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Checking off items from your to-do checklist can feel rewarding and satisfying, especially on those days where you can knock out several items at once. At least for me, I regularly create a long list of all the things I have pending. I get a sick pleasure of crossing each item off the list to mark its completion. It makes me feel “productive.” For years I tried writing a book by adding “write” as a task on that laundry list of miscellaneous things I had to do. But I rarely got to it, and when I did, I wouldn’t have enough time to get my writing-brain working. There was always too much to do.
When I realized this would never work, I separated a few hours one day a week to focus only on my writing. That helped a lot. But I knew that if I wanted to finish my book, I needed more than one writing day. I rearranged my schedule to block out large chunks of time almost every day to write and leaving only one admin day a week to get everything else done.
That was an anxiety-provoking process. I confess I’ve never felt so unproductive as I did at the end of some of my writing days. After sitting in front of my computer for hours I could have written one page or one paragraph or struggled with one sentence the whole time. By the end of the day, I usually felt no closer to finishing my book than I did when I started. That was frustrating. The weeks turned into months, and friends and family would ask “When are you going to finish your book?”
“I’m working on it!” I’d respond.
“But what’s your deadline?” they’d ask.
“I’m not sure,” I’d reply half-heartedly wondering if I’d ever finish or if I was doing any of this correctly.
I spent a year working on my book, not knowing how much longer it would take, if it would be any good, or if anyone would want to read it. Some days it felt like I was wasting my time. But I kept plugging at it week after week, settling for only getting my task-crossing dopamine rush on Tuesdays.
And then the other day I watched the documentary, The Dawn Wall. It shares the story of Tommy Caldwell’s journey to becoming the best mountain climber in the world. At some point Tommy decided he wanted to do something that had never been done before—to climb the Dawn Wall on the El Capitan mountain. It was one specific section of the mountain that seemed impossible because of all its blank spaces. There didn’t seem to be anything that a climber could grip their hands and feet onto for the climb. But Tommy wanted to find a way. He spent a year hanging off the side of El Cap attempting to identify enough cracks and crimps to delineate a route up the wall.
Let me repeat that: Tommy spent a year hanging off the side of El Cap attempting to identify enough cracks and crimps to delineate a route up the wall. Can you imagine spending an entire year hanging off the side of a wall with a rope, just looking and touching the surfaces of the rock? I know I can’t. Eventually Tommy created a route he thought might be possible. Kevin Jorgensen joined Tommy’s passion project, and they spent the next six years attempting that route. Six more years!
Kevin admitted that he could never tell if they were wasting their time or doing something grand. He lived with that uncertainty for six years, but kept going back to that mountain hoping to accomplish their goal. During those years with thousands of failed attempts, the only indicator of their progress was that they were still there to see another day. When they weren’t on the wall, they were back at home training for the climb.
In 2015, Tommy and Kevin were the first people ever to free climb the Dawn Wall, making history and an incredible story for a documentary. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a must watch (https://www.netflix.com/title/81004270)
Their story inspired me to continue doing the work that matters to me, regardless of how long I take to accomplish my goals.
Lyn Manuel Miranda is another example of someone whose work took years to complete. Lyn Manuel spent a year writing one song in Hamilton. One year for one song. It then took him five more years to write the play. I wonder if he could tell whether he was wasting his time or doing something grand. Regardless, he kept at it. He took his time and trusted the process. He continued doing the work that mattered to him. And he came up with Hamilton, one of the most brilliant Broadway musicals of all time.
These are just two examples of people who focused on one thing. They committed years of their life on their work despite no guarantees of greatness. Yet in both cases what they produced was extraordinary.
It got me thinking of being “productive.” We live in a fast-paced busy society, juggling a thousand responsibilities and commitments. Over time, it’s easy to develop that habit of always being on the go. And we buy into this notion that the more we do, the more productive we are. But we fail to recognize that some projects have their process. They take time and require patience. They need room for error and correction. The only way to complete these projects is if we’re willing to delay gratification; even during those moments when we can’t tell if we’re wasting our time!
Even if you don’t feel like you are being productive today, you could be we producing something great for tomorrow. Keep working on your greatness!