How to be Slothful and Productive at the Same Time

My defining sin is sloth. I am pretty good at avoiding sins of commission — although I certainly have my share — but it is the sins of omission that really get me. By sloth I don’t exactly mean laziness; I mean what the medievals called acedia, a condition perfectly consistent with constant activity. In Dante’s Purgatorio, for instance, the slothful are found running nowhere in particular in a restless frenzy. This restlessness is closer to the essence of sloth than true rest is. As Samuel Johnson writes: “It is the just doom of laziness and gluttony to be inactive without ease and drowsy without tranquility.” And: “There is no kind of idleness by which we are so easily seduced as that which dignifies itself by the appearance of business. ” Acedia is doing something other than what one is resolved or expected to do. For my own part, I find that I can only be productive when shirking some other task. Whenever I have some Important Task or other to shirk, I am suddenly enormously productive! (Coincidentally, I have gotten much more productive since getting married.) I also occasionally wonder if I am pulled away from the important project of the moment due to the intercession of some infallible subtle sense, a Socratic daimon perhaps, alerting me that what I am doing isn’t all that worth doing. (Note to self: this may be a rationalization.)

Now, it is something of an irony that I am taking time away from working on my Plato book to describe a condition (being enacted now, mind you) that makes such a project difficult if not impossible. But Samuel Johnson, quoted above and the Patron Saint of all us procrastinative types, wrote an entire English dictionary while complaining excessively and eloquently of his sloth!

Not knowing how Dr. Johnson coped, here are my tactics for dealing with a condition that seems to be as congenital and chronic a part of me as a vital organ:

  1. Go ahead and work on the second thing that has distracted from the first thing, confident that soon there will arise the desire to shirk the second thing in favor of the first!
  2. Save all work, throw no scrap out, and try to leave what is temporarily abandoned in a condition to be picked up later. Although I can be pretty cynical about self-help books, Getting Things Done by David Allen was helpful to me in teaching a method of capturing ideas that I can leave now and get to later.
  3. Realize that different activities have different attention spans. Try never to “force” attention. For me, even a ten minute burst of focused effort is better than an hour of forced effort. I clear my desk of everything but one thing, set a timer for 25 minutes on my smartphone and remain intensely focused until the buzzer sounds. (Adjust the time for the activity.) Then I do something, anything else. This is the “Pomodoro Technique” — it works.
  4. Redefine resolution from “never deviating from a fixed purpose” to “being diligent about returning to that purpose when the drifting happens.” I have learned not to beat myself up over the drifting. It happens — recover!
  5. Make good use of the numerous short intervals of “between-time” that punctuate each day. It is possible to make incremental progress on something even in little one or two minute gaps: dictate notes, read short passages, etc. I confess that I sometimes read books at traffic lights…
  6. Seek the reinforcement of friends and others sources of accountability. Schedule deadlines to hand over to others the results of what is supposed to be done. I am much less likely to fail to honor a commitment that I made to another than to myself.
  7. Let the pattern of digressive activity become the shape of a coherent project. I will devote a later post to lay out the “plan” of my book-writing project, a plan adapted to the peculiarities of my “condition.”
  8. Honor a weekly Sabbath day in which nothing counts as shirking. Practice guilt-free rest.
  9. Start a blog.

If any of this has “inspired” you to put off the important thing you are doing, here are a few book suggestions related to sloth available to distract you productively:

Life of Johnson by James Boswell — to my taste one of the funniest books ever written. Funny and profound — a great combination! I can think of no book more delightful to read, honestly.

Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer — a novel about a writer struggling, mostly unsuccessfully, to write a book about the life of D.H. Lawrence. Again, really funny and beautifully profound in places too.

After all, reading a great book is the most slothfully productive and productively slothful activity yet invented. And while necessity may indeed be the Mother of invention, I am confident that avoiding-doing-stuff is most surely the Father!

But I digress…


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