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March 12th, 2019

One of the best things to do to make sure something gets done is to set a deadline.  This is hailed as one of the cornerstones, if not the keystone to productivity.  But deadlines cannot and should not be applied to everything we hope to do and get done.  Indeed the useful stress of an impending deadline can be totally destructive to our efforts.


Deadlines can often have that counter effect where we find our self engaging in totally unrelated activities that we rationalize are more pressing because for whatever reason we do not want to do what we know we should be doing.


We might for a humorous moment imagine opening up our computer, clicking on our browser icon and suddenly a message pops up saying “I don’t feel like opening up that app for you right now.”


And yet this is exactly what we do quite often.  Procrastination we might ponder could have two roles:  It may delay action on something so that we actually get it done in the quickest way possible, since work often expands to fill the time allotted for it.  Or it could be evidence that the task is not worth doing.  But both of these undermine a certain aspect of long-term goals that require long-term effort.  If something requires practice on a daily basis, like say, meditation, then procrastination with starting or procrastination to continue immediately starts to undermine the point of the practice.  It’s consistency that is important in such a case.


On the other hand, what of the opposite of this stress caused by deadlines?  What about play?


Play is a seriously underrated and underutilized practice in adult life.  It’s children that play, not adults.  And yet, who learns more efficiently?  But it’s because their minds are young of course – this flexibility and plasticity is what enables them to learn more efficiently.  There is some truth to this sentiment, but it also functions as an excuse to explore no further. 


In the world of productivity, much is written about the flow state.  This is where work is getting done and we are making progress in a seemingly unhindered way.  Distractions do not distract us.  Time seems to fly by.  The work seems to unfold naturally as opposed to being forced into existence, and it’s –dare we say- fun.  We might wonder if play is a kind of catalyst for a flow state.  If there’s a lot you need to learn, best to find the easiest switch to flip in order to turn on that flow state.


But play goes far beyond this mere oiling of our regular work.  Play is an exploratory tool that uncovers new things which prior to such discovery we could not set a deadline on using. 


At base, play is a guilt-free, deadline-free exploration of new aspects of reality where we can discover new patterns which we might be able to manipulate.  These patterns might be the studs on different lego blocks, or it might be query statements for a database language.  This latter example hints at one of the problems we have with the concept of play:  we incorrectly assume play is for meaningless amusement.  But play is not watching a dull sitcom, play is active, exploratory.  With a fuel tank charged with curiosity, play seeks in a nearly destructive manner, taking things apart to see how they work.  This is literally pattern finding.  How something works is really a pattern that we can imagine repeating as something is functioning again.


While play and curiosity deserve far more in depth explorations, the main point here is to highlight their open-ended nature in contrary juxtaposition to the trope of setting deadlines in order to be productive. 


While the business world is marked by this obsession with deadlines, progress ascends when both the pressure of deadlines and the freedom of play are balanced with one another.  The novel patterns discovered through play can then be reimagined in helpful new forms and the work required to manipulate this pieces can than be put into the pressurized environment of the deadline.  This switch from one to the other can become an incredibly powerful recipe for moving forward in an unknown space. 


For example, we might just play with a few colors of paint.  After some time we discover all the other basic colors we can create by applying different mixtures.  Once this is discovered, then we might set a goal of creating a painting with this new understanding.


School seeks to give us these basic parts while stripping the experience of the sense of discovery.  Something handed to you is not discovered.  We might reimagine school as an environment we enter that is primed for students to discover the precepts by simply interacting with that environment – by playing.


Like so many lost gifts of childhood, it can become a superpower in the adult world.


The next time you find yourself stuck, whether on a project, or in life, don’t stress and pressure yourself to work harder.  It might be best to let all that go for a little while, and just play.

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