This post was written before the HBR article about the benefits of downtime, but it acts as a response to the topic explored in the article.
While on the bus on the way to work on a very short week, everyone seem to express the same sentiment. Strewn on everyone’s faces– whether young or old, blue collar or white collar professional, in a suit or in casual attired– are the marks of exhaustion.
We’ve all been there- possessing one commitment too many, overbooking our calendars with the mentality that there is always space for one more function, meeting or call. We are masters of double-booking, particularly scheduled items that have show the least bit of flexibility, perhaps employing a probability analysis of the situation and its players, based on our subjective judgments of who may be willing to accept a raincheck. Decision trees are applicable beyond business intelligence and decision-making, but to our personal lives as well.
We know that time is a limited resource, and everyone is given 168 hours a week. We have been once asked, “How do you spend your 168 hours?” by either our mother, a friend or from an article we briefly came across. What originally served as a motivational piece to unlock hours that were previously unaccounted for until then has become the very constraint that locks us in a grid of guilt. Most of the time, even the most optimistic of us– who are usually the most ambitious as well– are weighed down by the pressure of our dreams, desires and commitment to success. We push for efficiency. We want to do more with less, all the time. We leave no rock or hour unturned.
This past Thanksgiving break was an exercise in the power of rest. After a full Tuesday that comprised of work in the day and class at night, I was ready to take a break. I was looking forward to the break since it would be a time off from work. I was ready for it, and looking forward to maybe a nap and days of productivity outside of my day job.
On the first day of my break, I had decided not to plan my day or do anything productive. It ended up being a productive day, one that is relaxed and unstructured but resulted in me accomplishing things nonetheless. I played some folk songs from my computer, so further slow down time. I folded clothes. I organized my room and did chores. I stepped out to have brunch with a girlfriend, caught up with her, discussed issues, shared advice, and wished her a safe trip on her vacation to Puerto Rico. Instead of taking the bus, I walked back home. I had time. I passed by the park across from where I live, sat on a park bench, then proceeded to read an non-fiction piece on my Kindle. I was cold, but I had time, so I sat through the end of the short article. I walked farther and finally reached home. I had then realized that my commitment to efficiency and challenging myself to do more in a short amount of time has resulted in an ingrained habit, that even when I was not planning to do anything substantial, I end up completing tasks I ought to complete on a later day.
I decided the second day was going to be about nothing- since the first day was not exactly successful in doing nothing, I forced myself to nap. Afterward I ended up listening to Nate Silver’s book, “The Signal and the Noise,” while ironing my clothes. I made lentil soup for dinner. I checked off a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy that I had watched online. I read The Atlantic. I may have practiced Spanish, too. I wrote a quick blog entry. As I was about to go to bed, I picked up a career book and read a few pages before falling asleep.
The third day of my break, I decided that I will get started on the more pressing tasks on my list, such as catching up on my class readings. I ended up going to downtown to sit at a cafe and watch archived Stats lectures. I ended up browsing one too many websites for Black Friday deals. I proceeded to Banana Republic nearby in the hopes of scoring something good, which I was able to but not at a deal. I compulsively checked Facebook for strange displays of the aftermath of Thanksgiving.
I was less productive when I had set out to do something productive, than when I just let myself exist with no time structure in mind.
During days when I had nothing urgent to do, I didn’t just had time to think, but I allowed myself to indulge in the time to think. It was a license to pause. With nothing to check off on some self-imposed list, I can just be.
The days that ensued was all about actually forcing myself to sit down for hours and focus on finishing class assignments. These are important tasks that I needed to accomplish, and after 4 hours of work (with break in between, thankfully), I was suddenly overwhelmed that I had not finished everything yet. I still have 3 more Stats sections and a chapter to go, as well as practice problems to attempt to solve. I have Consumer Insights readings to do, too. I also have a paper to finish for a discussion tomorrow. I could feel the onset of stress right around the corner.
Then I told myself, the pressure I am putting on myself is artificial. My Stats class is not until Thursday, so I have plenty of time during the week to go through the unfinished chapters. My CI class is not until Tuesday, so I have Monday night and Tuesday morning to read through everything. The paper to discuss the next day will take 1.5-2 hours, max. I can do this.
When I woke up the next day, the last day of my break, I had a plan in mind. I crunched out my portion of the paper in the morning with my cup of coffee and slice of chocolate babka. I subsequently shared the document with my groupmate, with whom I spoke briefly about the paper. We agreed on the next steps, and will likely discuss the paper in the next day or so. After the call, I leaned back on my seat and read more leisurely articles. I played The White Stripes. I also read a section of my CI readings. I took off the pressure to finish everything all at once. It is Sunday after all, and as my friend Julie once noted to me, “If you’re doing something for the sake of productivity on Sunday, it means you are doing too much.” Sunday is a time for rest. My mind benefited from the relaxation and found the clarity it had been seeking. I was able to even think more long-term and check how I’m tracking on my progress across certain measures. All of this because I paused and took a step back to examine my path, from now to the future.
I may have just learned the importance of pacing, to prevent burn out and to help rejuvenate. It is a complement to productivity, and may even be the more important part of success. It is hard to let go, especially when we’re ambitious and have set goals to follow. We want to be disciplined as we promised ourselves to be. But just as important is learning how and when is the best time to loosen up a little. To allow ourselves to let go. As scary as it is, since we are comforted and validated by check offs on our things-to-do list, we will reap more benefits when we let ourselves forgo control, even just for a short while, even if we have to structure that time for leisure.
At the end of the day, what is important is making time for wasting it 🙂