Review: I Didn't Do the Thing Today, by Madeleine Dore

Russ Allbery eagle at
Wed Jan 26 20:00:18 PST 2022

I Didn't Do the Thing Today
by Madeleine Dore

Publisher: Avery
Copyright: 2022
ISBN:      0-593-41914-6
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     291

At least from my narrow view of it, the world of productivity self-help
literature is a fascinating place right now. The pandemic overturned
normal work patterns and exacerbated schedule inequality, creating
vastly different experiences for the people whose work continued to be
in-person and the people whose work could become mostly or entirely
remote. Self-help literature, which is primarily aimed at the more
affluent white-collar class, primarily tracked the latter disruption:
newly-remote work, endless Zoom meetings, the impossibility of child
care, the breakdown of boundaries between work and home, and the
dawning realization that much of the mechanics of day-to-day office
work are neither productive nor defensible.

My primary exposure these days to the more traditional self-help
productivity literature is via Cal Newport. The stereotype of the
productivity self-help book is a collection of life hacks and
list-making techniques that will help you become a more efficient
capitalist cog, but Newport has been moving away from that dead end for
as long as I've been reading him, and his recent work focuses more on
structural issues with the organization of knowledge work. He also
shares with the newer productivity writers a willingness to tell people
to use the free time they recover via improved efficiency on some life
goal other than improved job productivity. But he's still prickly and
defensive about the importance of personal productivity and
accomplishing things. He gives lip service on his podcast to the value
of the critique of productivity, but then usually reverts to
characterizing anti-productivity arguments as saying that productivity
is a capitalist invention to control workers. (Someone has doubtless
said this on Twitter, but I've never seen a serious critique of
productivity make this simplistic of an argument.)

On the anti-productivity side, as it's commonly called, I've seen a lot
of new writing in the past couple of years that tries to break the
connection between productivity and human worth so endemic to US
society. This is not a new analysis; disabled writers have been making
this point for decades, it's present in both Keynes and in Galbraith's
The Affluent Society, and Kathi Weeks's The Problem with Work traces
some of its history in Marxist thought. But what does feel new to me is
its widespread mainstream appearance in newspaper articles, viral blog
posts, and books such as Jenny Odell's and Devon Price's Laziness Does
Not Exist. The pushback against defining life around productivity is
having a moment.

Entering this discussion is Madeleine Dore's I Didn't Do the Thing
Today. Dore is the author of the Extraordinary Routines blog and host
of the Routines and Ruts podcast. Extraordinary Routines began as a
survey of how various people organize their daily lives. I Didn't Do
the Thing Today is, according to the preface, a summary of the thoughts
Dore has had about her own life and routines as a result of those

As you might guess from the subtitle (Letting Go of Productivity
Guilt), Dore's book is superficially on the anti-productivity side. Its
chapters are organized around gentle critiques of productivity
concepts, with titles like "The Hopeless Search for the Ideal Routine,"
"The Myth of Balance," or "The Harsh Rules of Discipline." But I think
anti-productivity is a poor name for this critique; its writers are not
opposed to being productive, only to its position as an all-consuming
focus and guilt-generating measure of personal worth.

Dore structures most chapters by naming an aspect, goal, or concern of
a life defined by productivity, such as wasted time, ambition,
busyness, distraction, comparison, or indecision. Each chapter sketches
the impact of that idea and then attempts to gently dismantle the grip
that it may have on the reader's life. All of these discussions are
nuanced; it's rare for Dore to say that one of these aspects has no
value, and she anticipates numerous objections. But her overarching
goal is to help the reader be more comfortable with imperfection, more
willing to live in the moment, and less frustrated with the limitations
of life and the human brain. If striving for productivity is like
lifting weights, Dore's diagnosis is that we've tried too hard for too
long, and have overworked that muscle until it is cramping. This book
is a gentle massage to induce the muscle to relax and let go.

Whether this will work is, as with all self-help books, individual. I
found it was best read in small quantities, perhaps a chapter per day,
since it otherwise began feeling too much the same. I'm also not the
ideal audience; Dore is a creative freelancer and primarily interviewed
other creative people, which I think has a different sort of
productivity rhythm than the work that I do. She's also not a planner
to the degree that I am; more on that below. And yet, I found this book
worked on me anyway. I can't say that I was captivated all the way
through, but I found myself mentally relaxing while I was reading it,
and I may re-read some chapters from time to time.

How does this relate to the genre of productivity self-help? With less
conflict than I think productivity writers believe, although there
seems to be one foundational difference of perspective.

Dore is not opposed to accomplishing things, or even to systems that
help people accomplish things. She is more attuned than the typical
productivity writer to the guilt and frustration that can accumulate
when one has a day in which one does not do the thing, but her goal is
not to talk you out of attempting things. It is, instead, to convince
you to hold those attempts and goals more lightly, to allow them to
move and shift and change, and to not treat a failure to do the thing
today as a reason for guilt. This is wholly compatible with standard
productivity advice. It's adding nuance at one level of abstraction
higher: how tightly to cling to productivity goals, and what to do when
they don't work out. Cramping muscles are not strong muscles capable of
lifting heavy things. If one can massage out the cramp, one's
productivity by even the strict economic definition may improve.

Where I do see a conflict is that most productivity writers are
planners, and Dore is not. This is, I think, a significant blind spot
in productivity self-help writing. Cal Newport, for example, advocates
time-block planning, where every hour of the working day has a job.
David Allen advocates a complex set of comprehensive lists and
well-defined next actions. Mark Forster builds a flurry of small
systems for working through lists. The standard in productivity writing
is to to add structure to your day and cultivate the self-discipline
required to stick to that structure.

For many people, including me, this largely works. I'm mostly a
planner, and when my life gets chaotic, adding more structure and
focusing on that structure helps me. But the productivity writers I've
read are quite insistent that their style of structure will work for
everyone, and on that point I am dubious. Newport, for example,
advocates time-block planning for everyone without exception, insisting
that it is the best way to structure a day. Dore, in contrast,
describes spending years trying to perfect a routine before realizing
that elastic possibilities work better for her than routines. For those
who are more like Dore than Newport, I Didn't Do the Thing Today is
more likely to be helpful than Newport's instructions. This doesn't
make Newport's ideas wrong; it simply makes them not universal,
something that the productivity self-help genre seems to have trouble

Even for readers like myself who prefer structure, I Didn't Do the
Thing Today is a valuable corrective to the emphasis on every-better
systems. For those who never got along with too much structure, I think
it may strike a chord. The standard self-help caveat still applies:
Dore has the most to say to people who are in a similar social class
and line of work as her. I'm not sure this book will be of much help to
someone who has to juggle two jobs with shift work and child care,
where the problem more sharp external constraints than internalized
productivity guilt. But for its target audience, I think it's a
valuable, calming message. Dore doesn't have a recipe to sort out your
life, but may help you feel better about the merits of life unsorted.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-01-26


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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