Never Plan To Get ‘Some Work Done’

A Useful Metaphor

In the first chapter of The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt introduces the metaphor of the rider and the elephant. When trying to conceptualize his own weakness in the face of his best intentions, he explains:

I [am] a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

Ever since I first read these words, they stuck with me as useful for understanding the working world in particular. The whole edifice that we now call “productivity advice” distills, I realized, to instructions for cajoling the elephant. If you’re not firm, it’ll do what it wants to do.

It’s against this backdrop that I present the following truism about this metaphorical quadruped: if you’re not exceptionally clear about where you want it to go, it will wander.

I noticed this earlier in the week. Some uncertainty in my post-semester schedule  left me with an unplanned afternoon at my office. As so many knowledge workers do, I resolved simply “to get some work done.”

Three hours later, I was aghast.

I had spent this period in a state of fierce busyness: many e-mails were answered (yet the issues they concerned never quite got fully resolved), logistics were painstakingly worked out, and I must have made a half-dozen trips to the printer for some unknown reason.

But when I considered the most vital things on my radar — the projects on which almost everything important in my near future career rests — nothing of consequence was accomplished.

People sometimes chide me when I admit my habit of carefully planning every hour of my day (and every day of my week). They think I’m hopelessly rigid and unable to flow with the dynamics of a creative workday.

But it took only one afternoon free from structure to reaffirm what I know to be true. The elephant of your working mind has no interest in bringing you to where you need to go. It will always default to the watering hole of shallow busyness if not reined with confidence.

– Cal Newport




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