You struggle with being productive. So you decide you need to establish a routine for yourself. You get real gung-ho about this routine — this is going to be the thing that changes everything! But then you fail to stick to it. So you flagellate yourself for that failure and decide what you need is a different routine. But then you don’t stick with that routine either. The cycle then repeats itself, leaving you no more productive than you were at the start.
My guest, Madeleine Dore, found herself stuck in this cycle. So she decided to start interviewing successful creative types to get their secrets to an optimal routine. Yet these folks would confide to her a different secret: they actually didn’t have a routine either.
Madeleine has come to believe something that I’ve discovered too: routines aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and you can actually still be very creative and productive even if you go about each day in a looser, more ad-hoc fashion.
Today on the show, I talk to Madeleine, who’s the author of I Didn’t Do the Thing Today: Letting Go of Productivity Guilt, about how the all-or-nothing thinking which surrounds routines can actually sabotage our effectiveness. We then discuss alternatives to keeping a strict routine that still allow you to get stuff done, including moving to a “portable routine,” taking advantage of “splodge time,” and embracing cycles and seasons in your work. We also discuss other ways to let go of unuseful productivity guilt, including setting realistic expectations and not eating the frog first.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett
- Austin Kleon
- AoM article on the “possibilities in spare moments”
- AoM article on Emerson, pear trees, and the seasons of life
- AoM article on famous men who took advantage of “splodge time” to become a success
- AoM Podcast #602: The Case for Being Unproductive
Connect With Madeleine Dore
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. You struggle with being productive, so you decide you need to establish a routine for yourself. You get real gung-ho about this routine. This is gonna be the thing that changes everything. But then you fail to stick to it, so you flagellate yourself for that failure, decide what you need is a different routine. But then you don’t stick to that routine either. The cycle then repeats itself, leaving you no more productive than you were at the start.
My guest, Madeleine Dore, found herself stuck in the cycle, so she decided to start interviewing successful creative types to get their secrets to an optimal routine, yet these folks would confide to her a different secret. They actually didn’t have a routine either. Madeleine has come to believe something that I’ve discovered too: Routines aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and you can actually still be very creative and productive even if you go about each day in a looser, more ad hoc fashion. Today in the show, I talk to Madeleine, who’s the author of, I Didn’t Do The Thing Today: Letting Go of Productivity Guilt, about how the all or nothing thinking which surrounds routines can actually sabotage our effectiveness. We then discuss alternatives to keep in a strict routine that still allow to get stuff done, including moving to a portable routine, taking advantage of splodge time, and embracing cycles and seasons in your work. We also discuss other ways to let go of unuseful productivity guilt, including setting realistic expectations and not eating the frog first. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/dore. That’s D-O-R-E.
All right. Madeleine Dore, welcome to the show.
Madeleine Dore: Thanks so much for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you have a book called I Didn’t Do The Thing Today: Letting Go of Productivity Guilt. What’s interesting though, is that this… The genesis of this book, about letting go of productivity guilt, was you trying to be more productive by interviewing creative people, entrepreneurs, to figure out how are they managing their routines, and what can you take from those. So I’m curious, how did that start? You have a podcast where you explore routines of famous people. How did that happen?
Madeleine Dore: Well, I think like many people, I wasn’t quite sure that I was getting it right in my own day. There’s this quote by Annie Dillard that says, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” And coming across that quote was really inspiring, but at the same time, there was this pressure I felt to get my day right, and then therefore get my life right. But there I was trying different productivity hacks, trying on different routines, and I still felt like I was either falling short of other people in comparison or falling behind my own idea of where I should be. And so I turned to interviewing other people to try and find the secret to how they approach productivity and getting things done. And very quickly, I found that there wasn’t a secret, because these people that I admired and had on a pedestal also felt like they were falling short or weren’t getting it right or not doing enough or weren’t sure how to do nothing or embrace those moments of downtime. And so the interesting thing was that it really changed my question. Instead of about how do we get more things done, it was more about why is it that this obsession with being more productive is actually making us less productive, ’cause it’s making us feel either guilty or behind or like we’re never enough.
Brett McKay: Well, what’s your story with… You kind of alluded to that a bit, but I’d love to hear more about your story with routines, ’cause I think it’s interesting. In the book, you describe your history of trying to find the perfect routine, and it mirrored mine. I’m sure it mirrors a lot of other people. So what has been your routine over the years, and when did you finally figure out, okay, I need to stop with this.
Madeleine Dore: [chuckle] Well, I think the beginning iterations of my routine were very much… It was a lack of a routine. I felt like I wasn’t someone who was able to stick to an early morning schedule. No matter how many times I set a 5:00 AM alarm thinking that I could join the 5:00 AM club, I would very quickly hit snooze and then find myself even more tired because I would press snooze again and again and again, rather than allowing my body to just wake up when it needed to wake up after the amount of rest that it needed. So it’s always been very higgledy-piggledy, I would say. There wasn’t ever kind of a consistency to my routine, so something that I did every day. I really struggled with this idea of sticking to say a daily writing habit or say going to the gym every single day at the same time. As much as I wanted to, I would draft these elaborate routines for myself where I would wake up at 5:00 AM, I would meditate for 20 minutes, I would do my morning pages in my journaling, I would stretch, I would go for a run, I’d have a really nutritious breakfast, but then when the day came and I slept through that alarm, the whole thing would topple over. And I found it really difficult to just pick up the next thing or go with the flow of the day. Instead I would berate myself for the fact that it’s sort of all toppled over.
And so what I did is, I suppose, look to other people for the answer. I was really looking for an instruction manual. And I think that that’s quite a common thing because we don’t get one in life, and so it’s so easy to just… I think that’s why we gravitate to these listicles and these articles and these interviews, because we think that maybe someone else has the answer and it’s easier if someone else tells us what to do, but actually I think we need to figure out for ourselves. And we can be inspired by other people, and then we can try things on, but eventually we need to find the thing that works for us. And what I found, [chuckle] after speaking to people about their routine, more and more people would kind of whisper to me, “But I don’t actually have a routine. I’m not sure what you’re gonna get from this interview with me.” And then I could really relate to that, and I could see that there were other people who were also higgledy-piggledy and who had more of approach to their day that was an ebb and flow or it was cyclical, it wasn’t linear. And that really helped me, I guess, come full circle. And instead of changing who I am, I’ve accepted that I’m higgledy-piggledy. And funnily enough that allows you to pick up the things when you need them. And I have gravitated to a version of a more consistent, say, exercise habit or meditation habit, because it’s less pressure.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I look back at my journals and I feel like when I was in my early 20s, I was really keen on trying to find the perfect routine, which makes sense, ’cause you’re young and you’re ambitious and you feel like you gotta get all this stuff done. And looking back at my journals, I can see various iterations of my perfect routine.
Every few months I’d be like, “Okay, I’m gonna wake up at this time, and then immediately after that I’m gonna do journaling, and then I’m gonna exercise, and then I’m gonna do this.” And then six months later, obviously, it didn’t work out ’cause I was trying it again. All right, we’re gonna do it this way, this way. And I think, like you said, one of the things you found when you were trying to find this perfect routine and stick to it, is that as soon as you tried, as soon as something went off on it, let’s say if you didn’t wake up at the right time, then the whole… I don’t know for some reason, the whole day just felt like it was ruined. What’s going on there? Why is it whenever you try to live up to a perfect routine and just one thing gets thrown out of whack, it just ruins your entire day?
Madeleine Dore: I think that’s the crux of it, is that there’s nothing wrong with a routine and they work for some people, but it’s that emphasis on perfection or this idea that we’re creating these ideal or aspirational routines for ourselves. And when we do that, we create something that’s forever gonna be just outside our reach. And in some ways, by doing that, it’s the perfect kind of distraction from getting on with it, in some ways. In terms of, “Oh well, if I’m never gonna live up to this perfect routine, then I have this perfect excuse.” It’s that interesting tension of if we never quite master our routine, then we can continue to delay our lives and the things that we wish to do in them, because we’re never gonna reach perfection. Even the meaning of the word, it means complete. And our lives, our to-do lists are never complete. And so if we accept this incompleteness, this imperfection, this messiness in our lives, the inevitable distractions and interruptions and plans that go awry, then we can be more flexible and malleable to the moment. And instead of letting the whole plan for the day topple over, we can just pick up a piece and move with it and go with it and move on with it.
There’s this wonderful quote by the self-help author Arnold Bennett, who wrote that, “The beauty of time is that it cannot be wasted in advance.” And I think that’s wonderful to think about is because if we’ve wasted the morning or if we didn’t wake up early, we don’t have to sabotage the whole day. We don’t actually waste the whole day because of that tiny little error. We can turn over a new leaf, as he puts it. So we can begin again each hour if we choose to.
Brett McKay: I think you’re right about that. One of the things that I found when I was trying to stick to a perfect routine is that it did give me an excuse for why my day was crappy. Well, it’s ’cause I didn’t get my meditation in because the kid… I had to change a diaper, that’s why my day is bad. And it’s like that’s a dumb excuse.
Madeleine Dore: Yeah, I think it’s also, you know, we’re diminishing the beautiful variances of life when we do that as well. Like why are we putting routine on a pedestal anyway? Because in some instances it’s monotonous. If we had this perfect routine, it would be like a Groundhog Day. And it’s actually inviting life’s surprises that we kind of want. We want those tensions and we want those moments of novelty in our day. Obviously, novelty day after day would be exhausting too, but it’s this lovely push and pull, I think, of gravitating to routine when we need it, and it’s a support and it’s a scaffolding, but not being completely entangled by that and so closed off that we don’t let life in a little bit, you know?
Brett McKay: Yeah, and so, okay, one downside of the routine is that striving for perfection, it can give you an excuse for your day going off kilter, ’cause if you give one thing off on it, it’s gonna make you feel terrible. But then you also talk another downside of routines is that it can lead to ruts. How have you seen that in your own life or maybe in the lives of people you’ve interviewed?
Madeleine Dore: I think it’s a really interesting connection between routine and a rut because by definition they almost appear the same. They’re both a pattern, they’re both kind of a habitual, repeated action. Well, one is glorified. Having the perfect routine is seen as a badge of honor. But if you’re stuck in a rut, then that’s something to get over, get out of, move out of. And yet, they’re sort of part… They’re connected. So a routine, I think, and what I observed is that if we do stick to it for a while, it does become monotonous, as I said, and like a Groundhog Day. And then you can find yourself in a rut with that very routine. And so the things that were a support to you become kind of rigid and you find yourself maybe uninspired or feeling stuck. And so when you find yourself in that rut, sometimes it’s a nudge, is the very thing that we need to alert us to that rut. And a nudge can come in many different forms.
So a nudge could actually be a heartbreak or a grief or maybe it’s even something that’s seen as positive, like the birth of a child. It’s something that nudges you out of your pattern or way of being and shows you that maybe it’s time to do things differently. Or it shows you that you are actually stuck in a rut and your routine has become one. And so I think that it’s actually a cycle. So instead of placing judgment on one and idolizing another, if we see it as part of the cycle of a routine, a rut, a nudge, and then finding a new rhythm. I think that it just helps us be a little bit more, I guess, gentler with ourselves in the different phases that we might take. And funnily enough, I think that the other connection is that when we’re in a rut, often it’s turning to a new routine that can be the thing that pulls us out of one. So often I think that, I did this really big reset project on heartbreak and what helped people. And interestingly enough, it was having routine and sticking to sort of an exercise schedule, for example, again, was the very thing that helped them steady that grief and was that scaffolding to get them through, so I think that, yeah, there’s an interesting cycle there that we don’t really… We just emphasize one and put value on one when I think there’s value to all the different parts of these things.
Brett McKay: I think that’s an interesting insight. So if you feel like you’re in a rut, it could be ’cause you had this routine that served you at one point in your life earlier. It no longer serves you, so what you need to do is find a new routine.
Madeleine Dore: Yeah, potentially, or I think it’s just an alert to change something, like something is no longer serving you. Something’s become tired or something has… I think sometimes we don’t even realize that we have outgrown parts of ourselves. And I think that’s why it’s, what I’ve learnt from different people about moving through these ruts is first of all having this patience for them, because I think that if we try to move out, like if you think about a wheel stuck in the rut, if we just kind of put our pedal on it, it’s gonna become further wedged. So we do need to have some patience with it first and foremost and recognize the value of that rut. Like what is it teaching you about your life? I think that sometimes it’s those very tensions and those very sticking points in our life that are the biggest lessons. And so we don’t wanna smooth them over and have this perfectly optimized self, like we want to have these little bumps in the road. They’re the very thing that I think we grow from. And then I think this lesson of to move from the rut, there’s this great idea of just kind of making sure that our lives aren’t just bundled up into one component. So if we invest so much of our well-being in just our work, for example, or one goal.
When we accomplish that one goal, we can find ourselves feeling really flat or our days can be lacking that kind of vibrancy. And so if we put also value in spending time with family or our health or even just that tinkering away with that pottery class. I think it just helps when one thing might be stuck to have some other wheels in motion.
Brett McKay: So one thing I’ve… I’ve seen in my own life and just the lives of others, some people love routines. They’ll have a routine and they’ll just stick to it religiously. I think most people find them annoying and can be demoralizing, but stuff still needs to get done. You still gotta pay the bills, you gotta take kids to school, you gotta work, stuff around the house needs to get done. So any best routine alternatives that help provide some structure to help you get the stuff you need to get done done, but without the being as strict as a routine?
Madeleine Dore: Yes, yes, ’cause I think that’s a fine balance is because having a complete ad hoc day can also be so anxiety-inducing. Not having a schedule at all can bring up its own kind of issues. And so I think that fine balance between embracing that you might be more higgledy-piggledy and also getting the things that you need to get done. One approach to that, I think my favorite, is actually from the artist and author Austin Kleon. And so he has this portable routine that he spoke to me about. And it’s basically a checklist, so he’s created four things that if he does those four things each day, it’s a good day. And so it was going for a walk, writing, journaling, and reading.
And those things don’t have to happen in a particular order, they might not happen every day, but when they do, it’s a marker of a day well spent. And what I really like about that is that it has some in-built flexibility. It’s also achievable in that maybe that’s not every single day that that happens, but we can kind of, I guess, shoot for it. And then also it can have some momentum within that. And so with the writing, for example, that writing is then, in Austin Kleon’s instance, put into a newsletter. That newsletter he starts to develop themes and that might go into a talk, and those talks then potentially become books. And so you can see the compounding momentum of that, of just doing small little things each day and also rethinking your approach to consistency because maybe it’s not every day, but consistency is kind of when you look back and you can kinda see how much you’ve accomplished rather than it being every single day.
Brett McKay: It’s interesting ’cause when I read that, I was like, this is what I fell on, this is like what Austin does. I have a checklist of things I need to get done every day. It doesn’t matter when I do ’em, as long as I get them done during the day, then I’m good. And so I’ve done that, and the other thing that’s helped me too is I’ve changed my expectation about what it means to do it. I don’t go for perfect. I like to work out every day. Well, sometimes I can’t get my perfect workout in, so I’ll just like, okay, I’ll do what I can. Even if it’s just 15 minutes of taking a walk around the block. Well, I got some physical activity in. I’m okay with that. And by sort of having the flexible checklist and then changing my expectations of what it means to do the thing, I found myself being more consistent. And that consistency, I think is… That’s more important than being perfect.
Madeleine Dore: Yeah, I love that approach, Brett, because it’s kind of lowering the bar a little bit, so that everything can become a bonus rather than the things not completed as a failure. I think that’s a really nice flip that you’ve created.
Brett McKay: Okay, I think the takeaway there, if you don’t wanna do the perfect routine, at least have a checklist of things you’d like to get done in the day. And I think the other thing, the key there is don’t be over-ambitious with your checklist. I think maybe keep it to four or five things.
Madeleine Dore: Yes, yes, ’cause then we circle back to that idea of that secret sabotage that we might create by never quite getting there, so we can delay our lives.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna say a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show.
So another thing you talk about is in our rush to be productive, we have this feeling that we have to maximize our time to the utmost. We have to optimize. Everyone’s trying to optimize everything, but you argue that a healthier way to view time is as “splodge time.” And I had to look up the word “splodge” because this is a British word, and it means splotch or blot. So what do you mean by “splodge time?”
Madeleine Dore: Well, I think that we view time as rather rigid. It’s linear, it’s a perfect clock time. You know the minutes tick by, an hour, 24 hours in a day, but when we try to pin our schedules to this clock time and this linear version of time it can really go awry because that moment can arrive and something else might cause an interruption. Priorities in that moment can shift. And if we have that inflexibility, then again, we can sort of berate ourselves for not maximizing that moment. And so, we try to grasp time and we try to optimize it, but it’s imperfect. And so, it’s more like a splodge and a puddle that kind of spills in all these different directions. And so, it’s not something that we can actually just grasp and pin our plans to. Instead, it’s more movable. And I think that seeing time as more like a splodge has helped me see that we don’t actually wait for the perfect time. So I think there can be this trap of when I have more time, I will be able to do this. And then, the time arrives and we find ourselves again with a shortage of time. Or we might wait until the perfect time. Even I’ve got this habit of, if something’s coming up in the afternoon, then I feel like I can’t do anything in the morning, because I’m thinking about that thing that has to happen in the afternoon. And so, we can be quite rigid with it.
But time as a splodge means that we can kind of seize the little imperfect parts of it. Something that really crystallizes for me was speaking to the artist, Beci Orpin, and she is very prolific and often asked how she gets it all done. And so, I put that question to her. And she said, that she just uses the moments that are in front of her. If she has 20 minutes spare, then she’ll work with that 20 minutes instead of waiting for a perfect hour or perfect afternoon to get the thing done. And so, I think that’s a great example of you’ve got this little puddle or splodge of time in front of you, and you use that rather than waiting for the time that you allocated in the calendar.
Brett McKay: Now, I love that idea. And it’s interesting, you highlight some of these in your book, but when you look back at some of history’s great scientists or creative types, the idea of being… Let’s take writing, for an example. The idea of being a full-time writer, it’s a relatively new thing, right? Before, like in the 19th century, you had to have a day job to support yourself. And so these guys, some of these writers and poets, they would just… They’d work at a bank, and then they would find time to write a bit of poetry every day on the way to work, in the carriage, and that’s how they got their stuff. And they were able to compose great stuff in these little… Just bits of time they found.
Madeleine Dore: Yeah, exactly. I think that learning to see the… It’s the toolbox fallacy, I suppose. Where we wait to get the perfect gear, or the perfect desk space, or the perfect time, or the perfect environment, or the perfect focus and flow. But actually, it’s just stealing those little splodges that can make a big difference. Even just writing on your phone, I think is… It’s the little bit by bit that it adds up. It’s not these grand kind of routines sometimes that lead to it. I think that that can be a luxury, having the whole morning to focus on your novel or poetry or what have you. We say all the time that everyone’s got the same 24 hours in a day, but they unfold differently for everybody depending on so many things, like your responsibilities, whether you’re dividing yourself across multiple day jobs to make ends meet, even whether you have to go to a laundry to do your laundry takes more time than if you can just pop it on at home. And so, I think that recognizing that the hours unfolds so differently for everyone and we have different sort splodges [chuckle] available to us, I think helps to see that the little bits count, but also if it’s taking longer for you, then you’re not entirely to blame for that either.
Brett McKay: Okay, so take advantage of the splodge time. Don’t think of time as just this linear thing. Another thing you write about too, and I think a lot of people… This whole idea of optimizing time, is when they don’t optimize it. Like oh, I’m wasting time. Oh, I can’t believe I just… That the past two hours, I didn’t do anything. Are there any mental shifts that you’ve come across that help you feel less bad about wasting time?
Madeleine Dore: Well, I think, again, that’s where I’d really return to this idea of turning over a new leaf. I think that can really help ease the guilt of taking into the new hour, that productivity guilt or that time wasting worry that you might have. There’s a great Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, which is, “Finish the day and be done with it.” Whatever kind of blunders we might have made today, we don’t need to take them into tomorrow. So I think that can be one shift. But also I think, just overall, we need to rethink this idea of wasting time anyway. What do we even mean by that? Often, I think that when we’re talking about wasting time, we might not be doing something that’s tangible or a show of our productivity. And that’s why in the book I really call for this shift away from measuring our days by how productive we are to instead taking a more creative view of our day. And what I mean by that, is that we don’t all have to become artists, but actually just tap in to our innate human creativity. And we can do that in a tangible way, I think, by applying the creative process to our day. And if we look at…
Some people have documented the creative process, and there’s distinct stages. So there’s the preparation stage, which is really where you’re researching and gathering information. Then there’s an incubation stage, where you’re letting ideas mull over, and it might look like you’re doing nothing, it might look like you’re wasting time, but it’s the thing that leads to the illumination state, which is really that a-ha epiphany moment. And that’s when you can move on to the verification stage, which is the doing. And so, I think the big lesson there and implying that lens to our lives, is that we say that wasting time could actually just be the incubation. It’s the thinking. And we’ve really, I think, devalued thinking, when we put so much emphasis on accomplishment and productivity. Thinking is the very thing that I think if we skip over it, it can lead to mistakes. It can lead to inefficiencies. Interestingly, it can lead to being sort of less productive than if we gave it space. And so I think that, not to say that I’m a big advocate from wasting time for this reason and for doing nothing, and not just so that we can be more productive. But just because it teaches us how to just be, and be a human being, and there’s that beautiful quote about wasted… “Time enjoyed wasted isn’t wasted time.” There’s even just something as simple as having a nice relaxing moment or having time to think. I think that we can invite more of that into our lives.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I totally agree with that. And I think the trick there though, is to… I think people might hear this and like, “Well, okay, I’m just gonna watch Netflix all the time, ’cause I’m incubating.” And I don’t think, that’s not what you’re advocating, ’cause I think if you find yourself, you’re doing something and it’s not allowing you to to flourish, then it’s probably a problem. So if you’re just constantly playing video games or scrolling social media, and it’s not resulting in anything productive, not even productive, but it creative or it… Then it might be, you might wanna rethink that, like, “Well, maybe I should eliminate that from my life.”
Madeleine Dore: Yeah, I think it’s a very nuanced thing, I suppose. Like what is not serving us in that way, because I think that even these so called lazy activities can be nourishing.
Brett McKay: Sure.
Madeleine Dore: In some instances. But I think that the lesson there is that even if you’re, say, berating yourself for doing nothing either because you really are being lazy or you’re being complacent, I think is maybe a better word for it, or you’re doing nothing because you’re exhausted and you need that moment of downtime, or you’re doing nothing because you’re thinking. Whatever iteration of that, I think that applying a layer of guilt or worry or anxiety or shame on top of that isn’t gonna make it any easier to move through it. So I think that the first thing to do is to really recognize that maybe you’re in a spiral of feeling guilty for not doing anything. And then once you can recognize it, you can sort of step outside of it and see what the circumstances are and see whether it is exhaustion or complacency. And then you can actually inspect the stories that you might be telling yourself around needing to be perfect, needing to be constantly doing things, needing to be busy to prove your worth. And then once you know those stories, you can kind of come up with alternatives that might work for you a little bit better.
Brett McKay: Related to this idea of wasting time and trying to find… Making the distinction between, okay, is this relaxation and nourishing me or is this me being complacent, is this idea of balance. I think a lot of the productivity stuff out there is all you gotta find balance in your life, work-life balance and whatnot. You argue that balance is overrated. Why is that?
Madeleine Dore: Yeah, I think that it’s so funny that it really is seen as this the holy grail of, “If you can achieve balance then you’ve got it,” or, “It’s a balance,” is what everyone will say. And looking at balance though, it’s kind of an interesting thing to strive for because, what is it? If something’s balanced then it’s quite stagnant, it’s still. And we need those moments of stillness, of course, but I think that life is about movement. And so why are we aspiring to be stagnant and still when actually it’s about balancing rather than balance? And I think that we can get really stuck in this idea of balance or consistency in ourselves, but actually what makes us interesting to ourselves and others is this idea that we’re inconsistent and we’re contradictory. The whole Walt Whitman, I’m large, I contain multitudes, like embracing that part of ourselves that we won’t be perfectly balanced, we will be inconsistent, and we’ll contradict ourselves. And I think that that’s what’s interesting about what I learned in my pursuit of trying to find the secret from somebody else, is that they can’t really provide that for me because they, too, are inconsistent. [chuckle]
And so is even every self-help author. We’re gonna contradict ourselves. And I think that what shifted for me is seeing that balance is, it’s temporary and it is this active balancing rather than perfect balance. And when we recognize that, we can sort of see that we might be in these distinct stages that change. And something that really helped me, if we go back to this idea of worrying about doing nothing, is that we can actually view ourselves more like sponges. And that is that like a sponge, we’d need time to absorb things, the world around us, we need to fill up, have that thinking time, take in the inspiration, simply just rest. But the thing is that we can’t sit and absorb for too long because that’s when we become over-saturated or we can succumb to that complacency or inertia. And just like a sponge, we need that squeeze, that action, the doing, the outpouring of the ideas. And both of those stages have value, each informs the other. You need to absorb something to then squeeze it. And it’s kind of, I suppose, like breathing in to breathe out. You need both.
And once I saw this frame, I saw that it’s not balanced, it’s taking in and taking out and we’re constantly in flux. And I suppose it can be helpful to know where you are. If you’re in a really busy period of your life, maybe you can be like, “Okay, well, I’m in the squeeze and I know that the absorb can come.” Or sometimes you might need to say, “I think I’m ready for the squeeze. I think I need to be busier.” I think that everything, if we take the judgement away from it, we can find more value in it in terms of… Even busyness has a purpose too. Sometimes we do need that squeeze and we can thrive off that too.
Brett McKay: Yeah, one thing that’s helped me, it’s sort of a paradigm that I’ve tried to view my life through more, is I try to look at my life as a farmer. There are seasons to life. So there’s gonna be a winter season where you’re not really doing anything. And then spring, you’re gonna be starting to… Things are blooming, you might start planting, preparing the ground. Summer, you’re planting. Fall, it’s gonna be really busy, you’re gonna be harvesting and working. And then winter, it goes back to that dead cycle. And I think you can look at your own life and find those different seasonalities. There’s gonna be periods of your life where you’re gonna have to be just working all the time, that’s the harvest season. But just know that it’s gonna end eventually, and then you can take time to relax and recharge and get your life in order again.
Madeleine Dore: Exactly, yeah. And so just knowing that is that constant change, and I think that that’s why potentially routine doesn’t really fit in that equation. It fits in parts of it or will change, and just allowing for that ebb and flow in our lives. I think that, yeah, nature is the perfect metaphor because nothing blooms all year long.
Brett McKay: And there’s… You’re going back to Emerson and this idea of I think being patient, ’cause going back to the rut thing. Sometimes you feel like “I’m in a rut, what’s going on?” Emerson talked about this a lot. He’d have periods of writer’s block, and his initial response was trying to power through it. I’m gonna just punch through this writer’s block. But then he started to approach his life as looking at it through a lens of nature. So he would say, he would adopt the pace of nature, whose secret is patience. So he looked at, he compared to his life to a pear tree or as a mental creativity to a pear tree. Sometimes it would just be barren, but it didn’t mean it was nothing was going on there. It was just sort of fallow, and then eventually it would bloom again. So I think his approach was, you’re gonna have periods where it doesn’t seem like anything’s growing, but if you just kinda keep grafting it and watering it and just doing the bare minimum you have to do, eventually it’s gonna give some fruit. You just have to be patient with it.
Madeleine Dore: I couldn’t agree more. I think that that’s reflected again and again, especially in the creative process, is really seeing the value in the fallow and how it’s just as bountiful as the spring can be.
Brett McKay: So I think as we’ve been talking about the idea of routines and trying to make the perfect day and optimize our time. An underlying issue of all of that is just these high expectations, and that’s probably what makes us miserable ’cause we have this expectation that something will happen and then it doesn’t happen, and then it just makes us feel bad for the rest of the day. But we still need to have expectations, ’cause again, we… We have goals, we have things we wanna do. So how do you counteract the pitfalls of having expectations while still having expectations?
Madeleine Dore: Yes, because we need… Expectations can also be the very thing that buoys us. When someone believes in us, has an expectation, it can be the thing that that can inspire us to work harder. So again, there’s that lovely tension of all these things, but if expectations are the very thing that’s throwing you off course in the day or making you feel like the day’s a failure because you’re not meeting those expectations, then I think that one helpful approach can actually be to be an expectation realist. So when we’re overly optimistic about our expectations and what we can actually expect to get done in a day, that’s when we might make an overly ambitious to-do list or we might find ourselves squeezing so much into our calendar, but then inevitably having to cancel things because we’re not able to get it all done. It might be when we have to ask for deadline extensions because we’re overly optimistic about how quickly something can be accomplished. And so optimism in that instance can be replaced with this idea of being a realist. And an expectation realist defines enough for themselves. And an expectation realist is able to delegate when needed. An expectation realist is okay with things moving to the next day, instead of seeing it as a failure that it wasn’t completed or that there’s still things left on the to-do list, it’s wonderful to sort of switch it and see that it’s a possibility.
It’s something you can still do. And so I think that’s one frame that we can have for our expectations, is also to really take note of how long something might take, you know. I think that the more we observe our own work patterns, the more we even observe those seasons that you spoke to, that can help inform our expectations of the day. You know, if we are in a fallow, then we can adjust our expectations accordingly, and so I think it’s a great sort of way of becoming more intimate with our own work patterns rather than them trying to copy and paste someone else’s. And then we can actually start to make more realistic expectations and goals.
Brett McKay: So one thing that people often do when they feel like they need to get more done is that I gotta get more disciplined. And you make this really compelling case, instead of thinking of discipline as a trait, it’s better to think of it as a skill. Why is that?
Madeleine Dore: Yeah, so when we think about discipline as a trait, we really tie it into reward and punishment. This idea that if we don’t stick to a schedule, for example, then we’ll punish ourselves by depriving ourselves of something. Or if we do get up early, we’ll reward ourselves with a treat. But the thing is that when we think about discipline in that way, it has this dread kind of baked into it, this this punishment baked into it. And motivational psychology is showing that rewards actually don’t motivate us as much as we think that they would when the moment arrives. And so motivation is something that we do develop rather than find, and so I think that looking at discipline rather than a trait, looking at it as a skill, we look at people like writers, for example, they have the discipline of writing. And what that really is, is a practice, rather than a reward and punishment system. And so having as a practice immediately makes it something that is able to have failures within it.
We can make mistakes, I can be imperfect. It doesn’t have to be every day. It’s a practice that we return to. And at the heart of that practice is interest in something, a fascination with something. And fascination and interest is the very thing that precedes motivation because if motivation is something that we develop, then what actually comes first? And it’s often the fascination. And then we do it and we find motivation, and it’s this beautiful kind of momentum that’s created. And so I think that rather than having this punishing discipline that’s…
We dread the day before it’s even begun. I think that if we have a more delightful approach to discipline, which is what I call in the book, then we can kind of see that the reward is in the process rather than the outcome. And it’s flexible and it’s expansive. And I think that there’s some tangible ways that we can approach delightful discipline, which is… One good example of a supposed discipline in the punishing sense, is this idea of eat the frog that’s been popularized. And that’s a really great approach for some people. Get the most dreaded thing out of the way, and then the rest of the day will be downhill. But if we dread the day, then sometimes we can kind of put that off completely. And so if we instead start the day with something that we find delightful. I was inspired by my conversation with a farmer, Matthew Evans. We’ve spoken a lot about farmers today. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Madeleine Dore: But he started the day with a dollop of clotted cream on his porridge, and he did that to immediately have delight in the day and start with a highlight, because the day might not get any better. But often it did because he was in a good mood, he was delighted, and often we can carry that into the day. And so I think that in favor of eat the clotted cream instead of eat the frog, we can find our own version of that. And it doesn’t have to be literal, it could be anything, it could be a walk, it could be… I know someone who gets delight from answering their emails first thing in the morning, ’cause it has that sort of sense of clearing the decks. I like to unload the dishwasher, unpack tomorrow and have the clean start. So it can be really mundane, but something small and delightful. I think that there’s something to be said for bringing a good mood into the day rather than one of dread.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve tried the eat the frog approach, and it never works out for me ’cause I just get stumped, and then I just go on to something else anyways. And in my experience with any hard thing, I think it’s always easier to find the easy way in. It’s like if you’re writing something or you have a big project, what’s the easiest thing I can do? ‘Cause then it gets the fly wheel going and then the really hard part becomes easier once you get that motivation going because you got some stuff done.
Madeleine Dore: Yeah, exactly, and I think that we can make things that are hard because there will be things that we don’t wanna do and difficult things, but we can make them delightful by making them smaller or making them more fun. And then as you say, you can kind of tackle the bigger thing by making a small start.
Brett McKay: Well, Madeleine, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go and learn more about the book and your work?
Madeleine Dore: The book you can find at madeleinedore.com or all good bookstores, of course. And there you will also find a newsletter that you can sign up to keep up-to-date with sort of the next things, which is all a bit of a question mark as I’m in a absorb stage at the moment rather than a squeeze. And you can follow me on Instagram at Extraordinary Routines.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Madeleine Dore, thanks for so much time. It’s been a pleasure.
Madeleine Dore: Thank you so much, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest here is Madeleine Dore. She’s the author of the book, I Didn’t Do The Thing Today. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website, madeleinedore.com. And that’s Dore, D-O-R-E. Also check out our show and it’s at aom.is/dore where you can find links to resources as we delve deeper into the topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure you check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you would like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android and iOS and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.