This is how to survive productivity and win at life

John P. Weiss

My wife embarked on a coast-to-coast road trip recently with a fun group of people who all own Toyota 86 sports cars. For the last leg of her trip, I flew down to Houston to join her.

I packed my Pakt One minimalist travel bag and picked up my 11″ MacBook Air and iPad mini. I figured I could steal some time in the evenings to stay current with my writing and cartoons.

Then I noticed Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism- Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World sitting on my desk. Part of Cal’s book recommends taking a 30-day detox that cuts out all non-essential technology in order to declutter your brain and create less dependence on digital devices.

My obsessive-compulsive, productivity mindset won out and I packed the MacAir and iPad mini. Later, while flying down to Houston, I reconsidered.

What’s the point of taking time off to travel with my wife if I’m going to keep working? I vowed to ignore my devices and enjoy the trip.

There were a few times during the trip while relaxing in our hotel room when I was tempted to pull out my laptop. Fortunately, I didn’t. Instead, my wife and I read books in the evenings, talked, and enjoyed our time together.

The trip was wonderful. I started to relax, take in new sights, meet interesting people, and enjoy gallivanting around with my wife.

Frantically chasing productivity

Here in the United States, we live in a fast-moving culture. Everyone is trying to get ahead, and most are online. Walk into any coffee house, and notice how many patrons are on their digital devices. We’re all so busy and dialed in, but life is too short to be productive 24/7.

Business blogs and online articles shower us with advice about how to “hack” our lives for greater productivity and success. There’s nothing wrong with efficiency and trying to get ahead, but not at the expense of our physical and mental health.

Writer Olivia Goldhill, in an article for qz.com, notes:

“The problem comes when we spend so long frantically chasing productivity, we refuse to take real breaks. We put off sleeping in, or going for a long walk, or reading by the window — and, even if we do manage time away from the grind, it comes with a looming awareness of the things we should be doing, and so the experience is weighed down by guilt.”

I enjoy my creative work, so it’s easy to immerse myself in it. But what I’ve found is that stepping away allows me to recharge, which in turn fuels my creativity.

When I’m vacationing and away from work, I read books and allow my mind to wander. As a result, my relaxed brain makes new connections. Great ideas and epiphanies seem to multiply, all of which benefit me later when I return to work.

The road trip with my wife was not only fun but also gave my brain the rest and relaxation it needed. I was able to read a few books, daydream, and recharge. A lot of great ideas and creative visions came to me on our road trip.

Goldhill’s article goes on to state:

““There’s an idea we must always be available, work all the time,” says Michael Guttridge, a psychologist who focuses on workplace behavior. “It’s hard to break out of that and go to the park.” But the downsides are obvious: We end up zoning out while at the computer — looking for distraction on social media, telling ourselves we’re ‘multitasking’ while really spending far longer than necessary on the most basic tasks.”

The low-bandwidth chatter

During the road trip with my wife, we visited friends in Texas, chatted with a bookshop owner in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, learned about peppers from a vendor in Hatch, New Mexico, enjoyed the artwork in Taos, New Mexico, and encountered many other interesting people and places.

The view outside our Taos hotel room
Why play chess online when you can play it outside in Taos, New Mexico!

Normally, I’m used to long hours in my studio, responding to reader comments and emails. How refreshing to be outdoors, visiting diverse towns, discovering beautiful places, and having real conversations with fascinating people.

Author Cal Newport, in his book Digital Minimalism-Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, explains why person to person interactions are so much more valuable than online interactions:

“…these offline interactions are incredibly rich because they require our brains to process large amounts of information about subtle analog cues such as body language, facial expressions, and voice tone. The low-bandwidth chatter supported by many digital communication tools might offer a simulacrum of this connection, but it leaves most of our high-performance social processing networks underused- reducing these tools’ ability to satisfy our intense sociality. This is why the value generated by a Facebook comment or Instagram like- although real- is minor compared to the value generated by an analog conversation or shared real-world activity.”

No such thing as multitasking

A common term we encounter when reading life hack and productivity articles is “multi-tasking.” I find that I do my best work when I’m focused on one task, despite my productivity mindset urging me to do two things at once.

Author Catherine Price, in her book How to Break Up With Your Phone, dispels the notion of multitasking:

“There’s actually no such thing as multitasking (that is, simultaneously processing two or more attention-demanding tasks), because our brains can’t do two cognitively demanding things at once.”

Price adds a footnote:

“Yes, we can do the dishes while we listen to the news. But that’s not ‘multitasking’ in the true sense of the word, because one activity is not cognitively demanding.”

The power of pulse and pause

A lot of people try to power through their workdays, accomplishing one task after another. They fail to take breaks, let alone vacations, and view their workaholism as a positive, admirable trait.

Ironically, it’s often the folks who take vacations and breaks who perform better than the workaholics. Some of this is due to the natural human work rhythm of pulse and pause.

An article in Forbes.com notes:

“You may have heard of studies indicating that humans are designed to “pulse” between expending energy and renewing energy. Tony Schwartz, founder of The Energy Project, teaches this. His research shows that humans naturally move from full focus and energy to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes. Our body sends us signals to rest and renew, but we override them with coffee, energy drinks, and sugar… or just by tapping our own reserves until they’re depleted.”

I used to do this when I was a police chief. I scheduled short breaks throughout my day, roughly every 90 minutes, for brief walks. Getting up from my desk, moving around outside, enjoying nature and relaxed conversations helped me recharge.

Chief Weiss, on his lunchtime nature walk

The Forbes article added:

“Schwartz suggests that we need to purposely take short breaks every 90 minutes throughout the day to drink water, walk, or to eat healthy snacks. His mantra is, ‘Pulse and pause.’”

This pulsing approach to your time management at work is also found in the popular Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo. The technique requires you to work intensely for 25 minutes (using a timer) followed by a 5-minute break. During the break, you get up, move around, and then return for the next 25-minute cycle.

Slacking trumps hacking

Work has a way of expanding to eat up the time we allow it. Add to that our “always-on” culture, responding to emails day and night, and it’s no wonder people burn out.

So many of us feel this frantic need to constantly occupy our time. We develop a sense of time urgency or fear that we’re missing out on something. Our sense of responsibility robs us of the joy of downtime.

“The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” — Bertrand Russell

Writer Kayla Sloan, in an article for Calendar.com, provides 10 reasons why slacking, or wasting time, is good for you.

  1. Allows your brain to rest.
  2. Sparks creativity.
  3. Gives your body rest.
  4. Prevents burnout.
  5. Boosts your mood.
  6. Energizes you.
  7. Lowers stress levels.
  8. Reminds you of goals.
  9. Gains you new skills.
  10. Helps you keep your friends.

Everyone’s circumstances are different. Some people don’t have the luxury of vacation time, or they have to work more than one job. Never the less, there are still ways to incorporate rest and downtime into your schedule.

I used to take my lunch break in my car, parked next to a city park. I’d relax, read a book, and enjoy the quiet. Using your short breaks to get outside and take a walk can also do wonders. Fresh air, birdsong, and wind through the trees can be restorative.

Some folks dive into their social media apps on work breaks, which can be a slippery slope.

Sometimes social media can entertain and distract us with fun videos and hobby related stuff.

Others times, social media can take us down rabbit holes of nonsense, or content that makes feel bad about ourselves or envious of others. If you choose to use social media for your slack time, use it wisely. Because sometimes we think we’re using social media, but it’s using us.

Winning at life isn’t about fame and fortune. It’s about attaining good mental and physical health, sound relationships, healthy family lives, good friends, and satisfying hobbies.

Also, don’t feel guilty about slacking. It’s your time to relax and have fun. Heck, last night, instead of finishing this article, I spent an hour mindlessly doodling. Here’s a video of it:

Don’t become a productivity wizard at the expense of your health and happiness. Make some time for slacking instead of hacking. The irony is that you’ll be happier, and probably more productive as a result!

This article was originally published at JohnPWeiss.com. 

Before you go

My slacker cartoon desk

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint and write about life. To follow along, join my free newsletter here.