I Didn't Do the Thing Today

by Madeleine Dore

Cover image

Publisher: Avery
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 0-593-41914-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 291

Buy at Powell's Books

At least from my narrow view of it, the world of productivity self-help literature is a fascinating place right now. The pandemic overturned normal work patterns and exacerbated schedule inequality, creating vastly different experiences for the people whose work continued to be in-person and the people whose work could become mostly or entirely remote. Self-help literature, which is primarily aimed at the more affluent white-collar class, primarily tracked the latter disruption: newly-remote work, endless Zoom meetings, the impossibility of child care, the breakdown of boundaries between work and home, and the dawning realization that much of the mechanics of day-to-day office work are neither productive nor defensible.

My primary exposure these days to the more traditional self-help productivity literature is via Cal Newport. The stereotype of the productivity self-help book is a collection of life hacks and list-making techniques that will help you become a more efficient capitalist cog, but Newport has been moving away from that dead end for as long as I've been reading him, and his recent work focuses more on structural issues with the organization of knowledge work. He also shares with the newer productivity writers a willingness to tell people to use the free time they recover via improved efficiency on some life goal other than improved job productivity. But he's still prickly and defensive about the importance of personal productivity and accomplishing things. He gives lip service on his podcast to the value of the critique of productivity, but then usually reverts to characterizing anti-productivity arguments as saying that productivity is a capitalist invention to control workers. (Someone has doubtless said this on Twitter, but I've never seen a serious critique of productivity make this simplistic of an argument.)

On the anti-productivity side, as it's commonly called, I've seen a lot of new writing in the past couple of years that tries to break the connection between productivity and human worth so endemic to US society. This is not a new analysis; disabled writers have been making this point for decades, it's present in both Keynes and in Galbraith's The Affluent Society, and Kathi Weeks's The Problem with Work traces some of its history in Marxist thought. But what does feel new to me is its widespread mainstream appearance in newspaper articles, viral blog posts, and books such as Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing and Devon Price's Laziness Does Not Exist. The pushback against defining life around productivity is having a moment.

Entering this discussion is Madeleine Dore's I Didn't Do the Thing Today. Dore is the author of the Extraordinary Routines blog and host of the Routines and Ruts podcast. Extraordinary Routines began as a survey of how various people organize their daily lives. I Didn't Do the Thing Today is, according to the preface, a summary of the thoughts Dore has had about her own life and routines as a result of those interviews.

As you might guess from the subtitle (Letting Go of Productivity Guilt), Dore's book is superficially on the anti-productivity side. Its chapters are organized around gentle critiques of productivity concepts, with titles like "The Hopeless Search for the Ideal Routine," "The Myth of Balance," or "The Harsh Rules of Discipline." But I think anti-productivity is a poor name for this critique; its writers are not opposed to being productive, only to its position as an all-consuming focus and guilt-generating measure of personal worth.

Dore structures most chapters by naming an aspect, goal, or concern of a life defined by productivity, such as wasted time, ambition, busyness, distraction, comparison, or indecision. Each chapter sketches the impact of that idea and then attempts to gently dismantle the grip that it may have on the reader's life. All of these discussions are nuanced; it's rare for Dore to say that one of these aspects has no value, and she anticipates numerous objections. But her overarching goal is to help the reader be more comfortable with imperfection, more willing to live in the moment, and less frustrated with the limitations of life and the human brain. If striving for productivity is like lifting weights, Dore's diagnosis is that we've tried too hard for too long, and have overworked that muscle until it is cramping. This book is a gentle massage to induce the muscle to relax and let go.

Whether this will work is, as with all self-help books, individual. I found it was best read in small quantities, perhaps a chapter per day, since it otherwise began feeling too much the same. I'm also not the ideal audience; Dore is a creative freelancer and primarily interviewed other creative people, which I think has a different sort of productivity rhythm than the work that I do. She's also not a planner to the degree that I am; more on that below. And yet, I found this book worked on me anyway. I can't say that I was captivated all the way through, but I found myself mentally relaxing while I was reading it, and I may re-read some chapters from time to time.

How does this relate to the genre of productivity self-help? With less conflict than I think productivity writers believe, although there seems to be one foundational difference of perspective.

Dore is not opposed to accomplishing things, or even to systems that help people accomplish things. She is more attuned than the typical productivity writer to the guilt and frustration that can accumulate when one has a day in which one does not do the thing, but her goal is not to talk you out of attempting things. It is, instead, to convince you to hold those attempts and goals more lightly, to allow them to move and shift and change, and to not treat a failure to do the thing today as a reason for guilt. This is wholly compatible with standard productivity advice. It's adding nuance at one level of abstraction higher: how tightly to cling to productivity goals, and what to do when they don't work out. Cramping muscles are not strong muscles capable of lifting heavy things. If one can massage out the cramp, one's productivity by even the strict economic definition may improve.

Where I do see a conflict is that most productivity writers are planners, and Dore is not. This is, I think, a significant blind spot in productivity self-help writing. Cal Newport, for example, advocates time-block planning, where every hour of the working day has a job. David Allen advocates a complex set of comprehensive lists and well-defined next actions. Mark Forster builds a flurry of small systems for working through lists. The standard in productivity writing is to to add structure to your day and cultivate the self-discipline required to stick to that structure.

For many people, including me, this largely works. I'm mostly a planner, and when my life gets chaotic, adding more structure and focusing on that structure helps me. But the productivity writers I've read are quite insistent that their style of structure will work for everyone, and on that point I am dubious. Newport, for example, advocates time-block planning for everyone without exception, insisting that it is the best way to structure a day. Dore, in contrast, describes spending years trying to perfect a routine before realizing that elastic possibilities work better for her than routines. For those who are more like Dore than Newport, I Didn't Do the Thing Today is more likely to be helpful than Newport's instructions. This doesn't make Newport's ideas wrong; it simply makes them not universal, something that the productivity self-help genre seems to have trouble acknowledging.

Even for readers like myself who prefer structure, I Didn't Do the Thing Today is a valuable corrective to the emphasis on every-better systems. For those who never got along with too much structure, I think it may strike a chord. The standard self-help caveat still applies: Dore has the most to say to people who are in a similar social class and line of work as her. I'm not sure this book will be of much help to someone who has to juggle two jobs with shift work and child care, where the problem is more sharp external constraints than internalized productivity guilt. But for its target audience, I think it's a valuable, calming message. Dore doesn't have a recipe to sort out your life, but may help you feel better about the merits of life unsorted.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-01-26

Last spun 2022-02-06 from thread modified 2022-01-28