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Living a Life of Ends

Living a Life of Ends

Solitary figure in the rain: Outside Luna Park, Sydney

    Why do you do what you do? Do you ever feel like you’re spinning your wheels? Is your life filled with activities and obligations that have no intrinsic meaning for you, things you do because you have to for one reason or another? Are you bored?

    I’ve been thinking about engagement since I interviewed Michael Lee Stallard last year and reviewed his book Fired Up or Burned Out, and lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot more. The issue really came home for me when someone posted a comment on my recent post, “Finding Purpose “, expressing an attitude that I fear is all too common among my students as well: that every class is just a means to an end, that end being the BA and, I suppose, the miserable grind of a desk job for the next 40 years after that. Whee!

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    Something came together for me then, something I’d had a hard time wrapping my head around before then, and that’s this: our lives should be lives of ends, not lives of means. That is to say, if everything you do is simply a way to get somewhere else, you’re missing out on life altogether — ideally, everything we do should be an end in and of itself, even if it’s intended to lead us ever-closer to some other goal.

    Means people suck

    The moral philosopher Immanuel Kant discussed means and ends in his famed Humanity formulation, saying “we should never act in such a way that we treat Humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end in itself”(from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ).

    Normally, this is taken as saying that you shouldn’t use others to advance your own goals, but should appreciate them for themselves, that each relationship is its own end. Relationships that exist solely to forward our own causes without regard for the humanity of those we are in relationship with become purely functional, and lessen both us and others as people. Means relationships objectify our others — that is, cause us to see and treat other people as objects, not people — and are fundamentally narcissistic.

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    A life of means

    But there’s another part of Kant’s principle that bears mentioning — he doesn’t just say don’t treat others as means, he says don’t treat ourselves as means to an end, either. But that’s exactly what we do when we approach everything in our lives as a means to an end. Instead of engaging with the world before us, we become fundamentally disengaged and future-oriented — our attention split between the world we dwell in and the world as we want it to be, between the task at hand and the “real” reason we’re doing it.

    When we treat the things we do as simply functional steps towards some future ends, function replaces meaning, and we transform our very selves into objects for the satisfaction of some future self.

    Consider, for example, the growing body of research that calls into question the role of incentives. An incentive is an end separate from whatever it is we’re doing at any given moment. I might offer you a hundred-dollar bill for getting an “A”, outselling your colleagues, or serving my table well — it really doesn’t matter. The incentive is completely divorced from the reality at hand.

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    And research shows that this messes with our heads. In one classic psychological study, for instance, two groups of children were brought in over a period of several weeks to draw and color. In the first group, children were given awards and certificates for doing well; in the other, no rewards were offered. After several weeks, the first group — the kids with the outside incentive — were less interested in drawing and had not advanced as far technically as the second group. The kids in the second group were able to enjoy drawing for the sake of the act itself; adding incentives had shifted the first group’s focus from the fun of drawing to the ephemeral and rapidly uninteresting act of getting rewards.

    It’s not just children who fail to respond to incentives, either. Another study found people were half as likely to do charity work (like delivering meals to homebound invalids) if they were offered money for the job. The ones who were asked to volunteer found intrinsic value to appreciate in the job itself; by offering money, the other subjects shifted their attention from the task to the compensation, and usually found it lacking. They researchers weren’t paying enough to get them to do a job that many of them would have been willing to do for free!

    Incentives shift our relationship with what we’re doing, causing us to view our tasks as simply means to the end of gaining the incentive, rather than as activities that are valuable and worth doing in their own right. And too much of our daily lives follow the same pattern, whether they are done for incentives of various kinds or simply for the attainment of some far-off goal.

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    A life of ends

    The trick, then, is treating every activity — or as many as possible, anyway — as an endin its own right. This means approaching the world with a higher level of reflective awareness than most of us are used to. It means taking the time to find a purpose that is internal to the things we do — that is, an incentive that isn’t imposed from outside but is part and parcel of the activity itself.

    We talk about this, maybe dream about this, all the time. We speak of work that is its own reward, we lose ourselves in the flow of activity, we long for jobs that have us bounding out of bed every morning. When the things we have to do have their own intrinsic value, and when we engage with them as fully present beings, work stops being a chore and becomes something else, something better.

    This isn’t to say that  we should turn away from every distasteful task, every job we simply do not want to do. Sometimes we literally do have to do something because the alternative is losing a job we’re otherwise happy with, destroying a relationship, or becoming simply incapable of reaching our goals.

    Truth be told, there probably are a lot of times when we’d rather be doing anything else other than the work in front of us, and it truly is the promise of future satisfaction that motivates us. As much as you can, though, try to find the gratification that everything you do over the course of the day might bring you. And if you realize that there’s little in your life that provides its own internal worth, maybe it’s time to start rethinking some things.

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    Last Updated on March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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