Yesterday I took a three-hour lunch.
“I think we sometimes forget that activities don’t have to be profitable to be valuable.” --Emilie Wapnick
Which sounds excessive and luxurious (and not to say it wasn’t), but I’ve also worked an average of 50 hours a week for the past three months. I’ve worked every weekend, hunched over my laptop, forking oatmeal into my mouth, thumbing through beach photos on Instagram. I take breaks regularly but strategically, only so I can reset my mind and work more.  My average work day is 10 hours.

So when I scheduled a 25-minute massage, then walked around downtown yesterday, why did I feel so damn guilty?

This is the downside of productivity. You get so used to working hard and getting stuff done that when you’re not working hard or getting stuff done, you start to feel like you’re doing something wrong. Even though you know everything will (probably) be okay, you can’t even enjoy a stroll downtown because you know that at some point, when business is slow, you’ll look back on this break and blame yourself for not using your time in a more productive way.

This is not a good thing.

There is such emphasis on bottom line, “get stuff done” mentality in our culture. It still seems like we’re all trying to build a brand, grow a business, be more productive, improve our skills.

Improve, improve, improve. That’s how you become a badass. That’s how you become better than everyone else. That’s how you live a life that’s actually worthwhile instead of the mediocre one you live now, loser.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s certainly nothing bad about working hard and trying to do awesome things like build your own business or travel the world and get paid to write. I’m aware that’s kind of what I blog about here—the irony is not lost on me.  But this is precisely why I think it’s worth reminding you that sometimes it’s okay to stop improving and just enjoy life instead.

(Of course, that’s a luxury for many people. I have a friend who works as much as I do and not because he’s trying to optimize his life and “get shit done” but because he’s trying to pay the bills and survive.  Meanwhile, many of us romanticize the notion of overwork and wear it like a badge of honor.)

I thought I was alone in this, but then I started Googling stuff like “why do I feel guilty for taking time off?” As it turns out, it’s not just me  — a lot of us are messed up in this way. This feedback from an expert at PsychCentral especially resonated with me:

“One reason we feel like this is because ‘we link our behavior, our performance, our productivity, with our self-worth,’ said Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D, LCSW…So when we’re being less productive, we feel like we’re doing something wrong, she said.”

Nail on the head.

We forget that to be alive doesn’t exclusively mean accomplishing things. In other words, it’s okay to have fun. You can pick up a hobby without first wondering how to monetize it (guilty). You can go on a trip without wondering how to leverage it to build your brand (yep, done that too). You can work hard, put in the long hours, and still enjoy life in ways that have nothing to do with your work.  As Emilie Wapnick told me in this essay I wrote over at the New York Times,  

“I think we sometimes forget that activities don’t have to be profitable to be valuable.”

In fact, I think the cult of productivity is proliferated by people like me: freelancers who can’t seem to find a balance between work and life and also believe that’s actually not a problem. As enjoyable as work may be, it’s still work: accomplishing things, marking things off of lists, seeing results. I would like to balance this with “life,” which I take to mean all the stuff that happens regardless of your to-do list.

Before someone jumps in the comments and reminds me that hard work is the reason I even have the luxury of taking a three-hour lunch break or writing essays for a living, please understand this is not the point. The point is that while important, being productive is not everything, and it’s very easy to give into the belief that it is, which only allows it to take over every damn fun or interesting thing in our lives. Going back to that PsychCentral article:

“We also mistakenly believe that there’s ‘actually a point where we get everything done that we want to, or should, or expect.’ And we start to associate relaxing with being lazy, bad or worthless, she said.

That’s the problem: we’re chasing an imaginary end point. We are so focused on the bottom line that not only do we forget to enjoy the journey  — we’re trying to figure out how to leverage the journey so it can support our bottom line, which ultimately defeats the purpose.

The business and productivity world seem to often devalue things that make us human. If we talk about failure and vulnerability too much, we’re being too emotional and wasting our time. If we indulge our curiosities, it’s a waste of time  — pick a niche and make money. Think pieces like this, which aren’t even keyword optimized, a waste of time.

At some point, I have to wonder: what are we doing with all of this saved time? But I guess the answer is clear: getting more shit done.

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Kristin writes about money, travel, and human behavior at Lifehacker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Mentalfloss. She's also written for NBC News, Fox Digital, and Scripps Network Interactive. Her book GET MONEY will be available on 3/27/18 with Hachette Books.

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