On learning which of Merriam-Webster’s 63 definitions of work suited me

I was taught very little about how to work at school or university, which is odd when I think about it. My youth was spent being (asked) ordered to do things – write essays, mow lawns, be nice, wash dishes, give presentations – but rarely being told how.

I suspect the adults did not know either. Merriam-Webster lists 32 distinct definitions – 63 if sub-definitions are included. There is the familiar “activity that a person engages in regularly to earn a livelihood,” which one hopes at least occasionally “functions or operates according to plan or design.” Too few jobs live up to the aspiration of “to exert an influence or tendency,” tending instead to “to be in agitation or restless motion.” I aspire to “sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result,” although the latter part of the sentence follows far less frequently from the former than I would like.

We could do worse than Bertrand Russell’s:

This ambiguity means the how and why of those who work has always interested me. When do they wake up? (Why do they wake up?) How do they decide what to work on? Do they use tools? What does their work look like up close, from the vantage point of a minute and an hour? Do they have rituals? When do they stop?

Then there are the questions specific to the work I enjoy: what do they do when confronted by the blank page? How do they remember, and combat forgetfulness. How do they learn? How do they make the words follow each other without seeming coerced at gunpoint?

There is a small industry devoted to these questions (more on that another time), but first my own experience.

I organised my time around goals, which were, by and large, output based. They sat on the first page of my ring-bound journal. It looked like the first page of a spreadsheet: one article a week; three novels in Spanish; thirty in English; an eight-five average at university; a deeply unrealistic number of push-ups.

The neat rows and columns quickly disappeared beneath strikethroughs and amendments. Weekly became monthly. Spanish novels became videos, became an app, became children’s books, became another app, before settling on novel (singular).

All I achieved was an unstable mood. I swung between exhaustion and depression. Some weeks I managed to get it all done. More than likely though, life would intervene. I would go shopping, get bored cook meals, have showers, check my phone, see friends – the sorts of things that did not merit entry into my productivity worksheet. The only truly regular habit was self-punishment. I remember trying to optimise my showers by only washing my hair every second day.

Now I set process based goals. I read each day, I write each day, I do something in Spanish each day. Yesterday that meant walking to a Latin restaurant for lunch, going blank on two years of Spanish in front of the beautiful waitress, blushing, finding something of interest between my feet, stammering out what I hope was an order, and leaving five minutes later with something – presumably food – in a box.

Still, I did something.

I trust myself. Output based goals and strict schedules were a disciplining mechanism; a way to dominate the reluctant parts of my will which I feared could break loose at any moment. In time I accepted I had the opposite problem, an inclination to guilt, not sloth (the German for guilt, schuld, connotes the harshness better). I discovered I functioned far better when I gave myself the benefit of the doubt, confident I was always more likely to be drill master than dropout.

I still have goals, but they are larger and more abstract. They orient my daily processes without being constricting. Part of the issue with strict outputs was my inability to accurately assess how hard something was, and therefore how long it would take. I would perpetually over-promise and under-deliver. Now, I suspect that if my work got defined, predictable, and rote enough to conform to strict outputs, it would be time to move on to a new challenge.


Two reflections on this topic I’ve enjoyed that I suspect you might too:

Tyler Cowen on how he practices at what he does and Brain Pickings on the daily routines of great writers


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