How F*cking Off Can Actually Be Quite Productive

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The writer D.H. Lawrence.

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something. —Geoff Dyer

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately, and the power of planning for failure. Research shows that even when you’re in tip-top condition, the largest amount of demanding creative work that you can do in a day is three 90-minute sessions, with breaks in between. That’s 4.5 hours of work.

But there’s no way that you can do that much creative work if you’ve had a few too many to drink the night before, or you had a late-night fight with your spouse that kept you up, or you just happen to be regularly distracted by your new puppy who won’t stop barking. (This last is my current struggle.) In fact, you might not be able to do any demanding creative work in such a state. Or you might only have a few good hours in you. So what do you do the rest of the time?

I’ve recently been adding a new layer to how I think about my projects to solve for this dilemma. I now categorize all projects as either “high attention” or “low attention.” High Attention projects, like writing a book, demand a premium of my creative capacity. I have to work on them first thing in the morning, when my energy and focus are at their peak, in order to make good progress. Low Attention projects, like building a website using a WordPress theme, require less intense creative focus. I can work on these projects when my energy is low, or when I’m prone to interruption, and still make meaningful progress.

I now structure my days—and my 3-month project goals—so that I always have a good mix of projects that require High Attention and projects that require Low Attention. Both types of projects will move me toward my goals in meaningful ways, but they require different levels of energy. By planning for cascading levels of attention on a given day or even over the course of a week, I give myself a productive out for those times when I’m feeling a little drained or unfocused.

If I wake up feeling under the weather, I can “fuck off” from writing my book and instead work on building my website—a project that I don’t particularly enjoy but that does have the benefit of being relatively easy. If I have to go deal with a barking dog while doing this work, it’s not difficult to get back in the zone. This means that I still get to be productive on a project that matters, even when I’m not at my best.

This is important because, if you’re anything like me, you are very often “not at your best.” The problem is, we don’t plan for what we will do in that situation. We don’t plan for imperfection. And without a plan, we usually end up mindlessly checking our email or bobbing along on the sea of social media when we could be moving a meaningful—if less challenging—project forward. Consider categorizing your own projects by High vs Low Attention, and see if shifting between the two modes doesn’t actually help you get more done—even though you are, in a sense, setting the bar for productivity lower.

On a related note, I’d also recommend picking up a copy of Dyer’s excellent book Out of Sheer Rage. It was originally meant to be Dyer’s biography of DH Lawrence, but it ended up being a book about all the ways in which Dyer kept fucking off from writing his biography of DH Lawrence. Which turns out to be a much better book—a beautiful and deeply funny memoir about the creative process and all the anxieties we invent to distract ourselves from getting things done.

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Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.


I have a new book out about how to tame your inbox and reclaim your focus. And starting this Fall, I’ll be hosting Hurry Slowly, a new podcast about how you can be more productive by slowing down.

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