Being an experiment in shedding my attachments and living without goals
The word "zen" is bandied about all the time as a marketing term for all kinds of things, from online shopping carts to soaps, but it's particularly misused by the productivity/self-improvement community. This isn't really surprising, since Zen is a slippery thing to grasp, even by people (like me) who are really, really interested in it, and even practice it from time to time.
Over the years, as I've gotten deeper into both productivity and Zen, the incompatibilities of a lot of productivity philosophies with Zen practice has become increasingly obvious. Productivity culture preaches that we can achieve happiness, we can get the things we want, by setting grand goals and utilizing methods and systems to achieve our potential. Zen, and Buddhism in general, tells us we are so unhappy because we want so many things. We are miserable because we are so aware of the huge gap between who we are now and the ideal version who has everything they want and everything figured out.
Goal-based, ideal-based productivity methods are focused on the future, implying that the way things are now isn't good enough, and offer ways to improve. Zen tells us to be mindful of the present.
I find it incredibly stressful to constantly compare myself with the platonic ideal of me, the me I could be if only I would do all the things I know I could and should be doing: eat less, eat better, sleep more, read more, get more exercise, lose weight, write in a journal, wash the dishes every night, meditate every day, put 10% of my income into savings, invest rather than save, join a gym, walk to work, write that novel, eat breakfast, stop drinking coffee, stay motivated and focused, build a tribe, create passive income...the person I want to be, the attractive, healthy, financially stable, emotionally mature, well travelled, brilliant conversationalist and critically acclaimed artist who is impeccably groomed and whom everyone likes and is so much better in every way than the person I am now.
You know what? Fuck that guy. If he weren't my own ideal self, I'd kick his ass. Constantly comparing myself to him is making me miserable.
Maybe it's time to stop as if things will ever be better and find a way to be more satisfied with the way things are. Maybe it's time to scrap all those lofty goals and unrealistic self expectations and start again with a clearer, more realistic perspective.
So, philosophically, that's all well and good, but how does that translate into something actionable?
What works for me, and might work for you
I'm not going to pretend this will work for everyone, but this is what I've been doing, and it's working pretty well so far:
- Don't put anything optional on your to-do list.
- If it's optional, don't feel guilty for not following through.
- Use the "Fuck Yes or No" rule consistently in every aspect of your life.
- Purge your life of anything that doesn't spark joy.
- Forget goals. Focus on short-term projects that help create momentum.
- Live each day as well as you can.
- Your body is a machine that needs proper fuel and maintenance.
Don't put anything optional on your todo list.
For most of my adult life, I've been tormented by the constant reminders of things I ought to be doing. Your to-do list shouldn't be a nag. It should be a useful tool to help you keep important things from falling through the cracks.
Only put the things you must do on your list. Ask yourself what would happen if you didn't do it, and if the consequences are acceptable, strike it off and forget about it. Don't worry, I'm sure you'll still have enough items on your list to cause you plenty of stress and anguish.
For a fast, brilliant, no-bullshit take on todo lists, I really recommend reading Michael Linenberger's One Minute To-do List. It's a free download. The download page looks like horrible late-night marketing, but be book is worth it, and I've never been spammed.
If it's optional, don't feel guilty for not following through.
I love to participate in monthly creative sprints like Thing-a-Day, Inktober and NaNoWriMo. I try to read at least a week for a year. For a long time, if I didn't complete one of these sprints, I'd get horribly depressed. Now I just enjoy doing them when I can. They're not essential, so don't worry about them.
As long as you aren't letting someone down, someone who has paid you money or has something important at stake, it's okay if you abandon a project. It's Ohhh Kayyyy.
Use the "Fuck Yes or No" rule consistently in every aspect of your life.
Read this article, and then read the three articles it references. Right now.
If you don't feel "Fuck Yes!" about something, don't agree to it. Don't invite it into your life. That includes projects, music, relationships, food, medication...everything.
Your "Fuck Yes" can be motivated by a lot of different incentives. For instance, enough money can make me feel "Fuck Yes" about taking on a lot of design projects I would otherwise turn down. Also, pretty much anything involving my son is "Fuck Yes" by default.
Purge your life of anything that doesn't spark joy.
Marie Kondo is a wonderful freak, and I'm pretty sure I'd hate to live with her. If you haven't read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I strongly suggest it. It's a weird, wonderful read.
My main take away is that you should get rid of things that don't make you happy. Like those boring black socks, or the calendar with your dad's company logo on it. You have to have socks, so why not have really cool socks you like? Socks that make you smile? Since reading Kondo's book, I threw out all my boring old socks and replaced them with bright, exciting socks from Pair of Thieves.
The thing Marie Kondo doesn't mention, but seemed obvious to me, is that you can apply this philosophy to the rest of your life as well. If your projects don't spark joy, replace them with projects that do. If your friends and lovers don't spark joy...you get it.
Forget goals. Focus on short-term projects that help create momentum.
I don't do the thing where you figure out your life's purpose and then come up with 5-year plans to support that, your 2-year plans to support your 5-year plans, and so on. You know what's important to you, and if something is a priority you're already doing it. If you aren't doing something that you feel should be a priority, you need to take a step back and get some perspective.
Instead of long-term goals, I have short-term projects that I can complete quickly. Instead of writing a song every week, maybe I'll see how many songs I can write and record over a weekend. Rather than planning a gallery exhibition of paintings, I'll do a drawing every morning, but give myself a limit of 30 minutes to create a sense of urgency and gamify the experience. Now, instead of feeling existential dread when I miss a day, I look forward to the next time I can make art.
Live each day as well as you can.
The day is the building block of your life.
If we, as individuals, have a duty to ourselves and our loved ones, it is to live each day as well as we can. Not necessarily as if it is our last day, but as if any one of our days could be extracted from the timeline of our lives and held up as an model example of a day well lived.
Your body is a machine that needs proper fuel and maintenance.
You need sleep, and plenty of it. You'll accomplish more by getting enough and taking naps than you would by trying to stay up late and wake up early. Good creative work is often the work of a well rested dreamer.
You also need sunshine, plenty of exercise and water, affection (platonic and otherwise, physical and otherwise), intellectual and social stimulation, and lots of fun. Treat yourself as if you are one of your favorite people. Give yourself the kind of care and attention you'd give your child.
The ironic benefits to living without goals
I knew living without goals would decrease my stress tremendously, but it also freed up time and energy that I've been able to harness to create art, play games, and write extraordinarily long and verbose blog posts about productivity.