When you are a writer and you sit down at your desk with a massive project ahead of you, all sorts of alternative items that you could work on arise. Your deadline isn’t for months, but you know you need to get something done, so answering relevant e-mails or making an outline for the seventh time pop into your mind. Sometimes you fall into that trap, answering e-mails for the next hour, writing zero worthwhile sentences for the project, yet still able to walk away from your seat knowing that you did “work.” You justify, rationalize, and feel like the day wasn’t completely wasted.
We often substitute shallow, meaningless work for actual productivity. It helps create the illusion of progress and growth. We reply to emails instead of working on our manuscript. We spend 20-minutes stretching instead of running a few miles. We substitute small items that are seemingly related to what we want to accomplish so that when we walk away, we at least don’t feel horrible about our wasted time.
As a former teammate once remarked when asked whether we should include pre-run stretching time before our easy runs at the crack of dawn, “What’s more important? An extra mile or two on your run or 10 minutes trying to touch you toes? Last I checked, you were a runner, not a gymnast.”
The same holds true in other aspects of life. We see issues in inequity and instead of finding ways to nudge the needle in a positive direction, we tweet—which is something that feels good in the moment, like we are contributing, but in the grand scheme does very little. Or in the world of politics, we change the verbiage associated with a group, applying the nongendered Latinx, instead of, you know, actually doing something that makes a difference for these people in society. Or we send out a tweet in support of a cause, instead of you know, actually volunteering time or donating to support said cause. I know that these aren’t mutually exclusive, but often we push for the small things because they are easier to reach, easier to check off, easier to get that feeling that we made a positive change. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, the big items, the ones that lead to actual growth and development, are left by the wayside, untouched and unchallenged.
Humans have a deep need for competency, or the idea that we are growing, developing, and moving towards accomplishing some sort of goal. It’s no wonder that we love the illusion of progress. It satisfies that need, without having to do the hard work. It’s the Instagram route to confidence. Create the allure of confidence via posting some heavily filtered picture, only to have your real inner sense of self not budge at all.
I’m not saying the small things don’t matter. They do. But they are small things for a reason, icing on the cake, not the cake itself. We shouldn’t reach for them unless we are also doing the difficult work laying the foundation, chipping away toward actual growth and development.