Yesterday evening I had a free couple of hours. Earlier, I’d planned on using the time to get ahead of my writing, do some meal-prepping, schedule lots of Instagram posts, and go for a run. Ideally I’d be in bed by 10 pm with a soothing cup of peppermint tea, reading a novel instead of looking at my phone, to minimize my blue screen time.
But I’d had a hard day. Things had gone wrong at work, my bike chain had snapped, I’d snapped at my colleague because I was annoyed about my bike and work.
So instead, when I got home, I microwaved some leftovers, sat down on the couch and watched four hours straight of Buffy.
I went to bed, having accomplished none of the things I wanted to. In fact, I’d done all the things you aren’t supposed to do — bringing my work home by ranting at my partner about it; eating junk food; skipping exercise to watch TV; staring mindlessly at one screen (or even two — I was browsing Twitter at the same time as watching Buffy); staying up late instead of going to bed early. I drank red wine instead of herbal tea, and I did not read my novel.
I expected to feel guilty for giving into my baser instincts. But I didn’t.
It was nice. It was better than nice, actually, it was amazing. It felt so good to take off the burden of expectations for myself and just let myself have one unproductive evening.
The expectation of productivity
Everyone and her aunt has a side hustle these days. And what’s more is most of these gigs have a performance which is visibly measurable. I constantly check my readership stats on my blog. I can track my income on my phone. My Instagram brain is never switched off because I’m always ready to take that perfect soon-to-be-viral photo.
So, you expect yourself to constantly be productive. You’re able to produce stuff nonstop, and you have the tools to measure how much other people like your stuff.
Not only that, but we’re told by Buzzfeed and self-help books and Gary Vaynerchuk that in order to be “successful,” in order to reach that unattainable summit, we can’t really have time off. If we do take time off, it has to be carefully scheduled and managed in order to maximize our efficiency for when we’re switched back “on.”
Breaks aren’t really breaks; they’re orchestrated pauses that help you get back up to maximum efficiency. That’s not a break.
The inability to switch off
Personally speaking, I struggle to switch off. It’s because I know that every second I’m not writing my blog, or monitoring my Instagram account, or organizing my meals, or doing any of the other thousand tasks I do to keep on top of adulting, I’m missing out.
If I don’t pick out my outfit the night before, it means I’ll rush through my morning routine, giving me a bad start to my day. Unproductive.
If I don’t post to Instagram, I’ll miss out on followers and exposure. Unproductive.
If I don’t write down ideas that occur to me for blog posts, I’ll struggle to come up with original content and fall behind. Unproductive.
It’s like a never-ending song in my head telling me to get my act together all the time. If I stand still for even a second, if I don’t create or produce or plan, I’m falling behind.
I don’t believe that’s a good way to live, and I realized for the first time last night, it’s how I’ve been living. When I started working on my side hustles, it felt like every unoptimized second of my life would potentially cost me money, fame, exposure. Every unproductive afternoon would be punished somehow.
In defense of unproductivity
So, this is my startling realization: I like being unproductive. I like it, not because it relaxes me and preps me for productivity tomorrow, but precisely because it is expectation-free.
So many blog posts advocate “mindful resting” or “active relaxation” only as a means by which to gain further productivity after the break. I say no — enjoy inactivity and laziness and unproductiveness for their own sakes, not for how much they’ll make you produce tomorrow.
When I dream of being “successful,” which to me is a vague idea of not really worrying about anything, I don’t see myself spending every second of that happy future working diligently to maximize my output. I don’t believe that my best, happiest self is one that’s constantly grinding.
Successful Zulie has a house in the mountains, perhaps raising a small flock of chickens. She likes to cook extravagant meals, and she gives in frequently to bursts of whimsy. She’s successful in that she spends a lot of time doing nothing valuable in particular and not feeling guilty about it.
That’s where I want to be.
Yesterday evening was the first time in a long time I took time off. I came home and made a choice not to do anything remotely useful. I don’t know if it means I’m going to be better tomorrow, and I don’t particularly care.
I’m sure that going to bed after staring at a TV for hours, not resolving my emotions about work, eating junk food, and not setting myself up to have a stress-free morning is not good. It’s not productive.
But I refuse to feel guilty about it. I will not be ashamed of being unproductive. I will actively schedule more inactivities for myself, not because they’ll make me better, but because my best life is one that isn’t streamlined for optimization — it’s one where I relax every once in a while.
Success, to me, can’t mean an arbitrary amount of income, or certain number of followers, or getting a morning routine ironed out flawlessly, because at that point I’m just aiming to become a machine. No, I think success lies in unproductivity. It lies in the ability to do nothing, and not give a damn.
Zulie Rane is a reader and a writer who believes in the power to change the world through the written word. You can find her writing on ZulieRane.com, posting selfies and art on Instagram and tweeting bad puns on Twitter.
Image courtesy of Vu Thu Giang.