Monday, June 10, 2013

Progress Report

I have been working for a full week on a collaborative project, and here's what I've learned:

If you take one moderately productive person (myself) and pair them up with a highly productive person (my collaborator), they will end up rocketing themselves into the stratosphere of productivity.

Of course, as I write this, I realize that many who know me will say, "Come again?  You're characterizing yourself as 'moderately productive person'?  Say what?"

It's true, evidence would suggest that I'm pretty highly productive myself, and that this might be why we have reached the stratosphere in the past week.

I tend not to think of myself as "highly productive," though, because I tend to accomplish a great deal on the assumption that I "don't feel like" or "won't do" a whole bunch of things.  Or anything, actually.

Freud argues that, despite all appearances, human beings innately seek to return to a state of total inertia--he calls this "the death drive."

Odd as it sounds, my mindset--and certain specific weekends of my life--might offer compelling proof of the validity of his theory.

I suspect I get a lot accomplished simply because I have become extremely efficient in my quest to return to a state of total inertia.  I give myself permission to contemplate not moving or doing anything at all, and then I say, "Well, okay, I'll do this one little thing, but THAT'S IT."

Many little things later, I find that I've been productive.  My recollection of the process, however--and my perception of my own role in it--tends to remain tied to my initial decision not to do anything at all. No one is more surprised than I am when I've been productive. 

And I'm left feeling quite pleased with myself, needless to say.

In Bird by Bird, writer Annie Lamott talks about this method of tackling projects--and writing projects in particular.  Her book opens with a memory of her ten-year-old brother facing the impossible task of writing a report on "Birds of North America."  

He's had the assignment for months, it's Sunday night, it's due Monday--you know the scene.  He sits down to write and is quickly on the verge of tears.

Lamott's father puts a supportive arm around him, sits down next to him and says, "Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird."

This is Lamott's advice in writing: take it bird by bird.  Don't contemplate the larger project, just work on putting one foot in front of the other, one sentence after another.  (And they can be pretty crappy sentences at first, too.)  Just write them down.  Move forward.

You have to start somewhere, so just start.  Building something from nothing is always a daunting task, but building something from a bunch of smaller somethings seems much more do-able.

So do it.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."