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Recall the last time you thought to yourself, “Man, I was so good at life today.” Are you there yet? Are you feeling the good-at-life glow? Now recall how you spent that time. More likely than not, your concept of “good at life” is roughly aligned with the standard definition of “productive.” And more likely than not, getting there involved working your tail off—at the office, in the gym, or around the house.
Furthermore, the proverbial “good at life” is usually accompanied by some sort of tangible output at the end of the day—a productivity souvenir, if you will. A completed report. A balanced checkbook. Throbbing quads. A home-cooked meal. A tattered to-do list with no items remaining. Something you can point to and triumphantly crow, “See! Look what I did today! So good at life!”
Days like this are satisfying and necessary. They bolster our confidence, drive our efforts, and foster our growth. But barreling through life at warp speed is hardly the only means of being productive. In order to be good at life, you also have to be good at living. That means learning to honor your intangible needs as you do your more traditional ones—not as a necessary evil to which attention must be paid, but as an equally fruitful use of your time and energy.
Just as we produce our incomes and our grocery lists, we also produce our relationships, our surroundings, and our states of mind. If we don’t respect the genuine importance of the latter group, the benefits of the former are rendered moot. Whiling away the hours at a café with an old friend? Productive. Hanging new curtains that enliven and individualize your space? Productive. Spending a lazy Sunday watching an entire season of Mad Men on Netflix Instant? Yeah, we’re going there—productive (in moderation).
No one is recommending that you adopt any one of these activities as your sole purpose in life. The point is not to celebrate unchecked idle behavior. But hobbies – things you do for no reason other than because they bring you joy – aren’t a break from productivity. They’re an active part of it. You can’t know happy unless you know sad. You can’t recognize flavor unless you’ve experienced bland. And you can’t know when you’re truly in the zone unless you develop the capacity to go to another place entirely.
Work long hours. Pay your bills. Cook from scratch. But understand that being "good at life" does not hinge on having something to show for yourself, and let go of the anxiety associated with wasting (read: spending) your time. Rest is not a necessary evil. There is such a thing as productive relaxation, and it stems from mindful enjoyment of the moment you are experiencing. And the sooner you can widen your understanding of productivity, the easier it will become to produce a life you love.
—Emma Aubry Roberts