Imagine you head home after a stressful day at work/school. You sit down, look at your phone and maybe watch something on TV, have a meal. And then at some point you look at the time to see how many minutes you’ve just spent “doing nothing.” You could’ve been studying! How dare you not have started doing anything productive yet!
I don’t think it’s about being a perfectionist, a workaholic, a nerd or a successful, ambitious person. No matter what our GPA, status in life, or character traits, we constantly force ourselves to work, so that it becomes a daily routine or habit. We either don’t know how to take a break, or if we do take one, we don’t feel good about it. Even if you’re a procrastinator and put off working, the guilt, the worry is still there, and that’s the issue: this guilt that overcomes you when you’re shopping, watching TV or reading a book, that keeps telling you what you could’ve done instead of taking a break. It’s there in the everyday lives of so many of us, stressing us out at least some of the time.
Optimization and Multitasking
How this happens is that we’re trying too hard to optimize our actions. We keep asking ourselves what’s the best thing we can do at any given time. And we often ask, what are the things we should be doing? Because of the current tendency to multitask, even something as necessary as eating, for example, isn’t considered worth doing by itself. When you’re busy, you feel like you can’t just eat but should be reading something at the same time. We don’t take the time to simply breathe. Having long talks with friends or spending evenings with our loved ones are still things we do, but they seem so unusual now, rather than normal, everyday activities.
We all strive to do more in less time. We’re fast, we’re always on the run, but the question arises:
Are We That Productive?
Psychology says we’re not. Multitasking distributes our cognitive resources among the tasks being performed, and we don’t actually have enough of those resources. Our memory, our attention and the abilities that help us process information are usually insufficient to do more than one thing at a time, so we become inefficient in everything we’re doing. Moreover, not taking a break also lessens your creativity. Your body activates a whole other system when you’re resting, which actually helps you think creatively and come up with better solutions to your problems. In the long run, constantly forcing yourself not to miss out on anything in life is ineffective and just results in continuous stress. We feel pressured and strapped for time so often that we actually may not even notice that a huge amount of stress is driving our lives and sometimes making us go off track.
The Cost of Hidden Stress
How do we go off track?
Not just productivity but human well-being in general is affected by unhealthy work habits. Work-related stress is often chronic and contributes to health problems. More and more people are being directed to psychologists after going to the doctor with physiological problems that have no obvious cause. Stress can make you have difficulty concentrating; it can contribute to heart disease, migraines and obesity; it weakens our immune system and, research suggests, may even be related to more serious problems like cancer. If we never know how to rest, we might really be in danger.
What to Do?
There are many techniques like meditation that can help, but I believe the best thing to do is to develop an awareness of whether or not we’re forcing ourselves to work too much. We need to know that it’s okay to physically or mentally get away from work sometimes. And when we do that, we should try to be there fully, to enjoy the little moments. We can always worry later on.
I know that sometimes being a perfectionist may contribute to success and sometimes you may actually be really busy. In the fluctuating stream of life, it’s not always possible to take a rest, but there also are times when we have the chance to do so. This piece is intended to encourage you to notice them and allow yourself to enjoy doing things you like without feeling guilty.
And even when we’re so convinced we have no time, we should always leave some room to question this. Ask yourself: Is it really the case that you’re busy, or is it an illusion you create by worrying that you have to optimize your life? Challenge yourself.
And when you can, please,