On wasting time

Last week-end, it felt like I had more piled up than I could possibly do: PhD confirmation coming, a full project plan due for my new role, a language event to co-design, and preparing for two weeks away.

On Monday, I cleared up the noise. I spent all Tuesday at a Red Cross Hackathon. Yesterday, I went out to work by the river, took a long walk, made time for a long Skype call with a former student in London, pitched a project at the Red Cross, and went out to a function. I just spent a couple of hours talking with a friend about her experiences in the Chinese cultural revolution. I stuck to my daily translation and writing routines. And I am on schedule for my presentation tonight. Preparing it didn’t take that long.

When I was in high school, whenever exams were coming or essays were due, my classmates would boast-complain about how late they went to bed. At the time, this always struck me as a sure sign of stupidity. I had consistently better marks, watched a lot of TV, and never stayed up late for an assignment. As I entered a more and more competitive environment, and after migrating particularly, I faltered for a while. People seemed to find me hyper-productive, but I always suspected I was lazy, or maybe they were lying about how much time they spent working.

Spending longer than needed on a task strikes me as profound and inexcusable waste. Stendhal wrote the Chartreuse de Parme in three weeks, and it’s one of the best novels in the French canon – not the most flawless, but possibly the most alive. Speed of execution might have to do with it.

Today, I read an article on how to prepare for a Ted Talk – or public speaking more generally. Three main options exist: completely wing it, improvise from a set structure, or deliver a completed text. The first usually fails, the third only comes alive if the text is perfectly memorised, the second is always the least boring, and requires very little effort – all it takes is a small measure of courage on the day, and ongoing practice over years.

Perfectionism mingled with fear is a deadly poison. As much as I could, I have tried to stay far from it. But here’s a good antidote. I’ve always cultivated multiple interests, and each came with different settings, people, opportunities, and deadlines. I had to juggle, but realised over time that, as with integrated agricultural models, I was consistently productive: things feed off each other, the soil stays fertile. Little is wasted. All it takes is balance.

 

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