I call them my background processes.

As metaphors go, it’s a rather straightforward one. Like the way a computer runs tasks that do not require the user’s interaction and that spin on their own, hidden from view, I have thoughts which move in secret, of their own initiative and on their own schedule. They claim resources—energy, time, emotion—but leave my immediate attention open for more superficial work. I don’t always know what result they’re working toward, but I always know when they’re activated. Learning to accept and accommodate them, however, has been a lengthy process.

I learned early in my adult life to turn my days into masterworks of definition and precision. When you are a busy single parent, this is one of the few open paths to survival. Disorganization allows obligations to fall through the cracks. Absentmindedness causes losses for people dependent on you. There are schedules and lists and calendars and appointments and finances and there’s not much help—and if you don’t manage it all properly, there are consequences. I pursued productivity as a necessity. But I came also to enjoy it as an art. I got good at it. I devised my own system. I designed my own agenda. I pulled out everything that crowded into my mind, cluttering like so many crumpled scraps of paper, and transferred them all onto fresh, clean pages, where they were contained and controlled. My task lists were tours de force. No too-large or too-vague concepts here. Pointed and contained verbs only. Larger projects were broken down into manageable steps and logged accordingly with a clearly staggered hierarchy. The more I managed, the more I could accomplish. I was productive. As long as my primary goal was nothing more than survival.

When I was at my busiest, my background processes were buried so deeply I wasn’t even aware of them. They whirred along anyway. That’s what background processes do. When my life and mind calmed, I began to realize those processes not only existed but quietly took the resources they needed, without permission. Instantly, I tried to subject them to my system. I tried to tug them out from where they lurked underneath, to capture them in words and rows of neat checkboxes. I was unsuccessful. I couldn’t control them. They stayed in their shadows, performing their own rituals, taking their own time. All I could do was wait for them to do what they wanted to do.

But, eventually, one would complete, and I would know something, something I didn’t know before. Maybe not always in so many words. But I would recognize I was on some indescribable new plateau of growth. I would find that an old stressor or pain no longer bothered me, or I would discover something that had once frustrated or confused me now made sense. Ideas that used to seem too large to wrap my mind around would seem suddenly in alignment with me. Integrated with me, as if something deep in my mind had taken them apart, bit by bit, examined them, and reassembled them in a way that fit inside of me. So that I now possessed that idea. And, eventually, that was the result I wanted to produce more of.

My habits of productivity have changed over the years. I still rely on my precise task lists and expertly arranged schedules, and they are still necessary. But they are not always in the foreground. More often these days, I put my attention towards my background processes. Not to drag them into the light, but to create space for them, to allocate more resources to them, to let them work uninterrupted. What has changed, essentially, is what I value getting done. I value fostering ideas more than completing tasks. I value contemplation and consideration over speed and quantity. I’ve turned by productivity system into a foundational framework intended to support something else, rather than surviving only as an end in itself.

You can grow task lists, or you can grow. You do not always have to choose just one, but, if you ever do—choose deliberately.

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