Ever since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with being productive.
At work? I need to be making the most out of every hour and moving things forward.
Watching a movie? It needs to be one that stimulates my mind.
Hanging out with friends? We needed to be doing something else while catching up—like going on a hike or learning a new skill.
At home? I needed to be organizing, cleaning, or listening to a podcast (preferably two at the same time).
Sure, I felt like I was making the most of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year.
But let’s be honest: It was tiring. These days, I get exhausted just reading about it.
Here’s the challenge: We live in a culture that celebrates being busy
In 2019, everyone always seemed to be flat out.
It didn’t matter if you were in college or at work. The response to “how are you?” was almost always some variation of “good, but busy.”
Everyone had a side hustle. Everyone was juggling a million things at once. “I’m busy” was seen as a badge of honor—like it meant you were in demand and that you had your life together.
When the pandemic hit, it was a chance for all of us to slow down, be bored, and spend time doing nothing. It was a refreshing change from the usual pedal-to-the-metal culture, and I know that for me, this shift was insanely valuable. I found new hobbies and enjoyed more time with friends and family. Being bored became the norm over being busy.
Now, as everything is starting to pick up the pace, this culture of constant productivity is making a comeback. But rather than dive headfirst back into the go like a lot of people around me, I’m doing the exact opposite: I’m proactively letting go of my need to be productive and looking for opportunities to be bored instead.
Contrary to what the world tells you, boredom is valuable
While I’m not here advocating for an eternity of couch potato life, there are benefits to having pockets of slower moments. If you actively seek these, you’ll find yourself a lot happier and engage in more meaningful work rather than busy work.
But to understand how to let go of the need to be productive 24/7, we first have to ask:
In this post, I’m going to explore why we got so obsessed with being busy in the first place, how the need for productivity can actually be counterproductive, and the four steps I took to quit my addiction to being flat out all day, every day.
What’s with our obsession with being busy?
Beware the barrenness of a busy life.
Back in the old days, having a lot of leisure time was seen as the hallmark of success.
The reasoning behind it is simple. The richer you were, the less likely it was you needed to work. Flaunting a life of doing nothing was the ultimate achievement because it showed that you didn’t have to hustle.
You had made it.
These days, it’s the opposite.
The wealthiest actually work more, putting in long hours around the clock. Every CEO, partner, or entrepreneur I’ve encountered is a classic example of this. Their calendars are jam-packed, they’re up at 4 a.m., and they’re always jetting off somewhere to do something important.
So when did free time become a symbol of failure rather than success?
In a nutshell, it can be boiled down to three reasons.
🏆 It’s a status symbol. Busyness is inherently linked to being important, particularly in the workplace. If we’re busy, it means that more people want our time, which in turn shows the world just how valuable we are. As researcher Silvia Bellazza puts it, “people who think that if you work hard, you can make it to the top seem to be more likely to think that the person who is busy is higher in status.”
☀️ It makes us feel like we’re making the most of every day. I’ll be the first to admit it: There’s a sense of satisfaction that I get from having a lot going on. It makes me feel like I’m using up every second of every day and being as productive as possible with the time I have. Believe it or not, I used to relish the feeling of being exhausted at the end of the day because it meant that I hadn’t wasted a single second of it.
🙈 It’s a way to deal with imposter syndrome. Most of us have experienced imposter syndrome at one point or another, where we feel we don’t deserve to be where we are, and that it’s only a matter of time before other people realize the same thing. Being busy counteracts that because it makes us feel valued—like we must be valuable because our abilities are so in demand.
Sound like anyone you know?
The problem is, when we focus on being busy and productive, it starts to work against us rather than for us.
We become so obsessed with being busy that we don’t think about how we’re spending our time. We try to cram more in, even if we’re not getting as much value from our activities as we could.
Here’s a classic example.
In one of my previous jobs, I worked with a girl who was CONSTANTLY busy. You know the type: Her to-do list was terrifying to look at, and everyone wanted her to help them out at work.
But at the end of every week, she would say to me: “I feel like I was flat out, but I don’t actually know what I did.”
When it came time for a pay raise, she got overlooked—even though she sunk more hours in than others.
She was focused on doing everything rather than trying to work on the things that would add the most value to the team.
Time is a finite currency—don’t spend it for the sake of spending it
Would you blow all of your hard-earned money on the first thing you see?
Hopefully not. You’d take time to think through your purchase and weigh the benefits of buying something before you took the leap.
In a similar vein, you shouldn’t be spending time—a finite resource—on anything and anyone. As you would with your money, you should think about what you’re purchasing with your time, and what you’re getting in return.
Remember what I mentioned before about focusing on the things that add value? Here’s a story that sums this up perfectly.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Lionel Messi. Largely regarded as one of the greatest soccer players of all time, Messi is also famous because of his unusual method of playing the sport.
For almost 70% of the game, Messi walks around the pitch. He looks bored—uninterested even. Then, suddenly, he gets the ball, kicks it into high gear (literally), and, more often than not, scores the goal.
For the unassuming, Messi looks like the definition of lazy. But in fact, the way that he plays is genius.
Look at Messi, it looks like he’s walking around the pitch….he sees that he’s alone; when he sees that they’re watching him, he distances himself…
He spends the game walking, x-raying every single moment. He’s the player who runs the least in La Liga–but when the ball comes to him, he has the complete X-ray of space-time. He knows exactly where everyone is. And Pam!
He isn’t concerned with running around looking like he’s the busiest. He’s concerned with putting his effort in where it counts: where he gets the most output. And if we can apply even a fraction of that conscious action to our overly busy lives, we’d be a lot better for it.
So how do you combat busy culture?
Let me start by saying: it’s HARD to combat this need to be busy in a culture that’s obsessed with productivity. You have to be deliberate with what you do and how you spend your time, and it’s something I’m still working on every single day.
That said, these four techniques have been invaluable to me when it comes to fighting my urge to be productive.
1. Learn to say no
Saying no is the single most difficult word to say to a friend or colleague—but it’s also THE most important skill to master.
Think back to when you got your first job.
When your boss wanted you to do something, what did you say?
You probably agreed to it because you wanted to seem like a team player.
I had a period of time where every day, I would go from work to the gym to catch up with one friend to catch up with another friend. I couldn’t have a meaningful conversation with the first friend because I was too worried I was going to miss the meet-up with the second friend. By the time I got to the second friend, I was absolutely exhausted and wasn’t good company.
If I had said no to at least one of these catch-ups, we all would have been better off for it.
These days, I’m trying to default to saying “no” and convincing myself for the reasons I should say “yes” rather than the other way around. I find that it leads to better decision-making and ensures that I’m only doing things that are meaningful and valuable to me.
Just to be clear: learning to say no doesn’t mean point-blank refusing to do anything that you don’t want to do. It just means being more deliberate with how you spend your time and energy so you (and everyone else) get more out of it.
2. Set boundaries (and enforce them)
You can’t fight busy culture without first getting clear on what is and isn’t acceptable to you. That’s why it’s important to think long and hard about what you value, the life you want to live, and how you can design your days and weeks to bring more of that to life.
This might mean:
Being clear on your working hours with your manager, so you have a better work-life balance
Not checking your email or replying to colleagues on evenings or weekends, so people don’t get used to you being “on” all the time
Putting “you” time into your calendar (and keeping the appointment)
Not scheduling more than one social event a day so you can spend quality time with your friends and family
3. Be clear on the value add
Being asked to do something for work or school? Ask yourself: what’s the value in this? What am I offering, and what am I getting in return? If the value you’re adding or getting is minimal, give it a miss.
This simple question is a powerful way to make sure you are spending your time on things that are going to deliver the most bang for buck in your life—and cleaning out the needless noise and activities that are just a time sink.
4. Make time to be bored
I’m not going to lie: it feels weird to plan to do nothing. But the beauty of planning to do nothing is that you can literally do anything.
Maybe you start looking up recipe ideas and find a new favorite dish to cook.
Maybe you go down a YouTube spiral and discover a hobby.
Maybe you end up using that time to message an old friend you haven’t reconnected with in ages.
Or maybe absolutely nothing comes out of your boredom except for the fact that you let yourself rest and just be.
When you give yourself time to be bored, it allows you to slow down and recalibrate. Over time, this boredom can have a ton of benefits, from helping hatch new ideas to giving you more energy to go about your daily life.
The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time
It’s easy to be busy. It’s harder to be deliberate. Yet if you focus on the latter rather than the former, I promise you that you’ll spend your most valuable finite resource—time—more wisely.
The next time you feel the urge to fill every day with something, resist.
Remember: it’s easy to add more to a blank canvas, but it’s very hard to go back and take things away.