The Oldest Productivity Trick Around



Too often I spent my days wanting to write and not writing. The simple power of the check mark helped me get back on track.


About 10 years ago, I began teaching a yearlong class in creative writing to college seniors. By the end of the course, each student was expected to produce a book of stories or poems. I formulated a mantra for them: “Write every day, and walk every day.” The specific instruction was to write 150 words and engage in mindful walking for 10 minutes.


It was a modest goal, because I wanted to be able to do it myself. I had a toddler and other classes to teach. I had recently come across that famous Annie Dillard line: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” It made me realize that too often I spent my days wanting to write and not writing. Again and again, I would note in my journal, “I did not write today.” The idea that this was how I was going to spend my life filled me with despair.


So I took up the assignment I had given my students. I used a composition notebook, with those black-and-white marbled covers. Having written my daily quota, I would note the date on the notebook’s last page and make a small check mark next to it. Every few days, I would hold up my notebook to show my students the columns of black check marks.


I was writing about my hometown, Patna, India, where rats had stolen my mother’s dentures and, the police claimed, drunk all the confiscated liquor. I don’t think I skipped a day, and when the year ended, I had completed a short book. The method worked; I wasn’t going to give it up. In the minutes between classes, or on trains, or in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s, I would write my daily words and then count them to make sure I hit the target. Once I had done the work and drawn that small mark, it seemed OK to assume I would spend my life writing.


In the back of my notebooks over the years, I see the columns of check marks that stand for an unknown number of hours of work, but also words (“rejected by ___,” “rejected by ___,” “rejected by ___,” “accepted by ___”), figures (“20K,” “30K,” “50K,” “90K” — total word counts) and dates (the signing of a contract on March 7, 2017; the death of my publisher on Dec. 30, 2019). 


In late November 2010, a single word appears: “Ferber.” The sleep-training method. I read that and can immediately recall the bleary eyes and the exhaustion of trying to coax a difficult child into rest. On April 2 of the next year, three plain columns of check marks are followed by these three words: “World Cup win.” (India defeated Sri Lanka in the final in cricket.) But the facts of life are mostly absent from those journal pages. Even while looking at my record of the past year, I can find nothing to show that we have lived through a pandemic. Just word counts, project titles, notations about work sent to my agent and those check marks — the history of my struggle to remain faithful to my mantra; a record of my desire to stay sane and productive.

在2010年十一月月底,我写了一个词:“费伯”。睡觉训练法。当我读了这个词以后我可以立刻回忆起那双迷糊而又疲惫但是在坚持把一个孩子哄睡的眼神。在次年的四月二日,有三次我没有打卡,并且附上了文字“板球世界杯赢了✌️”(在决赛中印度战胜了斯里兰卡)。但是那几天我没有记录我身边发生的事情。在回顾去年(2020年)的日记时,我甚至没有感觉那会儿是新冠疫情爆发的时候。我只是统计了字数,记下了文章开头,给我代理人的工作批注和打卡标记 – 我为了实现我提出的术语而做的奋斗;还有让我保持理智和富有生产能力的记录。

I admit that this is a plain, rather primitive form of record-keeping; its spine is the long column of check marks. I prefer this practice over the apps on our smartphones that serve as journals in the age of surveillance capitalism. These apps count each step we take, store our memories in the form of photographs, even record the places where we have parked our cars. They hoard such a surfeit of information as to render meaningless any painstaking individual action. The check mark is Gandhi in a world built by Bezos and Zuckerberg.


It has not escaped me that the Bezos and Zuckerberg types are trying to co-opt my beloved symbol. On social media, the check mark was initially a neutral verification, a way for users to know that public figures were who they said they were. Quickly, though, people began treating it as a signifier of status — proof that you mattered enough for others to care whether you were really you. Once a sign of ordinary achievement, an indicator of daily struggle and quiet success, the check mark has been corrupted. There are now two kinds of people: Those who have a blue check mark next to their name on Twitter or Instagram, and the rest of us — the unnoticed masses. I will not celebrate that blue symbol made of pixels, pretending to determine which human lives are most valuable; I’m here to reclaim the check mark in its basic form, etched by a human hand using ink or graphite.

贝佐斯和扎克伯格创建的打卡方式正是我所喜欢的。在社交媒体上,这种打卡所用的对勾曾经是一种可以让用户知道某个人的真实身份的方式。但是很快人们就把它视作地位的象征,它可以证明不管你是谁,你都值得被大众所关注。它本来不过是一个普通的、象征着每天坚持不懈的努力并且取得了一些成果的符号,现在却被玷污了。现在社交媒体上的用户无非是两种人:一种人在Twitter或者Instagram的账户名称旁边拥有一个蓝色的对勾,另一种就是我们了 – 不起眼的普通人。我不会因为获得了这个蓝色对勾去庆祝一番,假装自己的生活是人类中最有价值的;相反我希望这个对勾被用作它最初的形式,那个被人们徒手画出来的对勾。

While learning to draw, a child will make a “V,” followed by another “V,” and then one more “V,” each joyously rising into the air above the flat horizon. “What’s that you have drawn?” a parent asks. The confident answer comes: “Birds are flying!” I remember being that child. I remember also seeing my primary-school teachers’ swift flourish on my submitted homework, which meant that I had gotten the answer right. I wasn’t a good student; the check mark was a pleasing celebration of my competence. 


But now, in my late middle age, the check mark serves a different purpose: It is the visible symbol of my realization that who I am is defined by what I do. I am a writer, so I write every day. Maybe you are a writer, too. Maybe you are not. The point still stands. The check mark is more important than whatever comes of the daily work whose completion you’re marking. The first represents actual living; the second, merely a life.