The South Side of Productivity

One of the first things I found myself doing after I got home on winter break was make up a table of goals, priorities, and steps to get from one to the other (or from the other to the one, as it should happen to be). It’s a planning technique I learned from the coordinator of the NCPIRG group that’s trying to get started at N.C. State. It’s essentially an activist group for issues especially relevant to students and since the election, I’ve been moderately involved; it’s very methodical, however, especially machine-like, and that somewhat deters me from going in deeper, although I think it’s an experience I’m likely to enjoy.

But that’s next year, and I’m still struggling through today.

The planning technique is simple: Make a spreadsheet with columns on the left and right called “priorities” and “goals,” respectively, and a column between them for each interval you’re planning for; since my break is precisely three weeks (about three weeks too short), I’ve got three central columns, one for each week. In each row you fill in your priorities on the left, your goals on the right, and finally a detailed process leading you from one end to the other on the columns in between.

My first row is called “Torah,” coinciding with the obligation I have to read Torah the Shabbat before I return to school. It’s been many months since I read last, but it’s a portion I’ve read before, so learning it now shouldn’t be all that hard. It’s complicated, though, because I just don’t feel motivated. I don’t suppose that’s a problem specific to this, though; I hardly feel motivated to do anything right now.

Me second row is for fitness and my goal is to exercise nine times–that is, three times a week. I’ve been feeling lax about this goal of mine, and I’m determined now make sure I keep at it. I went to the gym twice last week, and I want to keep up my momentum. I might possibly only have Tuesday and Thursday classes in the spring, so that gives me all day Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to get to the gym. I think I can do it. In fact, I know I can.

Third on my list is the first of two reading priorities I’ve got, this one dealing with periodicals. First I want to finish reading some old issues of Technician I didn’t get around to reading (yes, I’m the only person who holds onto old news–but they were articles that interested me that studying kept me from reading, so it’s not all that bad) and an issue of the Nubian Message I picked up. At first I didn’t think there was anything for me in N.C. State’s African-American paper, but then I copy-edited an article about the Nubian celebrating its twentieth anniversary and I thought it wouldn’t hurt to pick up an issue and see what it says. It might prove there really is nothing in the paper of interest to me, or it might open my eyes to a new perspective I hadn’t had before–and my money’s on that.

Next I want to read an assortment of information packets I got from NCPIRG. The group’s almost cold procedural functions are effective, that’s been proved, and perhaps learning more about the specifics of it will help me commit to it more fully. As it stands, I’ve got incredibly mixed feeling: On the one hand, I like working with groups that are personal and individual, whereas NCPIRG seems more concerned with the impact on legislation than with the impact on individuals (how many times have I mentioned how mechanical it all feels? it makes me think of Marx every time I think of it).

Further, I don’t completely agree with all of its ideals: Affordable education and student aid? I’m there. Sustainability and alternate forms of energy? Total support. Twentieth-century transportation in the form of doubled funding for magnet trains? Mmmm, no. It’s just not the right time for that–there are other, bigger issues that need our focus right now, and I think going in only halfheartedly supporting the big picture is unfair to both the organization and myself.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience I could gain from doing this and the differences I could help make are real and definite, but I’m not sure if it’s earned my heart or not. My truest passions lie in advocating for other issues–especially equal rights and GLBT issues–but since same-sex marriage has been taken up as a partisan issue this year, and since NCPIRG is non-partisan, those issues won’t be a part of my involvement with the group. However, sustainability, hunger and homelessness, and college affordability are all important to me–it’s just that stupid magnet train that’s holding me back. And the fact that I feel more like a cog in the machine than a person in the group. That said, once we move past planning into action, I might feel differently, so I’m still holding out hope to enjoy my involvement with NCPIRG.

My second reading goal is more recreational: Read two novels, and a third if I can manage it, before I get back to school. The first is Remembrance of Things I Forgot by Bob Smith; it’s a book I got from a friend who had to read it for class and liked it. So far, I’m liking it, too. The second is Tolkien’s The Hobbit because, after seeing the movie, I really need to know what wasn’t in the book and what I just forgot. It’s a very strange feeling to not know if you’ve forgotten something or if you’ve just never had the chance to remember it–and it’s very troubling on many levels. And since I’ve been meaning to reread Tolkien for years, I might as well get back into it now.

The fifth priority on my list is “scholarships,” and there are two scholarships (possibly three) that I need to learn more about and possibly apply for before I get back to school. College affordability is decreasing every year, and with tuition and fees increasing by a combined four hundred plus dollars this year alone, the more assistance I can get, the less I have to worry about money and the more I can focus on learning. I’ve already had to take out a loan, and I really don’t want to go even deeper into debt just to get my undergraduate degree–when I suspect very expressly that I’ll need many more degrees to get where I want to be in life.

(Not that I’m convinced I know where that is yet.)

The penultimate priority is “leadership,” which presents itself in compiling the portfolio I’ll need to submit next semester to get my Visionary Leaders Certificate with N.C. State’s Center for Student Leadership, Ethics, and Public Service. They’re the same ones organizing my alternative service break to Belize in March, and I have to admit, CSLEPS alone was one of the biggest selling features for the school–after getting so involved in leadership at Guilford Tech, I wanted a school where I could further my skills and experiences. In obtaining this certificate and going to Belize, I’m doing that–in more ways than I’d at first imagined I’d be able to.

The last step on my list follows naturally from this one: Preparing a website for our service trip (where we can share our calendar of fundraising events and educate people more about the issues we’re addressing in going to Belize) and posting here (in an attempt to not only share my hopes for and interests in our service project, but also to remind people of my own fundraiser right here to go towards my trip). Unfortunately, just as I have little motivation to learn Torah, I’ve also had little motivation to code a website, and right now writing these pleas for money is not only uncomfortable (I honestly hate asking for money, even though I know I desperately need it to afford the trip) but also feels more like writing a research paper than writing a blog post. I know a change in perspective is all I need, but those don’t come quickly–especially not when forced.

You’ll probably notice one almost obvious goal lacking in this list: Finishing my NaNoWriMo novel. For the first time in seven years I wasn’t able to complete my story during November, and I was hoping to finish it this month–but with more than half the month behind us, and without having touched it even once since, I feel very lost. Without the adrenaline pumping, and with finals having wiped me clean of energy for weeks, I feel like I’ve forgotten my characters–where they’re going, what they’ve done, even who they are. I feel like I need to reread the entire mythos to remember and recall, but I fear doing so will reveal it’s much worse than I imagine and that realization could sap all the motivation from inside me.

Fear’s holding me back again. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Not to mention all of these other things I normally love doing feel lifeless all of a sudden. Sometimes I think I enjoy these things just because they’re distractions from homework, but I genuinely enjoy learning and usually have fun with my homework. Not to mention, when I’m busiest, it’s all of these things I dream of doing–writing and reading and posting to my blog, leading and helping others and exercising and drawing closer to Judaism. Yet–very much like your typical American, I suppose–the moment I have these things, I no longer want them.

Maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe in trying to force myself to enjoy these things while I’ve got time I’m making each of them more work than they should be. Nobody enjoys work. We do what we love because it’s the action we love doing–yet here I’ve unconsciously reduced all my dreams to outcomes on a sheet: Read two books, finish one story, yadda yadda, blah blah blah.

It’s a lot like what NCPIRG has done: Turned becoming politically active from an awakening, a turning away from the shadows on the wall to seeing the light far beyond, into mere mechanical duties less focused on the individual enlightening than on the final outcome. I often feel, in what I’ve done with them so far, they’re more concerned with throwing bandaids on the wounds than actually allowing those wounds to heal. People are hungry, so let’s toss them a few dimes. Books are expensive, so let’s reel back costs. Energy is running out, so let’s conserve what we’ve got.

That’s all great–but does it solve the problem? Why are people hungry? Why isn’t education affordable? Will conservation truly help us if we’re still living in a disposable culture that prides excess and scoffs at simplicity, at living within our means? A bandaid won’t heal a broken bone, no matter how much we want it to.

Maybe I’ve just become a cynic, or maybe I’m listening to the whisperings of a new calling, one that’s driving me past what we’re doing to what can and should be done. Our problems can’t be solved just by adding more money to the system or cutting here and spending more there. We need fundamental change–we need to break people’s chains and lead them forth from this cave, and it’ll be scary, but the other side is brighter, of that I am certain.

My problem isn’t the fact that I don’t want to read or I don’t want to fund-raise for my service trip or I don’t want to learn Torah–because I sincerely deeply do want to do all of these things, but forcing myself to do them all in this three week interval without educational obligations isn’t solving my problems–it’s just covering them up.

I don’t have time to read or write during the school year, so what can I do differently to make time to read and write year-round? I don’t have sufficient funds to pay for my trip, so what can I do to change that? I can cut back on personal spending (not that I’ve spent much this semester), and having my tutoring position next semester will certainly help–but even then, I still need a lot of help to make it, so if you can give even a minuscule amount, I truly would appreciate it.

One of the few things I actually learned from economics this semester is that when we’re producing under our potential, we’re only producing waste–things are inefficient and our bottom lines suffer. Perhaps hanging out on the south side of productivity doesn’t just mean I’ve lost my motivation to do anything, but instead it means realizing I’ve got the potential to do so much more–and to achieve that, I don’t need to do more, but figure out how to do what I’m already doing better. It’s not about adding excess, it’s about learning efficiency.

It’ll be a long road to follow, but it’s time to head north for the winter.

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