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Reblogged:Newport on Generations of Productivity Thinking

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If the name Arnold Bennett sounds familiar to you, it could be either because of a recent Deep Questions podcast by Cal Newport, a couple of podcasts from Alex Epstein's Human Flourishing Project, or (unlike me so far), you've read his How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

Both Newport and Epstein hold him in high regard, but the following passage of his might seem troubling at first glance, particularly after a year of pandemic ... existence:

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Image by Tania Melnyczuk, via Unsplash, license.
You don't eat immediately on your arrival home. But in about an hour or so you feel as if you could sit up and take a little nourishment. And you do. Then you smoke, seriously; you see friends; you potter; you play cards; you flirt with a book; you note that old age is creeping on; you take a stroll; you caress the piano ... . By Jove! a quarter past eleven. You then devote quite forty minutes to thinking about going to bed; and it is conceivable that you are acquainted with a genuinely good whiskey. At last you go to bed, exhausted by the day's work. Six hours, probably more, have gone since you left the office ...
What are we supposed to do? Crank widgets 24-7? (My apologies to David Allen.)

Not quite. Bennett is speaking to a new kind of person at the time, the Victorian white collar worker, and Newport humorously calls the above description, "steampunk social media." This he does because Arnold's audience and his share a similar "good problem to have:" a historically unprecedented abundance of leisure time.

Aside from Twitter, and my mostly "post-and-ghost" approach there, I don't do social media. But, boy, I could do with spending some time with friends over a card game! I might even light up at this point -- as I do every four or five years.

In truth, Bennett probably wouldn't frown on those things: He was describing a default routine and he saw alternatives that many people didn't, and with them, the too-common tragedy of wasted life.

Newport, I would hazard to guess, would agree: I recently listened with great interest and amazement at his off-the-cuff summary and criticism (13:10-26:07) of the history of thought regarding personal productivity. He sees this as having gone through three generations, with Bennett being in the first, the likes of David Allen in the second, and himself (and I'd add Epstein) in the third, where each successive generation successively loosens the bonds of thinking about the matter in terms of cranking widgets and embraces a more comprehensive view of the wise use of time in the context of a rich and rewarding life.

This is not to say that the earlier generations can be ignored. Newport himself admits he looks back to Bennett from time to time, and he gets the essential good of his message: We should be more intentional about how we spend our time.

Not only is there nothing wrong with cards, catching up with friends, or even the occasional cigar, those things deliberately chosen can be very valuable and enjoyable. But if that -- or anything else, including work -- is all one is doing, and it is by default, they are poor substitutes for a life lived thoughtfully and fully.

-- CAV

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