, I decided I would work reduced work weeks. My whole family could tell the difference between Barbara Monday-through-Wednesday and Barbara-Thursday-through-Sunday. I am a believer in free time!

So why do I spend such a lot of time beating myself up over not utilizing my free time more productively?

My friend Sharon says it took her seven years to “come down” after retiring and give herself permission to enjoy it. (Her husband says it took him seven minutes….) Sharon asked, “Have you taken some days to just do nothing?” Yes, I said, but for a long time I felt terribly anxious about it.
When I unemployed myself, I had three big projects I wanted to complete: a quilt I’d started a couple years ago, mounting all my old Daily News columns in four hand-made volumes, and … I can’t even remember the other one. Or rather, of all the un-done projects facing me, I’m not sure which is the one I put on that list.

I approached my projects with a huge amount of energy and I was a marvel of productivity! And then I wasn’t. They’re 99% done, and then they went on pause while I de-cluttered, fulfilled some contracts, traveled, took a class, taught a class, yarn-bombed. I think now I tend not to “count” what I do accomplish, and even that word makes me nervous because I think I’m an accomplish-aholic.

Enamored with my new spiralizer, I started cooking recipes I’d torn out of magazines. I’ve torn them out for years, but they just accumulated in my big stash. Recently, I started cooking some of them, and they’re terrific! I used to cook to feed hungry mouths. Now I cook to taste flavors.

That’s when I recognize that I’ve found a new rhythm. A Third Third rhythm. It’s so calm, so accepting.

And then I browse through an art book and think, Oh, if I were more productive and used my time better, I’d be able to experiment with this medium or try this technique. And then I write about embroidery and think, “Hmm, why haven’t you done any in a while?”

Way back when, my friend Eric was planning out his ideal day post-graduation: Sleep, eight hours; work + commute, nine hours; exercise, one hour; keeping current on world affairs, one hour. You get the drift. It added up to 27 hours daily. Eric said, “I’ll work it out somehow.” So this is the crux of the problem: we have 27 hours’ worth of intentions and wishes but there are only 24 hours in a day. We’ve never let go of the three hours “lost” from our day. I have LOTS of ideas for those three hours. I have six hours of ideas for those three hours.
One of the things I used to do in workplaces that had become unhealthy is make people go home. I told them they’d lost awareness of what was sustainable, what was do-able in a normal workday. They were killing themselves with overtime and unreasonable expectations, and morale was suffering. See, I told you I was a believer in free time.

So now I have to figure out how to add free time to my free time.

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