A few weeks ago, I had an interesting interaction at work. I was working on the Shetland Pommier Vest and a comment by my colleague was, “You’re so productive.” I didn’t think anything of it because, to be totally honest, I get this comment from time-to-time and, while I don’t personally feel particularly productive very much of the time, I usually sort of just shrug it off. About two weeks later, I was listening to Freakanomics, an NPR podcast that I highly recommend if you are into alternative perspectives and new research-based ideas about conventional ideas. On the particular episode, focused on ‘self-improvement’ which in and of itself is a HUGE topic, they were discussing productivity and I thought, “Huh.”
There’s a major caveat to this though: Being productive and being busy are two different things.
Our life is very quiet in many ways. The kids and I spend a lot of time playing outside because I absolutely love being outside. I hate doing housework but I enjoy cooking so much of our time, when we are home, is food and meal prep, painting and drawing at the table, and reading books. The kids are reaching an age that they are increasingly playing together, creating their own worlds in their imagination and make believing.
Part of this idea of productivity is the perception from others that I have a lot of time and the honest answer is I do. I have a lot of time. I carve out pockets of time here and there, using my time intentionally. Instead of cruising the Internet in search of goodness knows what, I will stop myself from delving into the rabbit-hole I can feel myself going down and ask myself, “What do I want to spend my time on right now? In this moment?” I actually stop myself and ask these questions! Why?
Because it means I have to ‘own’ or take control of my choice to cruise the Internet for 15-30 minutes instead of doing what I really want to be doing, which is usually something that is not that. Usually, I choose to work a few more rows on a knitting project or take the opportunity to spin at my wheel because the house is quiet with no interruptions in sight. There are absolutely those moments in which I choose to continue down the rabbit-hole that is #handspun on Instagram because I love being inspired by other makers and I want to see what people are working on! But it’s rare and if I do choose to spend my time on that, I keep myself accountable to the amount of time I spend doing that. Usually, I limit it to 5-15 minutes. As I see the minutes tick by, I’m often motivated to move on to some other activity or vital need to fill for the kids (for example, the query, “Mommy, where’s Chippy*?” Chip is James’ lovey.) because I don’t want to spend my time glued to an Instagram feed. A few moments is inspiring and motivational but after that, I start to loose focus.
This all relates to my productivity in that I am able to accomplish quite a bit in relatively short periods of time due to carving out these pockets of time that would otherwise be idle. Spending 5-15 minutes on a few rows of a Brioche collar that never seems to end results in the finishing of said Brioche collar relatively quickly from my recent experience but spending those moments on idle things, like checking my phone or doing nothing (which is completely needed sometimes and not to be ridiculed!), results in little accomplished. Because I love the process of creating, these moments feel like small gifts through-out the day. The HUGE gift that I am giving my children at this stage of our life is my time and resources: emotional, physical and mental. There is very little left for everything else in my life: My husband, work, extended family, friends, etc. Would I change this at this time? No. Do I sometimes resent this time that I am giving to the kids that is so all-consuming and draining? I’m human. Of course I get burned out! But the key, I have found, is to turn around and give myself these small gifts in return. It replenishes me, fills my cup and gives me a little creative outlet in the midst of another park date. It is an opportunity.
Throughout our days, I feel a constant pull of the ‘artistic spirit’ which I know is common in those who love to create, make and design. There is a wonderful sensation that I feel when I am making, which includes a freedom to express myself but also to go into myself. I obtain this feeling when writing as well and may be one of the reasons that the blog has always been a natural forum for me as a journal of my projects and creative journey. Going into myself is difficult to explain but the best I can do is that it is an opportunity for me to focus on something outside of myself but that doesn’t take any of my resources – doesn’t demand from me anything. Sometimes I personify the things that I am making, whether it be the singles I am spinning or the article of clothing I am knitting, and I sometimes think of them as these beings that are quietly waiting for my attention but never demanding it. They don’t inherently care whether I come back to them or not, finish them or not, but they are willing to give to me by offering joy, quiet, contentment and creativity when I do pick them up. Again, they are a gift to myself. In turn, I am able to continue giving to my children and the various other things in my life that takes my limited resources and I am able to do so without resentment, knowing there are these quiet, creative and often, productive moments waiting for me throughout the day.
Then there is the part of Mastery of Skill that takes a wee bit more effort than merely continuing to create as I always have and forcing myself out of my comfort zone to grow as a handspinner and knitter. I was going to say “as an artist” but I don’t view myself as an Artist. I often think of myself, although I don’t voice this, as a “practitioner” – I think this comes from my very disciplined nursing background. The moments in which I am working on a project that requires more from me than mere muscle memory (as is the case in knitting, due to my many years of practice), there is inherent discomfort. This takes energy and resources to learn a new skill or apply new ideas to a current practice. My recent excursion into spindle spinning is a good example of this: Learning to apply my previously acquired knowledge from wheel spinning onto a spindle was uncomfortable at best. I lost productivity for a time. My muscle memory was non-existent, even though I knew how to draft. The mechanics to draft on a spindle differ slightly and I had to re-learn the best way for me to do a basic short-forward draft. But creatively, learning something new was stimulating and invigorating! It bred new life into the yarn I was spinning and it was/is just plain exciting. My skills as a handspinner have improved, which I can measure by my calculations of my finished yarns (ex. Improved yardage if trying for more YPP, fineness of singles as evidenced by WPI or maybe consistency over a skein) and overall appreciation of the yarn – I just plain like what I’m making! Sometimes that yard-stick for evaluation of skill improvement is enough, sometimes it is lacking.
There is a misnomer out there that it takes 10,000 hours to “master” a skill and become proficient enough at it that you are an expert. This came from a perversion of research interpreted in a book based on Anderz Ericson’s research that he shared in his book, Peak. In actual fact, it was found that young people up to the age of roughly 20 years old who had practiced, under the direction and tutelage of a coach or educator, had achieved ‘mastery’ at or around 10,000 hours of practice. The research was quite clear that this ‘practice’ was Intentional Practice, which means stepping outside of our comfort zone and reaching higher, further, faster, stronger, longer, etc. We don’t grow, achieve and learn without hard work outside our comfort zone. Learning a skill on a spindle, for example, and pushing my learning beyond my comfort zone has grown me as a spinner. The accomplishment of this is rewarding, motivating (I want to learn more!) and soul-feeding. I find I want to produce and create more when I am constantly pushing myself just a little bit more – not in a stressful way, though! As a part of this quest for learning and curiosity, which seems to sort of perpetuate itself in a cyclical “Ah-Hah!” kind of way, my productivity increases during my creative time in part due to improving muscle memory and proficiency. As I continue to grow and learn, I’m just plain improving my skills in both spinning and knitting. I suspect I could make the assertion that the more one designs and improves one’s proficiency as a designer through this same uncomfortable process, one will become a more productive and proficient designer! The learner becomes the teacher and so forth.
Just the mere fact that I work on projects, consistently finishing them and starting something new (or usually picking up something forgotten from previous) may look productive on the outside but I think there is more going on than simply ‘productivity’. There is constant practicing of skills, failures that no one sees and pushing outside of my comfort zone through hours of practice after seeking out instruction. When I tell my students that I spin a lot, I think they are often surprised at the number value of what a lot actually means. On a day-to-day basis, I often spin about 1-2 hours in total. This is 5 minutes there, 15 minutes here, etc. The kids are all-consuming but picking up my spindle or squeaking out a few moments on my wheel is more than achievable when I am almost dogmatic about how I spend my time.
Our culture is so concerned about productivity (Google has spent millions of dollars on researching productive teams around the world!) and yet I find as soon as I spend a bunch of time on screens, I lose all productivity. I might be intending to achieve something, and I’ll be damned inspired after perusing Instagram for an hour, but now all of my time is gone to create! Those moments that I can spend creating are so valuable to me – and I am usually really motivated due to excitement about a new project or learning a new skill – that I don’t want to sacrifice those minutes (that become hours as the week passes) to create and make.
How do you view productivity? Do you consider yourself a ‘productive person’? Are there some strategies that you use to keep yourself ‘on track’? What about inspiration? Do you have sources you go to that may be time-consuming but are motivational and cup-filling? Please share below!