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The Oldest Productivity Trick Around

New York Times - Tue May 4 10:47

Letter of Recommendation

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.

Credit...Illustration by The New York Times

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.

I’m here to reclaim the check mark in its basic form, etched by a human hand using ink or graphite.

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.

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.


Amitava Kumar is the author of the forthcoming novel ‘‘A Time Outside This Time.’’ He teaches at Vassar College.