My Need for Structure

A screenshot of the productivity and planning apps on a MacBook desktop. They are in focus at the front of the image, and gradually lose focus as the image progresses.

Do I need structure, or do I need freedom? 

I’m used to structure in my life. School had structure. University had more freedom, but there were still lectures and deadlines to build around. Then work, with its times to be in the office, scheduled meetings, to-do lists, etc. 

When Lockdown started and I was put on furlough I tried to keep up a sense of structure. I was worried that, if I let myself relax completely, when everything went back to normal it would be too much of a culture shock. 

So I got up in the mornings, and gave myself set times each day for writing, working on the podcast, meditating. And, for a while, this was great. I was getting to choose what I did with my day. 

Disruption

But then “everything” happened. Suddenly my life wasn’t as simple as it had been. 

I still tried to keep up with my self-imposed schedule. My entire life had been shaken up and thrown around, and I felt holding onto that structure would at least allow me to have some element of control. 

And then my therapist told me to give myself a break. To let go, and free myself from this self imposed appointments and timeframes. That rather than using them to keep control of my life, instead they were shackling me and refusing to let my soul breath. Refusing to let myself relax and cope. As I had no responsibilities right then, I needed to use that opportunity to just let myself be

And it helped. I let myself do nothing, just doing what I felt like. Watching TV. Reading. Playing computer games. And, when I felt up to it or had no choice, getting on with all those grown up responsibilities that built up. 

But now things are a little more under control, I wonder if I need to find that structure again. 

My need to be productive 

I am terrible at relaxation. I have this need to be productive. It’s always been a joke at home that if I ever call in sick to work they know it must be serious, as the only reason I’d not some in is if I literally can’t walk to the door without collapsing. 

There’s nothing stopping me relaxing and spending a day doing nothing, and I’ll do it when I need to, but I can guarantee by the evening my brain will be listing all the things I could have got done that day and I’ll be desperate to get up and cram them all into the final hours of the day. 

Sometimes even when I know that I’ve been productive, when I can look at empirical evidence that I’ve got things done, my brain still tries to insist there was more I could have done.

Isn’t the human mind great?  

I think structure helps me combat this. If I’ve had a plan for the day of things to get done, and I’ve followed that plan, it reassures my subconscious that I’ve used my time productively. 

That I’ve been useful. 

The need for utility

I recently had a minor breakthrough. Reaffirming my believe in the importance of art, and that computer games are an art form, this breakthrough came while playing a game called Spiritfarer

(And on a brief side note, if you’ve not played this game I highly recommend it).

The concept it raised was the connection between meaningfulness and utility. We all want to have meaning in our lives, especially to other people. To be important, to be wanted, to be valued, and to be remembered. And how the quickest way to gain this is to be useful. 

If you are useful to people, you’ll have meaning to them. 

But usefulness, or utility, is only shortcut to value. And once that utility is gone, the value it granted is gone. If the only value you have to people is you are useful to them, they’ll have no need of you once they no longer need you. 

I’ve realised that this idea has been a large part of my personality for a long time. If I’m productive, if I’m useful, then others will value me. 

Therefore, if I’m not spending my time getting things done and proving that I’m productive and useful, people won’t see any importance or value in me. 

Productivity isn’t a bad thing

But this doesn’t mean being productive is bad. 

It’s a good thing to be driven. To be productive, and useful to others. What’s important, I feel, is to be careful why you want to be productive, and when. 

I’m proud of my achievements in life, and a lot of those achievements where only achieved because I pushed myself. As much as I recognise I’ve striven to be useful to people so they’ll value me, I also value that drive in itself. If I’m doing something, I want to do it properly. I don’t like people who sit back and expect the world to just happen around them, either expecting other people to do everything or just not bothered about things changing. 

I don’t like that in other people, and I don’t like it in myself. 

So where’s the balance

If I still want to be productive, how do I recognise when I’m doing it in a healthy way or not? 

And if I give up on structuring my life, what happens when I go back to work? When I have no choice but to go back to a life of calendarised meetings, office hours, and to-do lists? 

There’s a reason I became a project manager. I enjoy planning things out. And I’m good at it. I get inordinately excited about learning to do new things with a spreadsheet, and there is no greater joy than ticking things off a to-do list. 

But am I letting that structure stifle me? Cutting me off from my creative side. Preventing me from growing? Or from fully embracing life? 

And if I do let it go, what stops the feeling of life, unshackled, fluttering around untethered, a chaotic whirlwind. What happens when I no longer get anything done? 

So, structure or freedom? 

Am I using structure as a cage to hide myself from new possibilities that might be scary or hard? Am I using it to give myself a sense of utility, and therefore meaning to other people? 

Or is this how I get things done. Will I be able to achieve anything without it. Maybe it’s just who I am, and I need to have order in my life otherwise I let myself drift without meeting my potential. 

Yes, I know the answer is going to be something along the lines of “A Little Bit of Both”. But how much of both? And also, there’s no good in simply changing things up, trial and error, without getting to the root cause of why this problem exists for me. 

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