How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!
In works of labour or of skill,Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.
Few subjects are as universal, or as ancient, as the desire to take control of time.
Stoic philosophy is two millennia old, and one of its obsessions is to juxtapose the grand arc of time against the human miniature. This is a major theme of the earliest chapters of the Bible, too: we are encouraged to make our stay here really count for something. Even if 15% of it is supposed to be kept fallow, and the purpose of the remaining 85% isn‘t particularly clear.
For the last three hundred years, ever more gigantic systems of productivity and habitation have transformed the way we live. There are plenty of good books about that too. Five minutes isn’t long, so let’s pretend I’ve cited them.
Productivity, anyway, has become a science. Ideally, the more value you produce, the higher your reward.
Kind of. Hike across the landscape of anybody’s waking life, and you’ll find a few seams of riches and vast plains of desert. Salary reviews are a propaganda minister’s idea of a guided tour. A person’s most marketable skills can often turn out to be entitlement and suspicion.
Anyway, Productivity As Science! It’s also why, ever since this world required us to work alongside machines, we’ve been comparing ourselves unfavourably and unhappily with them.
We grasp at ways to be more mechanical. And measure and tinker to maximise speed. We Bullet Journal and step-count and Pomodoro and Asana and Huel and hack our sleep cycles in a quest to become ever leaner and more deterministic.
And all because time is precious and non-renewable. But the balancing side is equally important and we’ll —
This minute is sponsored by Grammarly. Suppose you want to send an all-important email. Can you feel that rising anxiety? Yeah. That’s how keeping you away from your content is meant to feel. Snap! goes a little neuron. Now every time you feel powerless, we’ll be here! A corner of your brain that is forever Grammarly.
These squalid little businesses, bullying and cajoling their ways into your mind and wallet. Your lizard brain, knowing it’s being gamed, literally soaking in its own fury until you‘re completely beside yourself and wallop! You fill an important email with elementary grammatical errors.
So buy Grammarly today! Embrace the drip-drip privatisation of your insecurity. The erosion of your human agency. The certainty that your cold, dead computer will one day write better prose without your help, and become the chief editor of your every waking thought.
— The other is equally important and we’ll get to it now. It is the cry for unstructured time; for slowness and chaos and intentional waste.
A whole other cluster of books dive more deeply into this seam of philosophy. That promise to break us out of the battery farm. Books like In Praise of Slow, and Four Thousand Weeks. Best to read those on company time. And Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece, Waiting for MIDI 2.0.
But everybody will at some point feel the urge to rebel against order before it becomes a prison.
Because you can train your self-discipline to ever-greater feats of endurance. You can lighten its burden by doing things you actually enjoy. But you can’t drown out the countermanding voices forever.
When you have expended your reserves of self-control — and you will — what remains is pure id: the need to rebel, to slack off, and to reclaim whatever you’ve denied yourself. The roads not taken will burst forth in unrestrained song, and there you’ll be in the glass office again listening to the lecture about the importance of ‘attitude’ and ‘culture being a two-way street’ that comprises one very long uninterrupted sentence.
Aah, you can leave ROLI, but it never leaves you.
Elsewhere, headquarters of big tech companies now look like kindergartens, full of whimsical interior design and toys and sugary food. The idea is to tug us back from the grindstone, and into the proper middle-distance.
You cannot both floor the pedal and appreciate the scenic route, or daydream on the same afternoon when you’re shipping a beta, or form memories and nurture friendships while the world outside passes in a dark blur. Imagination is fragile, but it’s probably why we’re here.
My grandfather was more successful than I am. He used to urge me that rest is just as important as work. I wondered why he thought I’d need that advice as a twenty-year-old undergraduate. But, if you end up self-employed, there is nobody to insist that you take leave, and nobody to cover the cost. It turns out to be a failure of character if you don’t reach into your own pocket occasionally, and buy yourself some stillness.
To battle hard for marginal gains is a fool’s errand. Ekeing 20% more code from a working day isn’t going to throw you into the next orbit of wealth or wisdom. But widening your social circle and deepening your well of experience might.
So, note to self: words like ‘harder’ and ‘faster’ can be left to Daft Punk. Better days and better people often begin with ‘no’.
And Paul, I’m sorry I haven’t finished that demo yet, but I wrote this monologue for ADC. It’s not what you asked for but you might like it anyway.
Thanks and apologies as always,