Create Without Expectation

I write a lot in my journal. As of today I’ve written over 560,000 words. I don’t expect it to make sense or answer any of the burning questions I might have had throughout the day. It’s easy to write in my journal because I don’t really care much about how sentences read or whether the whole idea is coherent.

In part, writing becomes easy because it’s done without expectation.

I don’t expect perfection. If I have an idea, it’s not a big deal if it doesn’t come out the way I imagined. It can be written and changed around a little bit. Perfection isn’t a goal and that breaks down fear I might when I want to create something.

Writing for an audience (however small or big) seems to create expectations that paralyse progress. It’s easy to have big ideas that need to be broken down into a multi-part series or might be shared with more people than ever before. Holding those expectations over your head inevitably raises questions like:

  1. What if it isn’t shared with anyone?
  2. What if it is shared and no one likes it?
  3. Will it be helpful?
  4. Will people laugh because of what I’ve written or laugh at it?

And so on.

When we think about writing and making it reality, we might fear it won’t live up to the standard we’ve set ourselves. If we write it, we’ll only prove to ourselves that we never should have started in the first place. If we write, we’ll only make a fool of ourselves.

Expectations shouldn’t be hindering our progress. Sometimes, it’s best to do without them and just see what can be created. Sometimes, that can be the most fun. My example is when I wrote The Aspiring Writer. It would have been easy to shelve the idea because no one would enjoy it or it might be confusing. That voice is in the back of my head whenever I’m writing something but it would be sad if it stopped me from creating completely.

After trying to abandon my expectations I’ve found that I’m pretty bad at judging my own work because it always tends towards the critical rather than celebratory. Which is neither balanced nor helpful. The critical voice is quieter because I let it pass rather than believing it to be 100% true.

If you have any creative project but seem to be paralysed by fear, create without expectation. Throw them into a river and watch them float away.

You see your project as it is rather than what it might be and create without paralysing fear.

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This doesn’t mean that you can’t want things to be good.

You’re allowed to create and change it afterwards. However, it does mean your expectations shouldn’t stop your from sharing it with others. If we think we can improve it, we’re always allowed to. We don’t need to demand perfection straight away.

On Productivity and Presence

For the longest time, I was obsessed with being more productive and fell into the productivity trap.

I felt I needed to get more done in less time. My pain denied me the luxury of spending a long time on essays or problem sets, so I made it my goal to learn how to make the most of my time. Which I think is a perfectly fine goal and I still hold it. The problem I want to focus on arises when productivity is reached to the detriment of presence and being mindful.

There’s a slight divide between living with presence and productivity. The former is often lost in the latter.

What’s the point of all this productivity? Why am I so interested in the next thing rather than what I’m doing now?

We shouldn’t be so focused on what will happen next and don’t do what’s in front of us.

Nor should we be so focused on completing a task that we forget to experience it.

When I started read about self-improvement, I came across meditation and adopted the practice. Mindfulness meditation places an importance on being focused on the present moment alone. When thoughts come into our head, we let them pass like clouds moving through the sky.

We remain in the present which helps free us from anxiety about the future and regret from the past.

The difference between presence and productivity can be seen in everyday tasks.

Discarding productivity when reading means we aren’t concerned about when the book ends so we can start the next one. We’re just enjoying the dialogue, the story, and sometimes, the absurdity (I’m looking at you, Catch-22).

When we eat food, we enjoy how it tastes rather than inhaling it to get back to work.

And so on.

This divide definitely isn’t a strict one. I don’t want to mislead people into thinking that being concerned with productivity means we are unconcerned with presence and vice versa. There are a million and three qualifications one can make to this general idea of aiming to be more present than productive. For example, an employer may not care so much about how mindful you are if you’re always missing targets. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Leading a productive day can be much more fulfilling if we go through it mindfully.

It’s easy to ask how to be more productive while forgetting what it means to be productive and then forgetting why you desire productivity. When we get to that point, it’s an apt reminder for us to slow down and become aware of the present moment once more.

The moment we can be the most engaged in.

How to be happily unproductive

I’ve noticed that I don’t do all that much with my free time. I do mindless things like browse the internet and watch videos. I always link free time with relaxation so I disassociate myself from anything I perceive as work.

I’ve also noticed that this trend leads to more frustration that it’s meant to. I feel better when I’m making progress with work. However, it seems odd to exclaim I enjoy working instead of relaxing but that’s exactly what happens. Doing nothing constructive can be extremely boring and even tiring but I almost feel obligated to continue doing nothing with my free time because I don’t want it to become like work.

Being in the flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has produced some great research on what makes people happy. He noticed that a surprising number of people are actually happier at work than during their free time despite saying they enjoyed their free time more.  In light of this, the solution for some is to either fill up their free time with more work or do nothing about it. Neither are ideal. One just leads to burnout and a build up of resentment towards it. The other doesn’t help change your position in any way.

Csikszentmihalyi says that being in a state of flow is what makes people happy. There are a few factors present when someone is in the flow.

  1. They’re completely focused on one activity
  2. They feel in control of what they’re doing
  3. It’s intrinsically rewarding
  4. They essentially lose their sense of time

All these factors point to a situation where you’re so focused on an activity you enjoy that you don’t have time to be frustrated with yourself. You feel relaxed because you’re living in the present and very mindful of what you’re doing.

Best of all: you’re happy. 

How to be in the flow

While you’ve probably experienced this feeling before, you might not know why it happens.

This chart shows what it takes for someone to be in the state of flow.

The difficulty level of the activity should match our perceived skill set. This means  it shouldn’t be so difficult that you feel like throwing a chair through your window. Nor should it be so easy that you could fall asleep at a moments notice.

People usually feel happier while actually doing something (even if it’s at work or while studying) because of a constructive environment. You’re more likely to be completely focused on a project you want to work on, than sifting through pictures of birds with arms.

Why free time can make us unhappy 

The reason why people can feel frustrated or unhappy with their free time is mainly because they don’t do anything with it.  If you spend all day refreshing YouTube, then you’l probably feel extremely unfulfilled. Boredom will rise at an alarming rate, time will disappear and ‘damn, where did the time go?’ will be exclaimed.

Being happily unproductive 

If you don’t feel like you enjoy your free time or have even found it draining (like I have!), here’s a list of a few things you could start doing:

Learn a new skill – There’s so much out there that can help you learn things for free or a small price. Online courses offered by websites such as Coursera, edX, Codecademy and Duolingo are fun and engaging. You don’t need to put pressure on yourself to complete them by a certain date.

Read a book – If you have a list of books that you’ve been meaning to get started with, actually do it. If not, there are over 800 new books published each day in the US. You’ll find something to read! Losing yourself in a good book is a perfect example of what it feels like to be in the flow.

Create something – At least try. It’s easy to dismiss this option because you’re ‘not a creative person’ but creativity is something that can be developed as well as anything else. Write, draw, make music or even build something! It doesn’t need to be a best seller but spend a small time creating something and you’ll probably find it fun and try again.

Have a hobby – That can be anything from maintaining a blog or learning something new to marking origami turtles. If you have no idea what you could do, try a variety of things and you’ll find something you’ll want to pursue more. (Try origami, it’s a lot of fun)

Do some gaming – This isn’t an excuse to game unconditionally for hours and hours on end but the reason why we can play games for so long is because of flow!

Enjoy your free time 

After reading this, you might have realised that you don’t actually care for much of what you do in your free time. Switching through TV channels in an attempt to find something interesting is boring. Instead, do something interesting.

You don’t want it to be be mentally draining or become like work but doing next to nothing might not help you feel that relaxed either.

If you want to find out more about flow and where I got my information from, I’d recommend watching Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on the topic and reading his book called ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’.

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Another thing you can do, if you found this post helpful, is share it. You can follow the blog too. It’ll put you in the zone if you do. (It won’t. Sorry)

1. The ‘800 books a day’ statistic was simply found by dividing the number of books published a year in the US by 365.

2. The image came from news.cnet.com

3. Birds with arms is exactly what it sounds like.

4. I can’t say Csikszentmihalyi’s name. I just stare at it. Should I feel bad? Csikszentmihalyi if you ever read this post, hi and sorry I can’t say your name.