Nothing is Productive for Eight Hours a Day

Or fun, for that matter. Sleep is the sole exception I will allow for. A necessity, actually, so not comparable to what I discuss here.

Turmuhr Riva

Take my hobbies – the things I do even though nobody pays me to do them – intrinsic motivation par excellence:

  • Reading. Best thing to happen to us since sleep, but 8h a day five days a week would eradicate all the fun. No time to reflect and process, and a very sore butt. Sure, larger piles of books read, but my overtasked brain would jumble them and probably miss many valuable life lessons. Not quite the point of a once pleasurable activity.
  • Writing. Makes me feel incredibly accomplished, but my brain is drained after much less than 8h. It’s a complex activity – imagination, vocabulary, structure, research, editing. Of course I can’t do all that effectively for eight hours.
  • Running. Great way of connecting with my body, but if I tried it for 8h a day, I’d collapse long before the end of day one. Even a one-hour “lunch break” would contribute little to reaching that arbitrary goal. It would be the antithesis of sustainability, too, because as my running history predicts, I’d be out for months due to injuries. Probably starting on day two.
  • Coffee and chatting with a friend. Best thing to happen to us since books, but if I tried that for 8h, I’d be left with nothing to say, a stomach ulcer, and an introvert hangover. That is the best-case scenario.

Now think about your more externally motivated tasks, such as what your employer pays you to do – how much of your workday is spent doing these productively – in the sense that they lead to the results your boss wants? How much of your workday is lost in endless email threads, pointless meetings, procrastination, mindless organizational tasks, never-ending distractions?

Having more than one task makes things no more fun, either – I used to have a job where I researched scientific literature, organized a database, coordinated email communication, plus miscellanea. But boy was I glad that that was not full-time. Sure, the tasks differed, but all required brain capacity and focus of an intensity that I believe to be unsustainable if required for 8h+ every day.

Obviously, there are many things we could try to do for eight hours a day – most people with jobs do that every day. But that doesn’t mean we actually do them – how often does the internet distract you from a work task? Nor does it mean we should. If I knew I could work fewer hours, the work-procrastination ratio would improve significantly, possibly even making up for the “lost” hours. I’d probably be sick less, making up for more “lost” hours.

Working 8h+ days is not making us more productive, it’s draining us. It keeps us in a web of obligations with little room for creativity. It keeps us unhappy. So we seek instant gratification as soon as we finally get to leave – and the marketers of conspicuous consumption rejoice.

If we had more free time, we’d know how to handle it: how to spend it productively in the sense of fulfillment. Imagine you had two extra hours Every. Single. Day. – you could exercise regularly, nap, read, go for a walk with a loved one, repair something broken, volunteer, evaluate your life…

Minimalism is a tool to achieve not having to participate in the 8h+ rat race – you need less, so you work less. Less money means less stuff, but more time adds more to your life: fun, friends, love, exercise, creativity, learning, growth, sleep, more of whatever it is that you could almost do for 8h a day.

And if we radiate enough happy minimalist leisure, maybe, just maybe, the world will follow suit…

PS: The Environmental and Financial Benefits of Using Something a Year Longer + How to Unplug + 33 Things to do Other Than Shopping.


How To Stop Buying Books


Do you love reading but love buying books even more? Is your to-read pile bigger than the read pile? Do you have unread books older than your children?

Fear not. I can help. It will be difficult, because walking into a bookstore to buy yourself a little gift is the best treat ever. But buying a book can take as little as a minute, whereas reading it will take several hours. Wonderful hours, but it’s not instant gratification. Which explains that pesky discrepancy between the to-read and read piles.

Remember how I said I didn’t remember my New Years Resolution for 2015? Despite that, I didn’t break, but internalized it: NO BOOK BUYING (borrowing, gifts, and using store credit at the used book store was allowed). I figured that my to-read pile of 50+ books would outlast the year despite this resolution. And I stuck to it. I did not spend money on books in 2015.

Initially, self-control and avoiding temptation were crucial– no more hanging out in bookstores. I started reading books that I had had forever – some I bought as early as 2008, when I was 17. Sadly, I realized that I would have enjoyed them much more at 17. I had to force myself to finish some. I disliked second books by authors whose first I had loved, only to discover that I had already bought a third book written by them. Oops.

With these experiences, the urge to buy books vanished (mostly). Not buying made so much sense. I knew: the longer I waited to start those books, the less I’d enjoy them. I was so convinced that even the intense enjoyment of books I read right after receiving them did not have me running for the bookstores. Finally visibly decreasing the to-read pile taught me to appreciate slow-and-steady gratification.

And I actually read more than during book buying years – 2015 saw me plow through almost 60 books. The to-read pile is not gone due to gifts and borrowing, but much diminished. I will always have unread books, the resolution was not about having absolutely none – what if I get snowed in? It was about not having enough unread books for the next ice age.

My second secret weapon is the rediscovery of the library. As a kid, I went all the time, but once I started reading my parents’ books and had enough money to buy some of my own, it fell by the wayside. But while studying abroad in France, I did not want to accumulate six months worth of books – my suitcase is heavy enough, thankyouverymuch. I wanted to read in French and discover authors I hadn’t heard of. The low risk of making choices at the library is perfect – if I dislike the book or realize that it’s too difficult, I just return it. I find myself making much more adventurous choices than in the bookstore, since I’m not spending 10€ on every choice. Now my repertoire is much broader – how often have you bought a book by an author you had never heard of? I’m a risk-averse person. I need the library to unlock the reading adventure.

Another advantage of libraries: loan periods force me to read books promptly, increasing the likelihood of enjoying them. Having a deadline makes me read more (the fact that I’m incapable of going to the library and getting just one book helps) – thus I upped my Goodreads reading challenge to 100. Which is realistic at my current rate.

And 2016? I did not “formally” renew the resolution. If I see a book I’m sure I’ll love, I let myself buy it. I did buy books here in France. Five. Two I’ve finished, one I’m in the middle of, and the other two are being saved up for a 12h train ride next week. So my to-read pile consists of library books and the positive effects of last year’s resolution are ongoing.

Back home, I’ll definitely go back to my childhood ways and renew my library card. Which may well turn out to be the best thing about coming home.

PS: How to Conquer Intimidating Books and 33 Things to Do Other Than Shopping

How to Conquer Intimidating Books

They may be long, they may have been written more than a century ago, they may be known to be “difficult” – adequate reasons to be slightly intimidated by certain books. (But not all books! They are wonderful lovely things without which life would certainly be impossible!)

Books Intimidating2And there is a way of conquering the intimidating ones! And enjoying them, too! Using this method, I read Tolstoi, the Bronte sisters, D. H. Lawrence, Theodor Fontane, Henry James, David Forster Wallace, Simone de Beauvoir, and many more. But enough with the name-dropping.

Here’s how: pick a book you wish to truthfully boast about. Maybe don’t start with Ulysses before having read Dubliners, maybe read Anna Karenina before War and Peace. But be ambitious! Pick something that would be relevant for AP Lit or a literature major. Or really dense non-fiction.

And then take it with you on your next vacation/trip. That’s it. That’s the secret. Obviously, you have to sit down and read your selected tome, the bottom of your suitcase is not going to do that for you. But that’s all you need to do.

Let me explain: the thing with (supposedly) intimidating books is that you must get into them fast. Which means that when you start them, you need to read a large chunk in a short time to get truly engrossed. To find your way around the setting, to get the characters and their relationships straight, to want to know what happens next. Take Anna Karenina: my translation has almost 1000 pages, of course the action is not all in the first 50 pages. In fact, very little happens in the first 50 pages and Anna does not even appear. That’s why I advocate reading at least 100 pages/day when conquering intimidating books – it will feel like the action moves faster, and you get to know the characters more intimately if you spend more than just a few minutes before falling asleep with them. Which is why this method works so well for vacations, since vacation = time.

Many will disagree with me and claim that summer reading should be as lighthearted as possible, but as a dedicated reader, I must dissent: for many of us, vacation time is the only time we have enough headspace for challenging books – if it weren’t for ambitious summer reading, our copies would not be read at all. Why waste that chance on fluff?

Another advantage of vacations: fewer distractions. Imagine trying to read something complicated while sitting next to a shelf full of other books clamoring for your attention. You might pick up a rival, just to read a short story or two. And before you realize, several weeks have gone by without turning a page of your problem child. But since intimidating books are literally heavy, vacations tend to be a much more monogamous reading experience. (Obviously I have not tried this method using an e-reader. In this case, you’d need a WIFI-free vacation.)

Long train/plane/car rides are ideal: pack only the one intimidating book in your carryon and refrain from other on board entertainment. You will be forced to read, and to love what you are reading, because you’re pretending that there are no other options. By the time you arrive, your mind is part of the story and you never want to stop.

On the other hand, if you try to read the same book during everyday life, you probably cannot put in sufficient reading time to truly get sucked in. Say you read for 20 minutes every night before you go to bed. Say you read a page a minute – which is a generous estimate for many intimidating books, as they tend to come in pretty fine print. You’d read Anna Karenina in 50 days, probably longer due to the fine print and being too tired to read on some nights. Of course you are not going to get sucked in. Some pleasures are just not meant to be experienced in moderation. Let’s bingeread the classics!

Happy reading!