As some of you know, I’m a big fan of Cal Newport, book author and writer at Study Hacks, a blog which explores “patterns of success.” His most recent post, “Welcome to the Post-Productivity World,” speaks to a lot of what I’ve been thinking about lately in terms of time, writing, and big-picture living:

Productivity, of course, is still important. Most mature work philosophies require that you can organize what’s on your plate. But when you’re guided by a philosophy, this organization becomes the easy part. Your drive to accomplish what you believe needs to be accomplished has a way of sweeping away the ineffective.

It’s hard to judge an era while still in the middle of it, but from all accounts I think this Age of Workplace Philosopher represents an exciting shift in our thinking about work and happiness. The more seriously we struggle with the question of ‘What defines a good working life?’, the better off we are.

I recently finished writing a proposal for a new book, which has led to some reflection on my writing career in general—how it started, the twists and turns of the past 20 years, where I am today, where I want to go. I’m sorting through how to organize/consolidate my blogs now that I have the one at Psychology Today in the mix. I’m doing the difficult but necessary work of prioritizing, pruning, planning, preparing. It feels good.

Cat at Window

photo: Milan Jurek

I’m also taking a long, hard look at my time. Like everyone else, I have 24 hours each day, and how I spend them is no one’s responsibility but mine. For a writer, or at least for this writer, some of that time might look to the outside world like frivolous fun, downtime, anything but work: reading the writing of others, making notes for future projects, networking with other writers, staring out the window, taking a walk while listening to the latest New Yorker fiction podcast (something I highly recommend), even writing blog posts. It is all part of what Joyce Carol Oates calls the imaginative life (from The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art):

All the desks of my life have faced windows and except for an overwrought two-year period in the late 1980s when I worked on a word processor, I have always spent most of my time staring out the window, noting what is there, daydreaming, or brooding. Most of the so-called imaginative life is encompassed by these three activities that blend so seamlessly together, not unlike reading the dictionary, as I often do as well, entire mornings can slip by, in a blissful daze of preoccupation. It’s bizarre to me that people think that I am ‘prolific’ and that I must use every spare minute of my time when in fact, as my intimates have always known, I spend most of my time looking out the window (I recommend it).

Without this imaginative life, we might still be productive, but at what cost? I know that when I give in to the temptation to pack every spare hour or moment with tasks, as I have during the past couple of weeks, when I don’t build in cushions of time between activities for reflection and creative synthesis, my writing suffers, my mood suffers, everything suffers. I may still write as much, just not as well.

I have said some difficult “no’s” to people recently, and I’m not yet finished. It’s not easy. No one said it would be. Sometimes I feel like Donald Sutherland in Animal House when he stands in front of his students and pleads, “Listen, I’m not joking. This is my job!”

What defines a good writing day for you? What “no’s” are you willing to make that day a reality, to be able to say “yes” to the imaginative life of a writer?