Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms have been filled with messages saying “Now is the time to get stuff done; focus on those projects you were too busy to do before!”. The message seems innocent enough until it’s paired with guilt-invoking language. My personal favorite (feel the sarcasm seeping from those words) is the “If you haven’t come out of this quarantine with A, B, or C, you lack discipline, not time”.
I find this kind of statement problematic because it perpetuates a work culture that expects people to constantly pursue productivity that can be measured.
Productivity needs to be Balanced
While time is a rare commodity, focus and ability to maximize that time are also rare. People really only have an attention span of 20 minutes, which is why we take breaks.
Learning new things, starting businesses or gaining skills are time intensity activities. When we are living our life, we may not notice how much time something really takes because we don’t sit down to do that task in one go. The thought of sitting down to study for 10 hours seems like a terrible idea, which is why we don’t do it (or shouldn’t anyway).
Without the other happenings of life going on, it seems like this time is a gift, but this time isn’t balanced by the social aspects of life that people need. So we are left with this idea that if we can’t socialize, we should devote ourselves to mastering a new skill, getting our side hustles started or meeting some other time intensive goal.
These “motivational messages” that imply we are lazy if we don’t work on a goal devalue the loss of the support that socializing brings people, and instead make people feel guilty for not distracting themselves from their stress and worries with work.
And when you are faced with nothing but time, such as now, it’s easy to feel burnt out and overwhelmed when you are only focusing on “reaching a professional or education goal because you’re no longer putting in a few hours of work here and there, you’re able to see just how much time these side hustles or learning goals take.
The Costs of Being “Unproductive”
Productivity certainly is something to aim for; however, there is also a dangerous expectation that people need to constantly be productive otherwise they should be shamed publicly. We have a bunch of time at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we need to fill it all with productivity, at least not the work kind of productivity. And when these “motivational messages” criticize us for not having “discipline”, it basically says “ you have failed if you haven’t left this quarantine with an accomplishment that you can prove.
I have always thought I needed to be more productive. This past year in particular, I felt like I needed to get certain projects up and running, and I was stressed out that I didn’t have these goals “checked off” my list. I thought I was just not maximizing my time or imposing the self-discipline I needed to have in order to “do it all”. Once I got word that I wouldn’t be working for a month’s time (I’m on month 3 now), I thought to myself “I’m going to get it all done finally). What I failed to realize was that I underestimated how much time I needed to invest, and I was undervaluing the importance of having a life outside of my personal and professional goals.
The mindset of needing to focus on productivity before anything else only makes us less productive in the long run and it is not sustainable.
Disconnecting from everything for some time is beneficial for people. It does wonders for our well-being emotionally, mentally and physically.
Why Taking Time to Do Nothing is Beneficial
- You Need Time to Process
A lot of activities we do in a day are mental tasks. Just because we aren’t physically doing something doesn’t mean we aren’t doing anything. And these mental tasks can be cognitively fatiguing because you need to be focused. A day in the office or at school can feel ten times more tiring if you have to be “switched on” and actively processing information for long periods of time.
A disservice I think we do to people is chalking up the ability to perform mental tasks to willpower. Motivation and perseverance are important in tackling these cognitive activities, but this often means we gloss over having limits. We need time to process what we are doing before we can just jump into more tasks.
I am currently taking a chemistry class and a lot of the information is new to me. Science has never been a strong subject of mine, so I really need to focus on what I’m learning. But I don’t feel like I’ve actually learned the content until after I’ve spent time away from studying and then return to it.
You know how people always say when you’re stuck on something to just take a break, or sleep on it? There is a reason for that. The time not focusing on your task or problem gives the brain time to process it so it can come up with solutions.
During this quarantine period, we are likely spending a lot of time in front of our computers “doing stuff” and we need to pause for a bit to process what it is we are doing in our pursuit in productivity.
We also need time to process how we are feeling. The uncertainty in the air globally is making many people feel stressed and we all handle it differently. My roommate and I were discussing this and she accurately pointed out that I deal with my stress by working. I won’t even notice that I’m stressed because I’m focusing on the tasks I need to do. But, once I’ve taken time to chill and just do nothing, I realize the impact that stress was having.
2. Doing Nothing has no Expectations
There are enough expectations that society puts on us and we as individuals add even more expectations onto ourselves. I think half the time people spend more time stressing out about how they haven’t met an expectation than they do actually meeting the expectation. But that isn’t the fault of the individual necessarily. Social media and history make this generation feel like we are failing when we don’t have that side hustle running, we haven’t mastered a second language, or we cannot buy a house like our parents were able to do when they were our age.
We sometimes need a break from expectations as a whole. Activities like exercising, cooking or doing a hobby can be relaxing, but there are still some expectations. Expectations for safety, not letting the food burn or messing up your craft.
When you’re doing nothing, there is no expectation. On beach holidays, people will spend hours just sitting at the beach, “doing nothing”. Maybe they will have a swim or two. But that day of relaxing at the beach is refreshing and it can change a mood entirely.
Doing nothing a home is less picturesque than the beach, but the break from any activities with expectations can still be calming.
3. Your Life is More than a Blur of Activity
You know when you run into someone you haven’t seen for awhile and they ask what you’ve been up to and all you can think of are work and one other activity?
If you’re always being productive, you’re probably always doing something. And when you’re always doing something, it’s hard to separate what you’ve been doing.
At work we are usually productive on a daily basis, but at the end of the month, unless we have a large project or did something special, we can’t detail what “productive” activities we’ve done. We just went to work and did work.
In this time of quarantine, many are probably hyperaware of what they are doing, or not doing. But all of that time thinking about what we are or are not doing doesn’t give us time to be mindful and in the present. Our days just just blur together as one big lump of time in quarantine.
Quarantine aside, it’s easy to get wrapped up in pursuing a goal or thinking about what we should be doing for our future and the present becomes a blur of time that passed.
Being productive is a trait that is valued, but our entire life isn’t about being productive. Decompressing and doing nothing for a bit is just as valuable as working on a task because it helps us focus on ourselves, break from everything that is expected from us and it helps us recognize what we need in order to be well.