Perpetual Neglect



“Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

* * *

Like many of you, no doubt, I spent some time thinking about personal goals and ideas for this upcoming year. The new year is always a good time to reflect, take stock of where we are, and make sure we’re still on course for where we want to be.

In a few months I will begin my 5th year of working from home and working for myself (thanks in no small part to you, dear readers). One of the most empowering lessons I have learned over these past 4 years has been regarding my own limitations. Not merely my limitations of time, but also of energy.

In any given day I have 2 maybe 3 hours of good writing time in me. A couple hours of reading. Hopefully an hour or two of researching, thinking, or decision making. And maybe an hour of admin and other busywork.

If I push my day to include more than that, I often find myself not making much progress. There is a point when the responsible and productive thing for me to do is leave my office and stop working altogether.

The workaholic in me wants to squeeze in a few more tasks. I have friends who can crank out hours upon hours of productive, creative work. Alas, I’m not one of those types. And so I’m trying to let myself quit while I’m ahead and go upstairs to be with my family, or go run errands, or just lie down and stare at the ceiling while I listen to what is going on in my imagination.

Albert Einstein:

Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.

I’m an advocate of productivity as much as the next guy with a blog, but over my years of working from home, I feel that too much focus on productivity is to miss the forest for the trees.

Being productive is not what’s ultimately important. I want to do my best creative work and I want to have thriving relationships.

Time management, GTD, focus, diligence — these can help keep me on track. But they are not the end goal in and of themselves. I want to focus first on creativity. What do I need to do my best creative work?

Have I written today? Have I daydreamed? Have I been contemplative? Have I had an inspiring and encouraging conversation? Have I helped somebody? These acts are far more important than the progress I make against my to-do list.

When you work for yourself, there is an oceanic undercurrent that pulls you into the details of your job. The thousand responsibilities of administration and communication and infrastructure. These are important, to be sure, because without them your business would cease to be. But (at least in my case) these are the support structures at best. The foundation of my business is not the ancillary administration; it is the muse.

In The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, there’s this great line: “Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject…”

Mann’s line carries the same truth as the quote by Robert Louis Stevenson which is at the beginning of this article. Our devotion to a subject can only be sustained by the neglect of many others. Finding something we want to do is the easy part. Now we must decide what we will neglect — we must simplify where we spend our energy.

In this new year, as our thoughts are on what we can do and what we want to do, perhaps we should first think about what we will not do. What tasks and pursuits will we give up or entrust to others?

* * *

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” — Henry Thoreau