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Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

Hyper-productivity, the Space Between Things and Where Creativity Lives

I step on to the lawn at the back of the house. The dew at my feet is cold. My toes are wet. But the morning sun smiles on my back, hinting at the warmth of the day to come.

Each morning I’m up early, generally between 5 am and 6 am. These hours are quiet. Hardly anyone is awake. Emails are a no go. My computer is only opened so I can write. The rest of the time is spent breathing, stretching, sitting and observing. Time doing nothing.

I walk across the lawn. There is a lake at the bottom of the garden and I set up a small bench just beside the water’s edge. Here I kneel and look out.

When you try to do nothing you discover that doing nothing is an impossibility. Especially if you spend most of your day trying to do something. The minute you slow down, thoughts fill the empty space. At the start of most meditation sessions, my mind goes into overdrive. Sometimes I wonder if I’m any good at this whole mindfulness thing. But it’s not about being good or bad, I remind myself, it’s about being. Observing what is and what isn’t. That’s it. As I sit at the side of the lake, surrounded by the sound of birds, cows, insects and sheep waking, I settle into just being.

Quietness will arrive. Hold onto it too tightly and it will never come. You can’t force it. It happens when you relax into the whole exercise. The most important thing is letting go of the ambition to ‘do nothing’ in the first place. As you move from the intention to do nothing, to plain nothingness your mind goes through this calm transitional phase. This phase is not totally devoid of thought, but it’s less populated than before. The thoughts that appear during this period are less ‘default’ mode and more creative. They tend to have insights that seem genuinely useful rather than just anxious or reactionary.

I look out across the lake and breathe deeply. Today, meditation was not calm. Maybe tomorrow.

The President Is Productive

The President of America doesn’t use a to-do app. He has a calendar instead. If something is in there, it gets done. If it isn’t, he won’t do it. He’s one of the busiest people on earth so it would make sense to think about why this works as a productivity method. When your attention is pulled in lots of directions, you need to be clear about how you use each moment. A meeting with a non-negotiable deadline demands that decisions be made. Things happen because you force them to. I call this kind of approach to work, hyper-productivity.

There is a time management app called Rescuetime. When you download it onto your computer it starts to log all the time you spend on that device. Each activity is categorised and assigned a score. Time spent on email is communication (productive). Time spent watching Youtube is entertainment (unproductive). Time spent writing code is software development (productive). Time spent on social media is simply social media (and yes, that’s unproductive). You can adjust the categories as you see fit. You also set goals, such as being productive for X amount of hours per day. Or spending less than X amount of time on social media. Each week you get an email that summarises your productivity and how you’ve spent your time. The company claims to help you to ‘Do More Meaningful Work’. This is questionable. People use the application to track their computer usage and, in theory, self-optimise. Theory is a wonderful thing. But quantified time is not inherently meaningful.

Commercial design agencies require their employees to log all the billable hours they spend throughout the day. This means they can justify the dollars they charge on any client projects. Practically, this makes a lot of sense. When you need to justify why something costs what it does, you can dig through the time-sheets and point to the minutes and hours that have been translated to dollar bills. But the logic of this practice only goes so far and begins to break down when you ask too many questions. Why did it take that long to design a webpage? Why did a logo take longer? Explain to me why creating concepts needed one day? Would it have changed the project if you only spent half a day on it? Why? Why not? Like a child that sticks to a never-ending line of enquiry (But why? Why? Why?) you’ll rarely end up at a satisfying answer.

Substituting Science For English

Mr Friedeberg gave science lessons. During high school, I was never interested in chemistry or physics classes. It was too close to maths and I didn’t consider myself good at that. Despite this, he was one of my favourite teachers. The science he taught doesn’t stick with me. What’s remained is Mr Friedeberg’s love of the English language. He would periodically introduce us to wild and wonderful words that would either send the class into a fit of laughter or have us begging him to explain more.

On the other hand, English was something I was far more interested in. I also semi-competent in the subject and got above average grades. But I found that while my brain was in ‘english-learning’ mode, I struggled to get fired up. Cut to my Physics lesson and Friedeberg would impart discerning vocabulary between the content we were there to learn. When I wasn’t awaiting lessons in grammar and composition, it seemed easier to be inspired.

Try telling a teenage boy he is a troglodyte. Or ask the kid chewing gum at the back of the class to stop masticating. You can also accuse a student of looking perpetually discombobulated by failing to complete their homework. These are all words I recommend looking up if you don’t already know their meaning. Despite not learning much about physics, I still use these silly words. Mr Friedeberg gave me a strong sense of when an archaic and slightly flamboyant word is required. More than that, he also taught me to investigate language. That there is a word awaiting each moment if you’re vocabulary is broad enough. He encouraged me to use language wisely. None of this was on the required syllabus but it was the best lesson I ever had.

The Pinnacle Of Productivity Methods

I’ve spent more time than necessary experimenting with different to-do applications. Over the years, I’ve had maybe a dozen different tools on my phone and laptop. The reason for this abundance of applications was always a search for the best working method, rather than the right software (even if it took half a dozen applications to figure that out myself). How you go about doing stuff is far from straightforward. Do it one way and you’ll be finished by lunch with a list of actionable next steps. Do it another way and you’ll be working on it at dinner time and scrambling to meet the deadline.

A calendar is the most efficient method for programming your time. Rather than listing the things that need to be done in a project (useful but not inherently effective), it gives you a set time frame in which to do them. That’s to say, it allots minutes and hours against achieving a predetermined outcome. If you need to get something done, put it in the calendar. Start at the scheduled time, finish at the scheduled time. If you want to be productive, act like the President of America.

Is there a limit to this method? Are there elements of meaningful work that can’t be effectively measured or timetabled? When you dig into the essence of any creative or worthwhile work it’s hard to justify why anything takes as long as it does. You can, for example, be consistent in your work by creating new designs each day. But it’s not possible to say that you’ll produce original, high-quality and interesting work within the same time-frame for each project. Some things happen outside of your bookable timetable.

Brilliance Can’t Be Scheduled

Every morning I wake up to write a minimum of 750 words. Stream of consciousness. I don’t come to it with an intention of creating anything in particular. It takes me between 15 and 20 minutes to complete the word count. So this usually takes place between 5:45 am and 6:00 am. Some days it’s a slog. Others it’s a breeze. The practice is based on a method from Julia Cameron’s book ‘The Artist’s Way’, it’s called Morning Pages. The aim is to drain your brain.

Like any good filtering system, when you clear out the sludge you’re left with clarity. One morning I might sit down and struggle to get anything worthwhile on the page for the first 10 minutes. My mind has to reach an inflection point before, as if from nowhere, the words start pouring out of me. Even then, nothing is guaranteed. I’ve written mundane and barely readable internal monologues. I’ve also written some of my most inspiring and original thoughts. My weekly articles often start as a thought from my Morning Pages. But I can go a whole week and not write a sentence worth revisiting.

Writers or creative people will often talk about the difficulties of their craft. How they have to bleed to get the words on the page. Suffer to get the paint on the canvas. Go through hell to discover the moves for a dance. The reality is less dramatic. Creating worthwhile work is tricky but not impossible. The hard part is maintaining the discipline that’s required to get there. Inspiration will always arrive. The question is whether you’ll be sat at your keyboard when she decides to stop by.

It took a while for me to see all this. I needed to reach a certain volume of writing before the lessons began to take shape. But one thing is now quite obvious – writing every day is the most important thing. My mind works in cycles that I’m often not aware of. If I want to synchronise with these cycles, and therefore increase my chances of creating interesting work, I need to be writing regularly. You can’t plan brilliance, but you can certainly prime yourself for it.

Creative Work Is A Dartboard

Creating meaningful work is like throwing darts at a dartboard. Most of the space on the board is taken up by relatively low scoring areas. These areas are easy to hit. But the spaces in between these large volumes are smaller and more valuable. A highly skilled darts player can hit them often. But a beginner only hits them by chance (which is increased by the number of times they ‘have a go’). This is how I see a creative life. There is a lot of work that needs to be done. Anyone can sit down and hammer out the hours by throwing darts at the board. They’ll hit the big spaces 9 times out of 10. But it takes a seasoned creator to regularly hit those spaces in between where the high scoring work comes from. Practice helps.

There is a difference between creating time and being creative. You can aim to do great work, but productivity does not produce meaningful work by default. Type productivity into Medium or Google and you’ll find articles detailing how to hit the low scoring areas on the dart board. I can give you a 5 point process for how to do that time after time. What you’ll find less of is guidance on what work is worth doing. How to go about hitting the small spaces. The best way to find a balance between the two.

The time between things is when unseen but essential creative work happens in our minds. The misty moments between sleep and consciousness, when the mind drifts wildly. After breakfast, before the commute and in the shower. This is when ideas ripen and drop. Or the smaller moments that we can’t classify as anything much – the downtime between ordering your coffee and it arriving. Or when you get lost reading an article you didn’t intend to start, but which drew you in nonetheless. We can’t plan these moments. They happen of their own accord. But in them, we find all sorts of useful things – boredom, happiness, curiosity, inspiration, ambition, and of course, the occasional masticating troglodyte.

What Do You Regret And Why?

The other day somebody asked me: What would you do differently if you could start again? I had to stop for a moment because it’s a simple ask but it requires a well-thought-out answer.

You can read the question from several angles but it boils down to: what do you regret?

I’m not so smug as to tell you that I’ve lived a life with no false starts, naive decisions and bad choices. I’m actually going to tell you that the very reason I’m so happy about where I’m at is because I have done things worth regretting.

In our own way, we’re all trying to find a way to deal with the possibility of living a life we regret. On the one hand, we have people who think that means regretting things we did. On the other, we have folks who think it means regretting that which we did not do.

The first group often seem to be living as if there are no consequences to their actions. These people might say it’s pointless to worry about regretting something because who knows if you’ll ever be around long enough to regret it anyway.

The latter group is living as if every risk should be limited as far as possible. These people might argue that this is the only way to live sensibly, any other approach lacks foresight and responsibility.

Depending on your character and experiences, you might lie anywhere on the spectrum between these two poles. But if you were ever to seek out advice about minimising the number of regrets you have in your life, it doesn’t take long to find reams of it on the internet. There are whole lists of things young people should avoid doing so they won’t be plagued with regrets further down the road. These lists get repetitive quickly. Work harder, look after your body, be more adventurous, don’t take people for granted, spend less time watching TV or on social media. Of course, I broadly agree with all of these points – but only because I’ve been there.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Mistakes are worth making. But they aren’t worth repeating. We make mistakes because we’re wrong, stupid, ill-informed or any other number of unfortunate adjectives. We avoid repeating them because we develop some degree of wisdom.

In order to understand why we end up with regrets and how we can minimise them, we first need to understand the difference between stupidity, wisdom and how they are inseparably linked.

What is stupidity?

You can make a mistake and not be stupid. You can choose the incorrect answer and not be stupid. You can totally miss the mark and I still won’t peg you as stupid.

That’s because stupidity isn’t about being wrong or messing up. These things can be passed off as just inexperience or being misinformed about a situation. No, stupidity is something much more personal and deep-seated than short-term failure.

In my eyes, stupidity is a combination of a lack of self-reflection and the habit of continuing to make the same decision regardless of your knowledge. There’s the famous adage from Einstein, that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Well, stupidity is simply doing the same things over and over again knowing that they’ll produce the same results. There is a subtle difference.

The insane, we might suggest, don’t have enough perspective to see the loop they are caught in. That’s unfortunate but it’s explainable. The stupid have a modicum of self-awareness and can see that they are repeating their errors. But this knowledge doesn’t cause them to course correct. They continue anyway.

A few weeks back I wrote about how mistakes are just opportunities for learning that have been inaccurately categorised. Making a mistake and not realising it’s an opportunity to learn is forgivable and something you can work on changing. But the truly stupid person is well aware of what’s happened. They see the lesson in front of them and they choose to ignore it. This is an important distinction.

We can make many mistakes and not be considered stupid. But when we throw ourselves into the same old problems with the same useless solutions, that’s when we start moving toward stupidity.

What is wisdom?

At a first glance, it would appear that wisdom is the polar opposite of stupidity. When we make a mistake we learn from it so that, moving forward, we are able to operate on this new found insight. We have advice about what to do in a given situation and we live by it. This is why wisdom appears to become more abundant with age. The older we get the more experiences we’ve had, the more mistakes we will have made and the more our advice about life is able to accumulate.

We can illustrate this point by imagining two elderly citizens. One is a perennially disappointed and bitter grandfather who will always tell you about the ills of this world. Not many people enjoy talking to him for too long, it gets depressing rather quickly. The other is a wise old woman who doesn’t feel the need to accost people with her disappointments but instead shows the path worth walking through her conduct. Despite not speaking over others, she tends to hold people captive in conversation and is visited often by people of all ages.

The bitter grandfather only has perspective on his side – he’s been around long enough to resent the way the world has changed and imagine how it could have been better. But that’s just memory. He’s not adding anything to the situation aside from negativity.

The quiet elderly woman is what we might refer to as wisdom. She has seen and heard enough to simply be the way she knows she should be. Her mistakes or disappointments have not become something she lectures others on. Instead, to paraphrase Gandhi, she has become the change that she wished to see.

Sam Harris describes wisdom as little more than the ability to follow your own advice. This is how our elderly woman lives. This is why she’s wise. While this definition is a good start, it also reveals to us an interesting question: how do you arrive at having good advice in the first place?

We can find good advice everywhere. My girlfriend is forever telling me that if I want to lose weight then eating lots of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is a bad idea. But when that tub is in front of you, well, let’s just say that conceptual knowledge is not always easy to recall.

If your sweet tooth is anything like mine, then obtaining the wisdom to eat less Ben & Jerry’s in any one sitting is only arrived at by being naive enough to overdo it once or twice.

The impossibility of pure wisdom

We often frame opposites as having a hard divide. Wisdom is wisdom and poor actions are poor actions. One you arrive at through age and experience and the other by being young and naive. But these two attributes are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are dependant on one another.

We have two definitions now. One for stupidity and one for wisdom. What this has shown us is that regrets are not a product of a life lacking wisdom, but rather, one lived in stupidity. But the most interesting insight comes when you take this a step further and realise the fact that wisdom never arises without a little stupidity.

While a life of wisdom is something we should aspire to, we don’t get there by being flawless. The flowers of wisdom require some dirt upon which to grow. Generally, that means a degree of pain or discomfort in our lives through which we can nourish our own insights.

But this wisdom doesn’t just appear by virtue of having made mistakes. We need to exercise some self-reflection and honesty. When we truly absorb something and learn from it, we are strong, better and wiser.

When this happens regret becomes an impossibility. If we are wiser and stronger as a result, then to not have experienced such a thing would, by definition, leave us worse off.

That means you need to eat that tub of Ben & Jerry’s at least once to understand why it’s a bad idea. You need to binge on Netflix and put off chasing your passion before you know why that truly sucks. But more importantly, you need to be honest with yourself about it afterwards. So you shouldn’t regret the tub of Ben & Jerry’s. But you reflect on it.

Regrets arise when we are able to gain some perspective on a situation but fail to fully form that perspective into something useful and insightful. It’s a lack of deep reflection. If you’re truly reflective then you don’t make the same mistakes over and over again. You look back, understand that the course of action you took was not ideal and then you recalibrate for the next time. That’s what life is about. Not sitting around listing the things we’d never do again given a second chance.

Every mistake is who you are

The question still remains: what would I change about my past? Would I go back and avoid stealing that ice lolly? Would I not get in that fight? Or maybe I wouldn’t lie about where I’d been to my girlfriend?

Well, actually I wouldn’t. It’s important that I did those things. I don’t want to do them again and I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone. But those poor choices are mine and they’ve taught me about what it means to be a better person.

The world is full of these kinds of situations. Black and white questions that are harmless enough but which conceal a deeper question about our lives and how we live them. Perfection is only achieved by embracing the whole mess of life for what it is. Not by picking and choosing the parts that suit you best.

You are the sum of all the things you’ve ever said and done, all the experiences you’ve had, every action you’ve ever taken. Any positive skills and wisdom that you’ve gained are intimately wrapped up in all the other missteps and half-starts you’ve had.

You’re human which means you’ll screw up every now and then. Hopefully, you’ll learn when it happens. But don’t worry about messing up in the meantime. If you need to worry, then worry about not screwing up enough. Worry about not learning from the things that go badly.

So drop the regrets. Stop making lists of them. Stop regretting and start reflecting. Because anything worth regretting is probably worth learning from. Choose the one that makes you a better person moving forward.

Are You Listening?

Listening to nobody

“Narrator: When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just …
Marla: … instead of just waiting for their turn to speak?
Narrator: Yeah. Yeah.”
– Fight Club

The narrator of Fight Club is not dying. But he is in pain. He is looking for somebody who will listen to him. After developing insomnia he is told by a doctor that he isn’t suffering. If he wants to see suffering then he should attend some support groups at his local community centre.

He does exactly that. In fact, he starts to attend all of the support groups. Bowel cancer, brain parasites, melanoma, testicular cancer. Here he finds people who stop and hear him. The insomnia begins to tail off. He’s found his release.

Later, he meets another imposter visiting the same support groups, albeit for different reasons. This knocks the spell of his strange but effective insomnia cure because it exposes his pitiful state.

But how far is the Narrator’s experience from the rest of our lives? We’re all looking to find a way to share our story, connect and be understood. We might not end up crashing support groups for the terminally ill, but we certainly spend plenty of energy trying to get others to see us in the way we want to be seen.

This is the paradox of modern communication: we want to be understood but we invest the minimum amount of time in listening to others.

It’s easier to reply with an emoji rather than words.

It’s easier to text a person than it is to call.

It’s easier to call your friend than to speak to them directly.

How many times have you been on the phone to someone and heard them typing in the background?

Sometimes it seems like people really don’t listen unless you’re dying.

The world is full of people only half listening

Let’s dive into your mind for a moment. While you’re reading this sentence you’re having other thoughts:

‘What’s for lunch?’
‘I should actually get something healthy.’
‘I’m so fat at the moment.’
‘I hate that picture John posted of me.’
‘Ugh. I really need to lose weight.’
‘I should txt John and ask him to take it down.’
‘But what am I going to eat for lunch anyway?’

This happens as we walk around and live our lives all the time. This stream of thoughts that our minds produce is our internal monologue. Many of us don’t even realise we’re having it.

When we talk to other people this internal monologue continues. Other people’s opinions are just topical points for us to judge, filter and toss out as our monologue sees fit. A conversation is often a combination of hearing what someone has said, seeing what the monologue has to say about that and then providing a summary back to the other person.

As a result, most of us are only half listening all the time. We’re wrapped up in our own internal conversation. How do we ever expect to get heard ourselves when we never listen to anyone else?

It’s interesting to note that the main character of Fight Club is so desperate to be heard but spends the whole time speaking at us. He never stops to listen to anyone else because he’s too busy telling his own story. He’s literally referred to as ‘The Narrator’.

Just shut up and listen

There is a pause in the conversation. Mia Wallace sits opposite Vincent Vega at the Jack Rabbit Slim restaurant. She sips a milkshake through a straw. He leans backwards, smokes his cigarette, reaches forward to grab his glass of Vanilla Coke. No words. Mia, mentions the fact she hates uncomfortable silences and then observes:

“That’s when you know you found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute, and comfortably share silence.”

Here is the situation as observed so far:

Number one, we only half listen to people. So we’re always waiting for our turn to speak, rather than taking time to really hear.

Number two, that leads us to talk about ourselves more often than we should. It’s easy to relate everything you hear to some reference about yourself.

And finally, number three, despite living in a golden age of communication we are struggling to connect with one another more than ever before.

If we find ourselves in this perpetual state of 140 character attention spans, then what does the opposite end of the spectrum look like?

Mia Wallace, in the scene from Pulp Fiction that I described above, is getting at the answer. What’s rare is what’s valuable. To sit and be silent with another person, not watching TV, not on your computer, just being there, is rare. When we do that we’re giving someone our full attention. And in the communication economy, that’s one of our most valuable assets.

Can you just be with somebody and not have to fill every moment with words? Can you just sit with one another and read each other’s body language?

Can you just shut up and comfortably listen to each other?

Attention is your most valuable asset

Attention is the raw currency of human relationships. In order for any friendship to grow, it must be watered with a certain amount of it. Children need it in order to develop, learn and feel secure.

How we use our attention is nothing short of an indication of what is important in our lives.

When this comes to your relationship with another person, giving all your attention is a powerful thing to do. It shows an investment on your behalf in this person, right here, right now. If you do this often and intensely enough it’s called love.

Love is paying attention to someone else.

I love my friends when I call them and ask them how they are doing.

I love my sister when I hear her problems and become someone she can confide in.

I love my girlfriend when I have long, uninterrupted conversations with her over dinner.

I love my daughter when I spend time simply being with her and giving her exactly what she needs at that moment.

Listening to someone is a way of giving your attention. In this sense, it’s a special thing to do. I can show love to my neighbour by taking the time to stop and listen to them. Listening is a powerful way of building bridges and deepening bonds.

Stop responding, start asking

Many of us want to offer advice or give our perspective. That’s how we define our value in a conversation. But talk, as they say, is cheap. Anyone can half hear a sentence and start talking back.

There is a general rule in the Zen tradition that you don’t offer advice unless someone asks for it three times. We give advice and opinions too quickly. By waiting until we are pressed for them, we’re saved from giving them too soon.

We often want to help fix problems when what we need to do is hear them.

Listening, instead of fixing, requires a conscious effort. But the rules are simple enough. Next time you have a conversation try something like this:

  1. As the person speaks listen for interesting or leading points that they make.
  2. Wait for a natural pause in their train of thought.
  3. At the right moment, ask a question that encourages more than a yes or no response.
  4. Repeat this for the natural duration of the conversation.
  5. Refrain from adding your own perspective or observations at any point.

The interesting thing is how quickly this technique leads to deeper conversations. When we know someone isn’t listening we find it difficult to open up. But when we feel that we’re being heard we’re more likely to trust someone. A good question leads to an authentic answer because there is empathy in the discussion.

You will soon discover that the more you listen, the more you’ll find that’s worth hearing.

Listen More, Love More

Communication, at the best of times, is frustrating. Not being heard is painful. Words are unable to capture the full breadth of any message. Emotions get reduced to concepts. Ideas become fuzzy as we try to clarify them.

We’re bombarded with messages, signals and notifications. All these things are trying to grab some of our mental bandwidth. Pulling us away from what’s happening right now. Attention is a valuable asset, but it’s increasingly scarce in personal interactions.

It’s hard enough to overcome our internal monologue in order to hear somebody else speak. Then we go and slice up our attention by dividing it, multi-tasking with it and spreading it thin via our technology. Finding depth, the kind that makes an interaction really satisfying just doesn’t happen. Not when we stack the odds in favour of single-serving conversations.

But when we have a great conversation, when we listen fully, it can be energising. It’s empowering. We connect. We spread the love. And that’s something the world needs a little more of these days.

A good listener is hard to find. Be one for the people you care about.