Structured Lives Can be Unproductive

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I was talking to my friend Vincent yesterday for a while and he was telling me about the guy that founded Netscape, Marc Andeessen, and VIncent told me about Marc’s views to stay happy, productive and happy was to avoid structure.  The guy is very productive, he founded Netscape and now Mosaic.  He is on the board of directors of Facebook, eBay and Hewlett-Packard.

Actually, it wasn’t structure, but schedules.  He says to avoid schedules, refuse to commit to meetings or appointments at any set time in the current day.  His view is that you can work on whatever is the most important, or interesting, at any time.

The guy has lots of other ideas to stay productive.  Check email only twice a day, Structured procrastination, etc.  Here is a link to his article.

It is interesting.  I know a lot of you think that being rich and powerful allows less structure, but that isn’t my observation.  The wealthier people I know seem to have much more structure in their lives, seem to be in less control.  This guy is saying that doing what is most important at each and every moment will make you more productive.

Anyway, yesterday I went for a short ride around Topeka.  I had intended to go for a real ride, but had done a bunch of physical, plus mental stuff and was just done.  The ride woke me back up and I went back to work.  I guess the bike ride turned out to be structured procrastination.

During the ride, I rode right through one of the worst neighborhoods in Central Topeka.  It isn’t like South Chicago, but it isn’t good.  It was a close to 5, so school was out.  What surprised me what how many children were out playing.  There were kids by a small pond, a few out riding bikes, plus guys just hanging out talking.  They all seemed to be having a great time.

I also rode through a couple nice neighborhoods.  There were no kids out.  Didn’t see one. I sort of understand the reason behind this occurrence, but I don’t truly get it.

Nearly everything I did when I was a kid that was memorable was self motivated.  Self motivated and most of the time spur of the moment.  I very much doubt I would have been a bicycle racer in today’s society of supervision.  I don’t think our society is allowing this type of activity so much anymore.

Lots of people use organized sports and activities to babysit their children.  What they really need to be doing is let their children babysit each other.  That is where the great stuff begins. And these children need to be able to do this pretty autonomous for adult supervision.

I know that many of you think I’m full of shit.  I don’t have any kids, so shouldn’t be giving my views on raising kids.  But I don’t think you have to be a parent to realize our society is going a little astray in this process.

Having to line up with numbers on our cars to pick up our children at school is ridiculous.   Arresting parents for allowing their children to walk a mile home from a park is beyond ridiculous, it is terrible.  Our super parenting is ruining the adults freedom, but worse, has stifled the freedom of our children.

Yesterday was a 70 degree early March day.  Those were the days I lived for after school when I was young. I think that all the structure that our society has built into a child’s upbringing is actually bad for productivity.  And by productivity here, I mean a child’s learning process.   If our children’s lives are so structured that they can’t take advantage of a beautiful day in March, then something is wrong.

My productivity as a child was definitely best when I was unstructured.  Maybe we should trust our children more and give them a chance to find their own passions and quit trying to appease our minds by having them observed at all times? Letting kids explore is what being a kid is all about.

You don't see this much anymore. I did this all the time. Would sit at the top of a fence with my friends and talk about our thoughts and dreams.

You don’t see this much anymore. I did this all the time. Would sit at the top of a fence , or in a tree, with my friends and talk about our thoughts and dreams.  I haven’t seen a kid in a tree forever.

Tucker is still waiting and checking up on us out in the woods. I doubt that will last much longer.

Tucker is still waiting and checking up on us out in the woods. I doubt that will last much longer.


36 thoughts on “Structured Lives Can be Unproductive

  1. Joe C

    Some of the lack of children outdoors in the nicer neighborhoods is due to helicopter parenting, but based on my kids, I’d say most of it is due to electronics. When you can get online with your buddies and play call OD duty and talk in real time, a lot of them do.

  2. SM

    Kids these days….. 😉 While I’m quite a bit younger than you (37), I also spent almost all of my time that wasn’t sleeping or at school outside. I also don’t have kids, but constantly find myself wanting to shake my friends that hand each kid (5 years old and 1.5 years old) an Ipad to watch videos and play games on when they get home from daycare. The kids don’t put them down until they have to go to bed. They hate going outside and literally do not know how to play outside. They have no idea what to do outside. Playing outside makes you be creative, makes you think, makes you feel alive. I was always outside either playing in my own yard, playing in the barns at my grandparents or playing with other kids in the neighborhood. I still find myself excited to get home from work so I can just be outside. I just don’t ever see myself getting tired of it.

    1. channel_zero

      shake my friends that hand each kid (5 years old and 1.5 years old) an Ipad to watch videos and play games on when they get home from daycare.

      Don’t judge. Do something to help or make change if it matters so much to you.

      1. SM

        I offer to take them hiking, to the park, outside in general. Excuses generally range from allergies to the kid doesn’t want to put shoes on and the grass is wet……

  3. The Cyclist

    1. Rich ppl in nice hoods have less kids with more toys to play indoors.
    2. Poor ppl have smaller homes w more kids in’em. Thus they hang out outside.
    3. Any kids left to themselves for too long will end up smoking weed sooner than later.
    4. Which will most probably be legal anyway anywhere you go in not too distant future.

    God bless America.

    1. Christian

      I’ve always wondered where wealthy families with children go when the kids want to go to Worlds of Fun or similar places. In my opinion, public amusement parks are a great equalizer and forces the wealthy to rub shoulders with the riff raff. I remember the issue Disney dealt with of the wealthy hiring disabled people to pose as family members so the family could move to the front of the line.

  4. channel_zero

    The wealthier people I know seem to have much more structure in their lives, seem to be in less control.

    Just the opposite, they created the structure and stick to it. AKA “control.” At times, they probably miss less structure, but not one of the ones I work with opt out. It seems to work well for them.

    One very successful guy I worked with was a “make hay while the sun shines.” person. When things slowed down, he didn’t do nothing, but was “growing more grass.” at a slower pace.

    1. Steve Tilford Post author

      zero – I do agree that they might seem to have structure, but what this guy Marc is saying is that he feels that with less structure you end up being more productive. I try to live this way, but there are limitations, of course. I don’t think that our children, at least the children of people that might happen upon this website, have enough freedom to explore their surroundings and pick their own paths.

  5. daveeckstrom

    I think it depends a lot on the person. If it were possible to study everyone in the country and correlate “success” to “structure” in some way, I don’t think you’d find anything conclusive one way or another.

    Of course, this isn’t very scientific, but I know a lot of people w/ really structured lives who are productive, happy and pretty well balanced. I also know a lot of people w/ almost no structure whose lives are a complete wreck.

    I think we make a mistake when we ask really rich and powerful people how to live. Of course they will advise us to do what they did, because it happened to work for them. Doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. For example, read the interviews in Forbes or Inc. and they always tell you that you have to take risks, so you might think that risk always correlates to success. But that’s just a function of who they’re interviewing, more than anything. Interview a bunch of guys living under a bridge and you will get a lot different advice about risk, I’m guessing.

    1. JB

      Exactly. I like when they interview pro athletes and they say “just work hard for what you want and you can get it!” Sure, what about the 98% of the amateur athletes that worked hard and they didn’t “get it”?

      1. JR

        It’s not a zero sum game. They could still have self satisfaction from trying their best, the happiness that comes from participating in some activity, made some new friends, etc, etc, etc

  6. Christian

    I think you could substitute the word “structure” with “discipline”, as in a disciplined approach to daily routines.

    I do find it difficult to agree with Andeessen’s ideas of schedules. How much of this is just a guy at the top of the ladder in his respective industry who forces those below him to be at his beck and call and conform to his schedule (even if he claims he does not keep one). I would find it hard to believe if the corporate boards he sits on don’t meet at scheduled times and dates. How does he cope with that? What about Dr. appointments? In most industries, schedules are a vital component to successfully executing projects. I would think the Project Management Institute would call BS on his ideas.

    1. Touriste-Routier

      Not only this, but if you won’t commit to meeting people or certain schedules, it shows a complete disrespect for them, and what they do for you/your organization. Setting your own agenda and priorities is fine, until they start to interfere with those set by others you need to work for or with.

      1. Steve Tilford Post author

        TR – Marc used an example of a guy calling to schedule an appointment for a Tuesday. He said that he doesn’t schedule meeting, but if the guy called him at 2:45 on Tuesday and he wasn’t busy that he would meet with him. He then said if it is super important that he could meet with him right then. He is the boss, so his routine probably trumps everyone else’s, but I get his general idea.

  7. Randy

    I had a neighbor that trained Schutzhund dogs. When he was selecting puppies (he’d fly to Germany to get them) he only wanted the ones that would look back at him when they were playing off leash.
    He claimed that the dogs that cared where he was, were the ones most likely to end up caring for him and trusting him later. It was a trait that he said was an absolute necessity for him. So by his logic, you’ve got a good one.
    As far as the kids stuff, I agree.
    As far as structure, I don’t believe there is just one right way. Different people will operate better under different structure paradigms.

  8. Bryan

    When I was growing up we didn’t have playstation or xbox. We had cardboard box. When dragged out into the yard, it became a playstation. I can’t count how many different tree forts I tried to build, or how many trees I climbed up and sat in. A favorite toy was a rope my dad hung from a high tree limb. We’d climb up the tree, haul up the rope, then swing around on it for hours. My parents seldom knew exactly where we were. Those were great days!

  9. JB

    I have kids and I agree with your unstructured play opinions. It is difficult to pry them from the iPad/TV/computer, but it can be done.

  10. Jeff Butterfield

    The lack of physical play may account for something I witnessed numerous times as a climbing school owner and guide. When muscular fatigue set in, some kids, because it was such an unfamiliar sensation, would instantly stop and squeal as if they were in true pain — like, break-your-arm kind of pain. They were so disconnected from their bodies, they could not distinguish between the two. Sad.

  11. Orphan

    I lived in a neighborhood in des moines probably very similar to the one in Topeka. Try riding threw tonight at 11 pm and then right about it tomorrow. I moved when I started having kids because of all the gun violence. Luckily I had the resources to move.

  12. Rod Lake

    I think most of the posts on here regarding kids activity levels are nothing more than trite, untrue stereotypes. Steve rides through a poor neighborhood and see kids playing, goes through a nicer neighborhood and see nobody playing. So obviously, everyone concludes, all the “rich” kids are in the basement with an iPad. Whose kids do you think fill up the venues for club sports like soccer, hockey, golf, gymnastics, lacrosse, swimming, etc.? Club sports are thriving as an alternative to traditional school ball and stick sports. Unfortunately, they are also costly. But just because you don’t see them outside doesn’t mean kids aren’t active–they may be even more so today than the “good old days.” Now you can certainly make a case that the lives of children are too structured–with school, club sports, music lessons, and homework. But to say they all sit around vegging by a computer is–in my experience–anything but true.

  13. Krakatoa East of Java

    Andreesen is a CEO. He can decide to work in a lack of structure, as he is empowered to do so. My job? It requires structure (even if I don’t).

  14. Charlie

    We keep computer time down–way down. We don’t have cable. When the kids want to watch something, they can choose one show on Netflix (as long as they’re behaving well in general and helping out around the house). Once that show is over, it’s time for books or playing outside, where we’re lucky enough to have some woods behind the house. My wife and I back each other up and are consistent, and our kids know the score. This is just normal to them because we’ve been consistent since day 1. I know it can’t be the same for them as it was for us, because of the lack of other kids in the neighborhood whose parents don’t share our values when it comes to this, but we’re doing what we can to help our kids appreciate the outdoors and learn how to be more self-reliant while taking reasonable risks. It’s definitely an uphill battle these days, but it isn’t so bad when you have a clear idea what you’re up against.

  15. Charles

    I agree Steve, I raised my daughter Magen outdoors and with the plenty of time outside to explore and make choices. Unfortunately it’s no longer the norm for parents where the babysitter is the coach or the team.

  16. euro

    What crap Steve. Just because your life is one endless vacation/bike race doesn’t mean we all can (or want to ) live like that. Some of us with real jobs and families and kids actually enjoy being responsible and taking care of someone other than ourselves or our dogs.

    1. Erik

      Let’s not judge, ok? Steve made choices that work for him; anyone who can thrive outside of Corporate America is doing something right. Also it’s a bit of hooey that Steve doesn’t have to work for his meals – read his blog, he’s always up to something, it’s just not whoring for a corporation (I work for a Fortune 100 company, so trust me, I know the requirements). Oh, and when you’re a pro cyclist, you’re expected to a., race, and b., train to race, and c., win, or get awfully close to winning as often as possible. So why is it upsetting that he trains all the time?

  17. jeffc

    life is much to structured… kids now have play dates they have agendas and everything is planned. But, if those schedules fall apart, as does life… they may break down and cry…

    life is full of mysteries. Yah never know what’s going to happen in life. One day you could be doing well with the one yah love the next day she may be calling the cops on yah, into the slammer one goes… or, one day your feeling fine the next your in the hospital with a triple bypass. Or, you’re told you have cancer and you have to give up your riding career. I’ve seen all three of these happen to people… Life can change in an instance. Expect anything. Let to let God is key in life. Live every moment to the fullest, if you have a heart beat you are doing well. Know the things you can and can not change have the courage and wisdom to know the things you can. Live not in shame and blame without judgement but live in the now.

    I’ve been through many poor countries – Costa Rica poor parts, many carribean islands…. I’ve yet to travel through Africa, I’m sure its worse. But, kids are out running around playing, laughing not a care in the world. Then I get back home and I see all the graffiti, kids without smiles, people in the hustle and bustle, the traffic, the debt, the competition for more stuff, the big box stores… I just want to move away some times and say fck this, just give me a pair of shorts and a coconut tree – I want a simple life. But, somehow, I’m drawn into the all american bigness again and again being convinced that consumerism is good and that we must judge – quick to anger slow to understand…
    such is america I guess… where did all this mentality come from though – british way of thinking? I’m not sure. But, there are cultures out there where self esteem, anger and resentment, highly competition isn’t a problem… people are happy with self, self aware, and just happy with being healthy day by day. I think I kind of want that… its better than driving myself into the ground each day with mindless stuff in a structured box. I’m not sure anymore…
    having done a lot of stuff in life – family, 2 nasty divorces, bike raced some big races, done some amazing projects with work, good education (business, comp sci, engineering…), owned a few homes, … did a lot of sht, but am I happier? I’m not sure… I could probably write a book on many things, but does that count? I’m not sure. Maybe one who has reached a true Zen state of self awareness and mindfulness has achieved more? I’m not sure… my quest from here on in though is to be more joyful day by day. A bit of planing, but not over planning. Just living as it comes. Being in the now.

  18. Terry

    I have two kids, and couldn’t agree with you more. I think the structure is mostly out of fear of what could happen to your kid. To me, it’s a responsibility to have them unstructured, a lot of the time anyway, so they can think on their own and become self-sufficient. There may be an element of danger in some things that are unstructured, but the alternative of becoming a bland consumer (of ideas too) is a bigger danger.

    On an everyday level, it’s so different raising kids today. The scheduled “play dates”, the parents tripping over their kids heels at the playground, the emphasis on “grading” in kindgergarten… It takes a real conscious effort to raise a kid without them falling into the mold, and it means having to let go a lot of the time.

  19. Peaceful Guy

    Childhood isn’t complete until you’ve been punched in the nose a couple of times and experienced a few adrenaline fueled tussles that get settled by the neighborhood kids before anything bad happens. Most kids today haven’t had the valuable lessons that come from learning to navigate this complex system. Today’s youth (and I have 3 of my own) will pay the price as adults because this type of interaction is essentially completely lacking. Grand Theft Auto has no context when you’ve never arm wrestled!

  20. steve

    Kids need structure. Adults, unless a hobo, bum, leach, wealthy, retired, or their own boss, have to adhere to structure and schedules.

  21. Bernie Flanders

    I have three meetings Monday… Can’t wait to tell my boss and peers I will not be attending because I feel more productive by NOT going…

    Shouldn’t be a problem.

  22. barb

    Kids raised without any structure and left to their own devices, generally grow into adults who have no self-discipline, because they never learned as a kid, how to do anything that required focus and follow through. This is ok if they never have to actually work for a living, but it doesn’t work for the other 99%. And whether they’re outside or glued to a digital device, the parents’ intent is the same, get rid of the kid (the babysitter is “go outside” or the ipad/video games) so the parents can have their own time. What’s required is not for kids to be outside more, or to spend less time on digital devices, but for parents to spend more time withg their kids in meaningful ways and preparing them for the real world. And pushing them off on something or someone else so parents can live their own life, starts when parents send toddlers to pre-school. They see the kid for a few hours at night, and that’s why the kids coming up today aren’t too swift.

  23. Robert E

    Most of those CEOs are Asperger’s adults or idiot savants, who as a by-product of their lives’, something is produced, quite by accident. It wasn’t structured work to them, it just happened. That kind of existence doesn’t apply 99.9% of the rest of us.

  24. Nathan stover

    I think this is my favorite post you’ve ever written!!!!!! Good stuff, insightful perspective, thoughtful look at the ways we live our lives and what nurtures us individually. 👍👍👍👍👍👍👍🚲🚲


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