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On the limitations of productivity advice
Like many an underpaid, anxious millennial, I have long been an avid connoisseur of self-help advice. Most of it is geared towards productivity, because living under late capitalism is a nightmare, and if we are not working every hour of every day, we will wither into dust and disappear into the night!
Recently in this vein, I read a book called Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. I found the book via Cal Newport’s blog. Cal Newport wrote Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, a book with a very similar thesis, and indeed these two books came out the same year. Both begin from the same premise: that our email/slack/discord/teams-obsessed world has overloaded us to the point that meaningful work—research, publication of articles in academia, and writing fiction—takes a backseat to these other, noisier forms of “work” that don’t necessarily move us forward. Both men’s theses are very similar, that by blocking out distractions and setting aside discrete chunks of time, you can make meaningful work happen. Newport calls these periods of time “deep work,” and ascribes much of his own personal success to the fact that he is vigilant about defending his time from distraction. Pang goes a step further, and says that in addition to defending time, by starting early in the day and turning to periods of active and passive rest (long walks, exercise, and naps) you can increase the quality of the work done in those periods of deep concentration.
You may be thinking at this point “Sounds like you have a bone to pick with these theses, Udden!” But it isn’t the thesis itself that is the problem. Pang and Newport are clear-eyed and accurate about the distractions of the modern workplace, but give short shrift to the practicalities of living that make focused work possible.
Courtney Milan is a former clerk for the Supreme Court and a prolific romance author with over 25 published titles. The whole thread stemming from that tweet is worth reading. In it she articulates one of the aspects I couldn’t ignore as I was reading Rest. Rest begins with Pang talking about reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own during a sabbatical year at Cambridge. Pang, a consultant in Silicon Valley and the author of a number of other books about our age of digital distraction, seems to have completely missed the point of A Room Of One’s Own:
“In A Room Of One’s Own, Woolf compares the lives of dons at well-endowed ancient colleges and the pinched existence of faculty at the newer women’s colleges. The ancient colleges offered far greater opportunities to excel, according to Woolf, not because of their richer endowments but because of their more leisurely pace: generous research budgets and obliging staff gave faculty time for long walks and lengthy conversations.”
Um, Alex? The reasons those older colleges were able to give time for long walks and lengthy conversations is a direct result of their richer endowments. The newer women’s colleges, having been founded in the nineteenth century, didn’t have hundreds and hundreds of years worth of funding to allow people to make time for “girls and tennis” as Pang says later of Watson and Crick, discoverers of the DNA double-helix.
Woolf’s thesis in A Room Of One’s Own isn’t only that time and rest make art possible; it is that time and rest are made possible by money, and money is something that people who are not (cis, white) male disproportionately lack.
Pang’s examples are not only overwhelmingly male, but the book gives little space to consideration of the time it takes to handle domestic tasks such as cleaning, cooking, or raising children. In addition, most of these examples are also of nineteenth-century men of ideas, who all had servants (and, presumably, their invisible wives) to help them make all this rest possible. My favorite example was that of Anthony Trollope, who he held up as a model of productivity because he got up at 5am to write before his day job, a feat made possible by the servant he paid an extra five pounds a year to get up even earlier to bring him coffee.
Invisible servants and invisible wives; that’s who makes the rest possible that in turn supports art and discovery. And in the case of Thomas Jefferson, the favorite pre-Civil War American example from seemingly every productivity book, chattel slavery is the silent foundation of every achievement. In A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagines the life of a fictional sister of Shakespeare, “Judith,” who instead of an education and an artistic career would have been married off at fifteen and dead early. What of the ambitions of the wives of these great men, or the ambitions of the slaves or servants doing the laundry and cleaning the house?
Things are supposedly easier, here in the 21st century, with gadgets and household devices to make these chores less of an all-day drudge. We’ve even reinvented the servant in the form of the gig economy, outsourcing the chores we don’t want to do to freelancers. But outsourcing costs money, and the person the chore is outsourced to makes even less proportionally than their historical counterparts. And even with washing machines, dishwashers, and vacuums, it still takes time to do your laundry and put it away and clean the floors and do dishes four thousand times a day. (Guess which of these chores I hate the most? Surprise, it’s all of them.)
Newport recently published an article in the New Yorker that posits that the future of working from home isn’t working from home, but working from not-home—an (ideally subsidized) ideal third location free from the distractions of home. Newport gives three examples of writers who found near-home workplaces to make their art, but revealingly lets this drop when describing Peter Benchley (author of Jaws)’ noisy choice of office:
Benchley’s willingness to put up with the bangs and clangs of furnace assembly makes more sense once you learn that he had two young kids in the house during this period. The sound of hammers is not nearly so arresting as the sound of your own kids’ whining.
Later in the article, Newport says that during the pandemic, when everyone was forced to do everything from home, he too eventually found solace in a rented office, away from the din and distraction of a home where everyone was trying to do everything at once. I wonder if his wife got a rented office, too.
The advice given in Rest is not bad advice. Waking up early, working in concentrated bursts without outside distractions, and taking time to refresh your body through rest and exercise are excellent habits to form, and in the weeks since I read the book I’ve tried to incorporate them into my life. But these habits are privileges, and the book as a whole—as Milan points out later in her thread—is “very much a book that explain[s] why the ruling class rules—because they have made it so that only they have the time to do so— and yet didn’t make any of those connections.” At the end of the day, I don’t have servants—or a wife—to do my laundry or clean my apartment, and I can’t afford to outsource the chores I hate. My sister often leaves for work around 6:30AM and doesn’t get home till 8PM. When is she supposed to work on her non-work ambitions, or take long leisurely walks to recharge?
Why did faculty at women’s colleges have less time for work or leisurely conversations? Because they didn’t have the funding, and women’s education was deemed less important. How were Watson and Crick able to make the time for leisurely post-lunch walks around Cambridge before working out the structure of DNA, or for “girls and tennis?” Because a woman was back at the lab, doing all the X-Ray crystallography. Most modern productivity advice has a lacunae when it comes to looking at the accomplishments of the past: I wish more books like Rest took into account the structural inequalities that supported these accomplishments for some while erasing the labor that made them possible.
(Ironic, lol.) I had a lot of fun last week doing the Twitter #pitchpractice event, and Bridget and I are going to do another version when we record our next episode of Shipping and Handling on Monday! If you’d like to participate, send your pitch to email@example.com before Monday 5/31 at 4pm. Same guidelines as last time:
The general rule of thumb on Twitter is 280 characters or less, so try to fit it into one tweet
If you are planning on participating in PitMad and will be using hashtags to indicate genre (i.e. #F for fantasy, #SF for science fiction, #MG #YA for middle-grade and young adult respectively) make sure you take those characters into account.
If you’d like to see the critiques I did last week, go to my tweets & replies and scroll back to May 22. (RIP Storify, which would have made this much easier!)
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
To my great chagrin but not much surprise, the Caps got first-rounded for the third year in a row and exited the playoffs. Now I get to stress about Alex Ovechkin signing a new contract and whether or not TJ Oshie will be protected in the expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken. The Islanders beat the Penguins, so they’ll be playing the Bruins in Round 2, and the Avs crushed the Blues (delightfully) so they’ll be moving on as well.
I know I’ve been a little cavalier about fighting and hockey violence in the past, but the gruesome and frightening accidental hit on John Tavares in the first game of the Leafs/Habs series last week and the idiotic, pointless fight between Corey Perrey and Nick Foligno afterwards demonstrated that fighting in hockey as a concept is outdated. Not only outdated, but its purpose - to gas the boys up and “avenge” their teammate - does harm, and also doesn’t win games. The article linked below from The Defector about the hit and the aftermath sums it up, but I want to highlight this passage in particular about Foligno dropping gloves:
Perry clearly wanted no real part of this, but knew he had to do it. Why? A silly code that says Foligno has to “protect” or “avenge” or whatever the fuck you want to call it when you stage a fight following an injury, no matter how obvious it was that the hit was a complete and total accident, because “honor” and “jumpstarting the boys” and whatever the fuck other buzzwords you want to toss in there. Dumb, dumb, dumb. The Leafs were so upset by their captain’s traumatic brain injury that they had no other choice but to have two players punch each other in the head a few times to make it right? The game, the series, the postseason that started with all the promise in the world mere minutes before had almost immediately turned stupid, violent, and hollow.
To fight after an accident like this - to drop gloves and challenge someone else on the opposing team for even accidental violence to one of your team members is the epitome of cutting off a nose to spite your face, and I hope that the sport moves beyond it. Fat chance, I know. But if you watch the video of that hit (and I don’t recommend it; it’s genuinely one of the most frightening things I’ve ever watched) it’s hard to come to any other conclusion. Toronto is up in the series, 3-1. But at what cost?
Johnny Knoxville’s Last Rodeo by Sam Schube (GQ)
The catheters are remnants of the time, back in 2007, that he tore his urethra in a motorcycle stunt gone wrong. A friend was filming an MTV tribute to Evel Knievel, one of Knoxville's heroes, so he visited the set. “I wasn't even supposed to do anything,” he explained. “I think I just showed up that day and someone kind of threw out that I should try and backflip a motorcycle. I'm like, ‘Oh, yeah, I got that.’” Knoxville couldn't really ride a motorcycle. But he hadn't become famous by saying no to things, so he hopped on the bike without a second thought. “It sounded like it could possibly be some fun—and some footage,” he said. “ ‘Let's give it a whirl. What's the worst that can happen? It's not like I'm going to break my dick or something.’ ”
On Sensationalism, Mormon Fiction, and the Murderous Mormons of Pop Culture by Mette Ivie Harrison (former client!) (Crime Reads)
The Mormon narrative is one of being persecuted, misunderstood, and being a fragile minority with no financial reserves. Whether or not any of these are true is up for debate, but it is part of the myth of Mormonism. We aren’t the bad guys. If it looks like we are, that’s because we’re being persecuted.
Opinion: I do not wish to hear anything more about my wealthy husband’s near-demise, because that would have been sad by Alexandra Petri (Washington Post)
“President Trump urged Congressional Republicans late Tuesday to vote against legislation that would create a 9/11-style commission to investigate the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, calling it ‘more partisan unfairness’ by Democrats.” — The New York Post, May 18
Oh, detective. Must we look into the events of the past? Must we really? Must we dwell on the unpleasantness of a few months ago rather than moving forward? I for my own part would much prefer to move forward. Indeed, it strikes me as unavoidably morbid to ponder too closely what nearly befell my poor husband, Henry. I say “poor” only in the sense of unfortunate, of course — Henry is quite well off, and if I were ever to be his widow, I would also be quite well off. But fortunately Henry is still alive, and I am not his wealthy widow, and that is not a scenario we need to worry about or look into at all!
The Semicolon is your Big Gun of punctuation. | GoFundMe to Rebuild Gaza’s Samir Mansour Bookstore | Why Did You Throw Stones? | I learned to ride a bike in Sheikh Jarrah | St. Ives’ Apricot Scrub and the Painful, Shameful War on Acne | Ashley Nicole Black Celebrates Coach Beard of ‘Ted Lasso’
READING: 天官賜福 Heaven Official’s Blessing by 墨香銅臭 Mo Xiang Tong Xu (MXTX) [STILL - this book is over 300K words long! I’m only halfway through!]
LISTENING: Olivia Rodrigo “good 4 u”
WATCHING: The Craft
USING: Sailor Compass fountain pen
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.