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Humanity’s relationship with ‘leisure’ and ‘free-time’ is complicated. In the early stages of the digital age, when exciting new technological advances were being developed, experts predicted that in the future we’d only be working a couple of days a week, because computers and phones would enable us to complete our tasks so efficiently.
However, fast forward a few decades, and people are generally working more, not less. But why, when technology means we can get things done so much faster?
Personally, I love the buzz that comes with being productive and working towards a project. It makes me feel like I’m maximising - true to my name - my time, and I’m doing everything in my power to make the project as good as it possibly can be.
And I don’t think there’s an issue with this, because working hard to achieve your goals is great, and leads to a rewarding sense of satisfaction and pride when you reach your creative destination.
But once I accomplish the particular task I’ve been working towards, what happens then? Well, I move swiftly onto the next one - once again chasing that hit of productivity that my brain craves. If I take a break that lasts too long - i.e. more than a day - I sense a nagging feeling of guilt creeping up on me, inwardly reprimanding me for being lazy and unproductive.
I think a lot of people share this in-built productivity compass, especially in a world where there are millions of different things vying for our attention at any one time. You can’t even read an article online without being bombarded by pop-up ads and subscription offers and other ‘articles you might like’. When that feels too chaotic and stressful, we then turn to our phones for some idle scrolling, where, once again, there are hundreds of images and videos desperately trying to win over the brain’s attention.
My point is, even when we think we’re taking a break, it often doesn’t feel restful. I love checking what my favourite artists are up to on Instagram. But does half an hour of scrolling really make me feel recharged? I can’t say it does.
The other problem is, when we take a break, it’s usually still with productivity in mind. When I’m tired from too much essay-writing or research and feel my brain slowing down, I take a TV or music break. All well and good, right? But the only reason I’m taking a break at all is for the purpose of getting myself back to a state where I can work effectively again.
I think in many ways we’ve forgotten how to just do nothing. Try it now - stop reading this article, set a timer for five minutes, and just sit there doing nothing but staring out of the window.
It’s hard, right? After barely a minute, I have the urge to check my phone - just in case - and sitting with my thoughts just turns into a mental checklist of all the things I need to get done. After a few more minutes, my fingers are itching to click the ‘Gmail’ tab on my laptop, even though I already checked it ten minutes ago. We’ve trained our brains to feed off the feeling of being productive, and this often prevents us from being able to properly and truly relax without feeling guilty.
I’ve just finished my Masters degree, and everyone told me that’s a worthy cause for a short break from work - and I took their advice and took a little time off from the non-University projects I have on the go. But even on the days where I would just hang out with friends or watch TV, I still couldn’t shake that constant feeling that there was something productive I should’ve been doing instead.
Okay, so we’ve established there’s a productivity problem. But is this too deeply entrenched in the modern mentality, or is it something we can unlearn?
As I said, productivity is of course beneficial in healthy doses, so we shouldn’t completely ditch it and start sitting on the couch doing nothing every day. It’s more a case of knowing when to stop, so that you can allow yourself guilt-free leisure time.
To an extent, I think the hardest part is acknowledging when it’s become a problem, and when it’s encroaching onto aspects of your life that shouldn’t be associated with the need to be productive. For example, I’d argue that being with loved ones is the most emotionallyproductive and rewarding ways we could possibly use our time - so if even these moments are being tainted by worrying about emails and to-do lists, then this definitely isn’t healthy.
The other thing that helped me personally is - unsurprisingly - music. As you might have guessed from the title of this magazine, we’re also big fans of mindfulness. I found that a form of ‘mindful listening’ highlighted how the constant yearning for productivity was slowly and surely burning me out.
What I mean by ‘mindful listening’ is taking a step back and looking at your current listening habits. This might not work for everyone, but I found that the songs and albums I was listening to on rotation were, amidst others, the likes of 'Sunshine State of Mind' by Brian Kelley; ‘Beer in Mexico’ by Kenny Chesney; ‘More Time Fishin’’ by Thomas Rhett; ‘Tequila On A Boat’ by Dustin Lynch and Chris Lane; and so on.
Okay, so I’m listening to summery music in the summer. Big whoop, right?
But the overriding themes behind all these songs are wasting time, doing nothing and just chilling without a care in the world. That told me that deep down, even if it was being drowned out by my productivity-guilt, I was drawn to the idea of just letting go for a little while and not being so uptight about work.
It’s a simple enough conclusion to reach, but seeing my suspicions confirmed in my listening history gave me the nudge I needed to just take it easy sometimes, and not be so obsessed with being productive.
The best part is, for any other productivity junkies out there, switching off won’t be as much of a culture shock as you might think. That feeling of guilt when you’re taking time off appears because you’re conscientious about getting all your tasks done, and you’re disciplined and methodical about this. So - why not use this same mentality for leisure time? Start by scheduling in breaks and periods of rest - in theory, because you already have a conscientious mindset, it’ll be easier to stick to this schedule.
Turn your craving for productivity into a craving for relaxation.
Of course, it’s never quite as easy as it looks on paper. I’m only just starting down this road, so I’m still more often than not opting for work over relaxation, even when there are no urgent deadlines I’m trying to meet. But I’m getting a little better at it, and with practice, I’ll be able to strike a better balance. On the flip side, we shouldn’t start feeling guilty for being productive, because like I said, it’s a largely positivity attitude to have in life. It’s more about being kind and compassionate to yourself, and listening to your mind and body when they’re telling you to take a breather.
In my previous ‘Music, Mental Health and Me’ article on gratitude, I mentioned how, at the end of each day, I take a few minutes to list things that I’m feeling thankful for. Nearly always, the moments I feel the most gratitude for are times when I haven’t been productive - for example, spending time with family and friends, seeing a beautiful sunset, hearing an awesome new song, and so on.
The time we spend working is stressful enough as it is, so we definitely don’t need any added anxiety about notworking during our free-time. The likelihood is, if you’re worrying about not working enough even while you’re taking a break, you’re probably the kind of person that’s definitelyworking hard enough.
Check out my Unproductivity Playlistbelow for the perfect soundtrack to kicking back, taking a well-earned, guilt-free rest, and having another metaphorical ‘Beer in Mexico’ (even if, in reality, it’s a ‘Beer in My Back Garden’. Hmm, somehow that’s just not as catchy…).
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