Remember when “I’m going out for a walk” meant just that? A stroll, by yourself, no time constraints, no smartphones, simply contemplating the different sounds that crossed your path? Yes, *gasp* that was actually a slice of reality once upon a time.
Nowadays there seems to be a crushing need to "optimize" every moment of our time, putting "going for leisurely walks" outside the bounds of what's generally acceptable. It's no wonder that we now find ourselves listening to time-management podcasts while we shower, dutifully practicing "Spanish for Beginners" on our drive to work, or seeking openings in the pottery class next weekend, because we've already scratched Thai cooking off the to-do list. There’s always more that we could be doing, fueling an endless loop of FOMO. But is modern life’s modus-operandi actually improving productivity? And is trying to do it all really making us happier?
Multitasking (i.e. "trying to do two cognitive things at the same time") is a fallacy. In truth, what we're mislabelling is, as Michael J. Formica puts it: "handling a number of serial tasks in rapid succession, or mixing automatic tasks with those that are not so automatic." Ironically, as demonstrated in study after study, this task/context-switching is actually incredibly unproductive. Our minds are designed to do one thing at a time. Attempting to circumvent that may give us the impression that we're being more productive, but in truth it's being more present that best benefits us.
So, if "multitasking" isn't the answer, what is? In his NY Times bestseller "The 4-Hour Workweek," Tim Ferris leans on the 80/20 principle. The idea being that 80% of your productivity comes from 20% of your time, and the other 20% of your productivity eats up 80% of your time. Although taking ideas to the extreme, he does offer some interesting suggestions: define your objectives/decide what's important, eliminate distractions to free up time, stop multitasking, outsource menial tasks, learn to be effective not efficient, check email a set amount of times a day, focus on the 20% that's important, and more. Although a 4-hour workweek may not be a viable reality for most, applying some of these principles can help anyone. And though not quite 4-hours, the 4-day work week has seen a surge in adoption in recent years. The idea that employee effectiveness and job satisfaction can be linked to scheduled down/restoration time is becoming more widely accepted...for good reason.
According to writer Tony Schwartz, “the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less”. In his article “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive” he points out that “the importance of restoration is rooted in our physiology. Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy”. He believes that taking the time to slow down and disconnect will boost productivity levels and increase job performance: “When we’re renewing, we’re truly renewing, so when we’re working, we can really work”.
Our culture of continuous self-improvement is telling us we should be making the best use of our time, all the time, in order to become a better person - but is that really true? In “Laziness does not exist”, Psychologist Devon Price advocates that we should resist our self-imposed pressure to overwork: "We live in a world where hard work is rewarded and having needs and limitations is seen as a source of shame. It's no wonder so many of us are constantly overexerting ourselves, saying yes out of fear of how we'll be perceived for saying no." But resisting the urge to say yes, looking for mutually beneficial compromises, and tending to self-care can reap staggering rewards.
So, instead of being on auto-pilot, constantly being in doing, learning, busy mode, perhaps it's time we question our motives. What is actually important? What are we really looking to achieve? What actually brings us joy? And how can we use our working time more effectively, so we can guilt-free actually disconnect and allow our energy to renew? The next time you feel overwhelmed, instead of walking from place to place trying to catch a breath, leave behind your smartphone and your mental to-do list: maybe it's time you actually go for that walk.