My high school had kind of an unusual schedule—or at least I think it was unusual, but maybe you can tell me. There was no such thing as a lunch period or study hall. Instead, each class only met four days per week instead of five: for example, maybe your French class didn’t meet on Tuesdays, your Geometry class didn’t meet on Thursdays, your Biology and P.E. classes didn’t meet on Fridays, and so on. This meant that you usually had one or two free periods—or “X periods”, as they were called—built into your schedule each day, and during these periods you were allowed to do whatever you wanted. You could eat lunch, work on your homework, wander the halls, check your email at the email station (I went to high school in the late 90s, guys), or simply walk out through the front doors of the school and go off-campus.
However, if you were in any type of trouble at all, these privileges were immediately revoked: instead of having actual free time during your X periods, you were required to report to a sort of silent study hall to do work. This punishment was referred to as being “scheduled up”, as in, “Sorry, I can’t go with you to get ice cream during our History X because I’m scheduled up.” If you were scheduled up, in other words, your free time wasn’t actually free.
I was a goody two shoes in high school, so I never actually got scheduled up. But now, 17 years later, I think I finally understand what it feels like.
Allow me to explain.
Here’s what my current schedule looks like over a 24-hour period. I spend about 10-11 hours a day working or traveling to/from work and 6-7 hours sleeping (or trying to fall asleep). Let’s add in another 2-3 hours for other necessary activities like showering, dressing, cooking, eating, and basic cleaning. That means that altogether I’m spending somewhere around 20 hours a day on tasks that are relatively non-negotiable. Geez, that sounds like a lot of hours.
Then again, if my mandatory responsibilities only take up 20 hours of my day, then I should have four whole hours left over in each 24-hour cycle that are totally free, right?
Well, not right now.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve gotten through a single day in the past six months without running across one or two or twelve articles on how to maximize productivity. There are articles on how to fit more activities into a shorter period of time, articles on how to minimize non-productive tasks like answering emails, articles on how to avoid distractions so you can get more work done, articles on how to track your minutes to make sure none are wasted, and of course, articles on how to spend your free time making extra money/starting your own business/embarking on a creative project/reaching your goals/achieving your dreams/changing your life.
These articles can be very inspiring. After all, if I have 4 free hours every weekday to devote to productive tasks of my own choosing, that’s 20 hours per week! Add in the weekends, and I’m up to about 40 free hours! That’s like a whole work week! Just think of what I could accomplish!
And honestly I’ve been planning my time over the past couple of months according to this principle. I’ve created a sort SuperSchedule for myself in which the majority of my early mornings and late evenings are devoted to one or more of the following: blogging, working on a freelance writing piece, working on any of several research projects left over from my PhD, reviewing research papers that other people have written, participating in a research study to make extra money, working out, attending a Spanish class, or (if I realize I have nothing left to wear the next day) lugging my clothes to and from the laundromat.
But here’s the thing. Even if the SuperSchedule checks out in terms of math (10 + 7 + 3 + 4 = 24!), it’s simply not sustainable, at least not for me. Nor is it conducive to mental health. I’m not a productivity robot, I’m a human being, and I simply do not function at peak performance levels during all waking hours.
So after a couple of months of trying to spend the majority of my free time accomplishing tasks that help me save money, make money, get ahead, or better myself in some way, I’m exhausted. I don’t think I can keep it up much longer. In fact, I’ve already sabotaged my SuperSchedule twice in the past week: once when I quit my Spanish class (Ack! So embarrassing to admit this after I claimed I’d never quit a class I’d pre-paid for!) and once when I paid for a laundry service to pick up my laundry, wash it, fold it, and bring it back.
Rather than berating myself for deviating from the SuperSchedule, however, I’m taking this as a sign that I need to make some changes. The more I think about it, the more I think the Productivity Assumption—the belief that we should all be striving to squeeze every possible drop of productivity out of every day—is worth questioning. There’s a reason why being scheduled up was considered a punishment in high school: it’s because for many of us (all of us?), having no free time to truly relax and let our minds wander and just do what we feel like doing IS a punishment. In fact, I’m starting to realize that in order to feel healthy and rested I need to spend several hours pretty much every day doing…absolutely nothing. And by “absolutely nothing” I mean reading a non-educational book, listening to a non-educational podcast, taking a nap on the couch, taking a walk outside, listening to music, watching TV, or getting sucked into the Internet in a super unproductive way.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m on an ongoing quest to find ways to love and appreciate my life right now, rather than always striving towards the future. And I believe that questioning the Productivity Assumption is an important part of that journey. So as strange as it feels to write it, I hereby declare that I am trying to find ways to preserve more of my precious time for being unproductive. I want to give my brain more time to rest and reset, I want more time to let my mind wander, I want more time to get absolutely nothing done.
I’ll leave you with a few great articles I’ve read recently that question the Productivity Assumption—I definitely suggest checking them out:
- This wonderful post by Jennifer from Simply+Fiercely contains some fantastic suggestions on how to find balance between self-care and working hard.
- This fabulous piece by Chelsea Fagan is about what capsule wardrobes have to do with productivity and efficiency, and why she doesn’t have one.
- I am getting a huge kick out of this recent interview with Vanessa Bayer (the amazingly talented Saturday Night Live actor/comedian). It’s part of a series that The New York Times does called “Sunday Routines”. Please note that Vanessa Bayer is not spending her Sunday working at a second job or learning to code or starting a business, nor is she aspiring to do any of these things.
What do you think about the Productivity Assumption: motivating or exhausting? Did anyone else go to a high school with X periods? Any other Vanessa Bayer fans out there? Anybody horrified that I used a fancy laundry service?