Replacing Efficiency With Elegance
Many of us wish we were more efficient and productive. It’s why ideas from business creep into our conversations about art and creativity. But, this year, I’ve decided to replace efficiency with elegance.
There are so many ideas out there. The problem isn’t having ideas. The problem is finding the time to do something with them.
So we try to be more efficient in order to be more productive. In doing so, we turn to ideas mostly from the business world: productivity and efficiency. I’m not sure this is entirely wrongheaded. But it’s something I want to challenge, or at least reconsider.
Efficiency And Conviction
My theme this year is conviction. Last month, I explored the way conviction was changing my relationship to advice. Less is more and radical limits for 2019. Because we’re overwhelmed by the abundance of advice. And the flip side of the culture of advice is always feeling a need to justify every decision we make. It’s a big idea, so check out the blogpost if you haven’t already.
When I look at the trend I’ve fallen into recently – moving away from digital productivity tools like Omnifocus towards paper, fountain pens and the like – my decision is not the most efficient one. But it’s making me more effective, even if it doesn’t result in the digitally optimised productivity that’s popular now.
We tend to think of productivity as the removal of barriers and resistance. If we get rid of friction, everything will flow smoothly. Maybe it works like that in factories. But is it like that in all aspects of life? Resistance is not always a bad thing.
Resistance Isn’t Futile
Years ago, I was part of an online community for guitarists. I recall a discussion about guitar cables, the ones you use to plug a guitar into an amplifier. Like so many online conversations, it was about optimisation. What’s the best cable out there? Cable manufacturers publish specifications. One measure is resistance, which is how much a cable limits the flow of electricity. Another is capacitance, which is how much the cable stores electricity. Surely the lowest resistance (and capacitance) was the best?
I asked my father, an old-school electronics engineer. His question made me rethink the whole issue. “How is it supposed to sound?” After all, resistance is a variable; less might not sound better. Jimi Hendrix is many people’s idol. They say he was the best-sounding guitarist of all time. He played curly, telephone-style cables, which created crazy high resistance. His cables were “bad” by the measure of the online conversation – but he sounded so good.
Resistance wasn’t mishap – it was part of the magic. Maybe a little resistance can be a good thing?
Of course, resistance can pull us away from our work. Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art explores this in detail. He uses the word resistance to describe the urges that pull writers away from their craft. Much like the cheese monster or too-too (too fat, too old, too late) in Ze Frank’s Invocation for Beginnings. Pressfield and Frank agree: resistance feeds on fear. Fear is at the core of writer’s block and any other kind of creative block.
If we can overcome resistance, then maybe we can give fear less food to feed upon. So we focus on habits and the art of productivity.
It’s why, every morning, I almost run from breakfast to the computer to write. Before the day can have its way with me. Before the news, or emails, or any of the thousand cadences of opinion can tell me why I am not worthy of living this life. I let my words out before other people’s words weigh me down. It’s the core of my writing practice. Avoid resistance at all costs!
Elegance As A Way To Overcome Resistance
Described that way, I sound like a fearful little creature scurrying out to collect food before retreating to the safety of my burrow. It’s not untrue. But it’s not inspiring either.
Maybe that’s why we’re all suddenly obsessed with morning routines. They make us seem less like scared little animals and more like grown-ups whose habits reflect life choices.
So, rather than the fearful flight to the keyboard every morning, I have a new habit: switching from the classical music station I listen to over breakfast to the jazz-based playlist I have in the background while writing, I make my way to the computer to let the words out.
Elegance is something that fills the gaps in habits and personalises them. It’s the thousand little predetermined choices that add our individual style and flair to the day. Elegance is artfully designed resistance.
The Challenge Of Being In The World
I plan my day with a fountain pen. Hardly the most efficient way to do things. Sometimes I have to stop and refill the ink. Resistance. But I like the feeling of writing with this tool. I’m constantly grateful for the way it makes my handwriting look even more distinctive. And, occasionally, the shimmer of the fresh ink catches my eye, and I pause to admire its beauty. This also gives my mind the pause it needs to make sense of what I’m doing. And while I’m not at my most accelerated pace of work, I’m at a pace that seems to suit thinking, to making sense of the thing I’m doing. And, in turn, to enjoying it more.
How to be in the world: it’s the constant challenge we face. Not just to exist, but exist in a way that fits who we are and what we believe.
Efficiency and productivity matter still, because we need to finish things and fulfil our promises. Elegance has its own way of clarifying how to do things. And how to enjoy them.