Most of my days go like this: scribbling all that I have to do for that day (if I don’t get distracted in between); Rushing through work with the end in mind while chanting, “I just want to get it done and over with”; That hit of adrenaline that gets my head and heart excited for a grand total of seven seconds when I strike something off my long to-do list———
And I let go of the breath I didn’t even know I was holding for too long. The tension in my shoulder dissipates and that’s one less thing on my plate. I finished it. Whatever now. What matters is that I got it done and it can stop looming over me menacingly. I’ve vomited it out and it is now out of my system. Hooray.
But the conveyor belt keeps running. Other tasks come along. I repeat the same process again and have now successfully become a robot who burns out way too often.
Have you ever felt like a machine that powered on for no other reason, too?
This article came about because I kept stressing myself out about having to “get things done.” I fed myself with the words, “I need to do this” and “I need to do that” and—at the end of the day—staring at my mountain of commitments (we’ll talk about the problem of over-committing another time), it just felt like I was being held hostage by all these things I thought I enjoyed, but now seem very much like robbers of my energy and interest.
Since when did my attitude and mentality towards the process get so laborious and dreadful that it completely stole the joy of the art?
There’s this Chinese saying that goes:
For a minute on the stage, 10 years of work is needed off-stage.
While it usually means that every impressive performance takes years of hard work, why do I put all my focus, attention and stress into that one minute and muddle through those 10 years absent-mindedly?
Why do we tend to focus heavily on the goal or end-point?
We Singaporeans are known for being oh-so-efficient, and us youths are definitely no strangers to the hustle culture. Maybe it’s the way we’ve been trained in our education system since young: to learn not necessarily because we are cultivating our curiosity, but so that we can pass national-level exams (and forget everything we’ve memorised subsequently). Get through primary school to take the PSLE. Get through secondary school to take N/O Levels. Get through JC to take A Levels. And now, get through university to get a degree.
We’re so used to “getting through” things, we might as well have been programmed to do so.
When we get too caught up with the end goal, we tend to stick to our expectations and miss out on the things we can learn and pick up along the way. Our ‘journey’ will solely be the endpoint, causing us to have tunnel vision and miss out on other things we can actually enjoy. We become robots who churn out task after task, but don’t give ourselves the time to stop, reorganise, recalibrate and reconsider.
Take for example—and to expand on my previous example—studying. Though my experience is not generalisable to all, my memories of secondary school (and from what I’ve heard from friends) are filled with mugging and cramming content into my brain to regurgitate everything at the end of the four years. Some of my friends who went to junior college share similar sentiments. What’s the point of regurgitating content, when we remember nothing in the following years? To extrapolate, what value do our many years of schooling then have?
Don’t get me wrong. At the end of the day, we definitely have to do what we need to do; standard education and exams are here to stay. Urgent and time-sensitive tasks should definitely be done ASAP. But what if we viewed this whole experience or process differently?
An Attempt At Positive Thinking…?
For some, dread may be the dominant and instinctual emotion that comes up at the mention of an upcoming assignment, task, or exam. I’ve had many bouts of this that led to unhealthy cycles of procrastination in the past. What I found helpful to get out of that was to try to reframe my perceptions of the task and to think about what one can gain in the process. Not just about things regarding the task at hand, but about yourself, your environment, your relationships with people, etc.
I realised that focusing on the task and how big or pressing it may seem sends signals to my brain that this task is Something I Need To Do, and not something that might enrich and enable me to raise my level in that certain area. A mentor of mine once said, “a time of crisis is also a time of opportunity; those going through tribulations are in the process of training.” Perhaps this challenge could enable you to find out more about yourself if you take the time and space to reflect. To probe uncertainty and discomfort.
As a Theatre Studies major, I’m still fascinated by how much effort is put into documenting the process of theatre-making; how it starts out, the numerous drafts, the detours we take along the way, the failures, the disappointments, the little joys, the unexpected discoveries, so so so many uncertainties and—my favourite part— the abundance of “don’t know, just try lor” before plunging into some random, wild, strange idea.
From an economic or ‘practical’ point of view, it’s a waste of time; it may seem like the effort put in does not equate to the results achieved. But sometimes, beyond all the numbers and KPIs, it’s in the process where the most growth takes place.
This process-centred approach, coupled with heavy-duty reflecting along the way, truly helped me to emerge from the experience as a slightly different person; someone who’s more in-tune with myself, my misconceptions, my working habits and thinking patterns. Very different from the “I’m done with all these things and honestly I’ve forgotten most of it and the only difference from before is that I feel way more tired!” status that used to be my modus operandi for the bulk of my education.
In a fast-paced society like Singapore, we may not have the luxury of time and energy. But perhaps, a single thought that’s different from the other times we approach a task might be the first step to learning how to enjoy and focus on the process.
Aristotle noted that while patience is bitter, its fruit is sweet. If we had not tasted bitterness in the process, the sweetness of the end product wouldn’t be amplified, savoured and valued as much.
Opening your eyes to the process transforms tunnel vision into an open field if you’re willing. I hope that you’ll be able to find joy when you enjoy the process.
P.s. I pretty much sound like a fluffy self-help book, but these are the fieldnotes I’ve gathered so far. Feel free to let me know your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org if you think/feel/experience otherwise!