On a dog walk with my sister recently, she vented an uncomfortable but pertinent truth. Why is it, she asked me, as we trudged through a bracken-crusted wood, that people throw themselves into work, spending hours and hours doing things that make them stressed and unhappy? More than that, the proceeds of this treadmill of misery is all too often spent on going a holiday. Yes, there’s loads of adverts for them on the TV at the moment. Tranquil corners of the world where you can sit next to a pool and sip a cold drink. And why are you doing this? Well, she said, it’s because our everyday lives are so unbearable that we’re desperate to get away from them.
What a situation. All that time, working for a way to get away from working. We walked on in silence for a bit, the dog snuffling ahead of us. I wasn’t really sure how to respond.
It’s something that’s been niggling away at me, and came back to the surface when I watched this rather brilliant TED talk. At the age of 61, Anne Lamott, the American novelist and non-fiction writer, decided to write down everything she knew that was true. Some of it was hopeful, some paradoxical, but one thing really stuck with me, and that was truth number 2: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Including you.”
I’m such a busy person. My spaces are filled with review writing, blog posting, tweeting, yoga, swimming, gym, reading, drumming, socialising, so that each moment is filled with something, even if it’s supposed to be ‘time off.’ Even if it’s something I enjoy, that’s quite a pace to keep up. Also, the spaces in between are invariably spent reflecting on what’s just been done, or looking forward to the next thing. Even genuinely ‘free’ time, when I’m clearly doing nothing productive, I might be scrolling through Facebook, looking through a post on Buzzfeed, or making the disastrous error of reading the comment feed underneath an article that contains things I’m really passionate about. Hardly a calming experience.
There’s no unplugging. Even if we think we’re taking a break, the stimulation of podcast listening, app tapping or game swiping doesn’t give you a rest. In a world where people take their phones to the toilet, is it any wonder we all feel like we need a holiday?
And science supports this. Actually focusing on what you’re doing at the time, even if all you’re doing is commuting, has been proven to lead to a happier life. Constant distractions and half-listening or backward or forward thinking inevitably lead to dissatisfaction.
The irony of all of this is, working less has actually been proven to make you more productive. It’s certainly something I’ve noticed in both of my jobs. If I have two free lessons to get something done, I’ll probably linger over it, check my emails a few times, go and get a cup of tea, generally faff about. If I have just one hour free, I tend to get the same amount of work done.
The same is even more true for writing. A deadline set with Freedom turned on (it turns off the Internet! An absolute godsend) produces far more words in terms of content, but also tends to be higher quality, with much more of the work staying in for the final draft. Promising yourself proper free time after completing something is also an amazing incentive. A stroll with no phone, lunch in the garden without a book, simply time to enjoy and experience whatever it is you’re doing. I feel more content and like I’ve achieved more at the end of the day. Sitting at the desk all day, occasionally getting distracted and then coming back to it, I never feel like I’ve done as well, and finish the day feeling grumpy.
So where, in all of this, can we root out some ideas for how to get away from the dreaded work treadmill, where we spend all of our days clocking up money to get away from a life we don’t like? We all need to eat, so quitting your job is, unfortunately, not going to cut it.
For starters, self-care and an indulgence of ‘real’ time off is invaluable. It is not selfish or unreasonable to take time for yourself, and no-one else. Relationships, friendships, children, all of these things will still be there when you’ve allowed yourself something, even if it’s just a quiet coffee on your own. You, and everyone else around you will reap the benefits when you return to your hectic life.
While you’re at it, manage your expectations and set yourself little goals and time limits. Something done quickly is often better, so stop procrastinating and do it, leaving yourself the rest of the day for the things that matter to you.
Perhaps most importantly, unplug. If studies are showing that increased screen time leads to physical and mental health problems in children, what do you think it will do to you? Be like my mum – the phone is there for if people want to get in touch with you, and nothing else. The world will not stop if you turn our gaze away from social media for a while. Even things that seem ‘useful,’ like newspaper articles or informative podcasts, are all times when your brain is not simply switching off.
This week, give yourself some unplugged time. If you try it out, let me know how it goes in the comments.