The word “productivity” has its origins in the 19th century, back when industrialization and scaling-up everything was becoming the dominant approach to, and philosophy of, labor.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the word literally refers to the rate of output per unit of input: how many widgets a worker can make each hour, for instance.
In recent decades, this word has sprawled to encompass other aspects of life.
There are productive and unproductive uses of our time, the former ostensibly bringing us closer to some goal, while the latter is ideally avoided, optimized away, or concealed from the world—shamefully hidden behind speed-read stacks of Getting Things Done-style tomes that claim to help us winnow away all non-widget-generating efforts in our pursuit of an idealized, ultra-prolific, omni-generative version of ourselves.
While there’s something to be said for having the capacity to create, the idea that we must focus and steer all of our time and attention toward the making of profitable things (or things which may someday be profitable) can both sap the magic from the act of creation and make us less competent creators, over time.
I experience this socially reinforced near-compulsion as much as anyone, but I’ve found that by mentally deputizing consistent dabbling as a productive activity—rather than a pointless lark or waste of time and energy—I’m able to soften my sense that all effort must result in profitable output.
The way I frame it, internally, dabbling is a maintenance task that helps me stay psychologically healthy, while also helping me avoid cognitive or habitual rigidity.
In addition to just being fun and interesting, dabbling provides the dual-benefit of de-stressing the process of making things, because I regularly make stuff just to make stuff: there’s no required outcome beyond doodling or playing with music or experimenting with some unfamiliar medium for the sake of exploration.
I can learn and try and play and discover, in other words, without any pre-defined outcome shaping my perception of the experience.
It’s remarkable, the degree to which such expectations can contort our impression of things.
If you play a game and expect to win, and you don’t, that expectation can dilute or dim the fun you might have otherwise had simply playing the game, spending time with friends, and immersing yourself in the ups and downs of the shared challenge.
Likewise, if you pick up a musical instrument and decide you must be good at it, there’s a nonzero chance that if you don’t show any immediate propensity for it, you’ll discard both the idea and the instrument to pursue something that better lines up with your sense of what sort of output you want to achieve for each unit of input: my time needs to result in x quantity of money, product, or prestige, and this pursuit doesn’t seem like it will get me any of these things, at least not in the near-future, so I’ll move on to something that will.
Persistent dabbling can lead us to a new hobby, a pastime, or even, potentially, something we do for work or as a side-hustle—but it needn’t do so to be valuable.
The main value of dabbling, in my mind at least, is that it allows us to try and fail, but also to try and not have a set standard for failure; to engage in activities for their own sake, following them wherever they lead us rather than locking-in the shape we want them to take before we’ve had the chance to experience them from a neutral, non-judgmental perspective.
Over time this becomes easier, and the stress and sense of laziness you might feel when just doodling or painting or playing frisbee or boardgaming or puttering around on a drum set or learning about Incan culture or trying out some new recipes or starting a shell collection dissipates; most of the time, at least.
This mindset-retraining process will be easier for some than others—it’s been an extended journey, for me—but I do anecdotally find that folks who have portions of their time, energy, and resources set aside for such “unproductive” undertakings tend to be happier and more fulfilled, both in the work they do, and in their lives, overall.