The thin sunlight of Oregon winter shined sideways through the old schoolhouse windows in the afternoon. I sat with my pencil held in the air as my teacher called from the front of the classroom, “Samuel? Samuel, do you have a question?” I didn’t hear her. I gazed at my pencil which had become the Starship Enterprise. We were on a risky mission into the Neutral Zone which was the dusty shadow cast above my head by the split in the window panes. I feared that a Romulan Bird of Prey might uncloak and open fire on us when one last, “SAMUEL!” pulled me back to earth. With my hand still in the air I whimpered, “No Sister Beulah, I… I don’t have a question.” Kids laughed and my big ears flushed hot red while she asked why my hand was raised and why I wasn’t doing my homework. My assignment lay in front of me with not a single pencil mark and a familiar dread flushed away whatever shame I felt.
I fell 27 assignments behind in math that third grade year because I simply could not pay attention. Things seemed to come easy to everyone else and that left me feeling inferior and uniquely alone in the world. I squeaked out of High School with the minimum acceptable grade point average. I scored As and Bs on tests but Ds and Fs on homework. ADHD-PI (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Predominantly Inattentive) wouldn’t be classified for another decade but I never asked to be tested. One of my sisters did and was told she was simply depressed.
I’ve found ways to mitigate my attention fatigue through diet, exercise, and a nootropic supplement stack. I avoid auditory and visual noise whenever possible. These things help a lot but, if I were to be entirely open with you, the greatest boost to my productivity has been the intentional practice of becoming a better human; becoming a better self.
You see, when distractions are removed and tools of efficiency are on the workbench, the inner voices become audible. A resentment from third grade; remembering I need buy batteries; anxiety about an upcoming life event, like maybe death. This internal cacophony has no regard for context, no patience, no mind of its own. It can be occasionally paralyzing for some and, for others, work is a way to drown it out.
Here’s how I see it nowadays. “I attend, therefore I am.” What is productivity if not the ability to organize, prioritize, and attend to the tasks at hand? And what is attention if not the giving of my actual self to one thing at a time?
I resonate with Søren Kierkegaard’s view that the self is the tension between the temporal and the eternal, necessity and possibility, and other opposites. For example, in necessity I think, “I need to eat now,” and in possibility I wonder, “Will I be able to eat tomorrow?” Evidence that self exists at all (which philosophers and scientist actually debate) is the part of us that filters and bakes these thoughts then chooses what to pay attention to. The tension of self makes living in the moment nearly impossible.
Kierkegaard says it’s not enough just to be a self—the reactionary thought blender stretched between two poles. This is where despair and anxiety arise. The task of the self, he says, is to become a self and, ironically, this happens by embracing despair then experiencing something akin to a spiritual awakening. In my experience, it is the deconstruction and reconstruction of ourselves from what we otherwise just naturally think and feel.
I wish I could offer concrete advice to anyone about becoming a self but as an optimistic existentialist I believe that if you pursue it with unbound self-honesty, you will find what works for you.
I find it in practicing spiritual principles in non-religious ways. I take careful inventory of myself every day; the good and the bad. I say I’m sorry and admit mistakes with increasingly shorter response times. I attempt to make amends appropriately. While I can’t remove every past regret I can avoid creating new ones and as time goes on the air feels fresher. I practice mindful gratitude like I would practice an instrument or a sport. I practice sobriety of mind and body because, for me, the greatest distraction to any task—to living life itself—is the deep anxiety of resentment and regret. I do all of this imperfectly, having the same compassion for me that I want to have for other people.
I wish this for all of us—the ability to say in every context, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing. This is where I am supposed to be.” And who knows? Maybe the pursuit of productivity in this way will show you that the job you have now is what your lower self (despair or anxiety) pushed you into in the first place. Perhaps you’ll find the courage to pursue that which brings your life the most meaning and you’ll be productive there.