Being Too Busy Is Bad For Your Health (Plus Five Ways To Relieve The Pressure)
Illustration by Mr Jori Bolton
Dr Devon Price, the author of Laziness Does Not Exist, has always gone above and beyond. Relentlessly productive, the social psychologist was the sort of person who got a small thrill when frantically checking things off their to-do list. “I am someone who was playing by the rules of society, which say that your worth is determined by being really productive and accomplishing a lot of things,” Dr Price explains to MR PORTER.
Dr Price is hardly alone. The need to overproduce, at work and at home, has become endemic in recent years, with social media platforms tricking us into believing we should be able to effortlessly manage a full-time job, workout like an athlete, raise beautiful, well-behaved children, juggle endless hobbies, cook a ‘gram-worthy feast three times a day and look immaculate while doing all of the above. Meanwhile, sites such as Lifehacker promise to help you perfect the “ultimate morning routine”; bingeing Netflix has become a ceaseless race to devour the latest series so you can keep up with the topic of conversation and even the concept of “self-care” has become fetishised.
Our obsession with being busy has consumed us, partly because we view so-called “laziness” as a moral failing, Dr Price explains. It goes a little like this: achievements are a product of hardworking virtue, while lack of success is a result of slacking. This unhealthy attitude to productivity really hit home when Dr Price personally experienced extreme burnout coupled with serious health problems as a result of their prolific output. “I had anaemia, a heart murmur, all of these things, and I had to really slow down and rethink what I was setting up to do with my life,” says Dr Price.
Around the same time, Dr Price had started teaching at a continuing education college in the US. The mature students who attended their classes had dedicated themselves to full course loads, all while holding down full-time jobs, raising families and, in some cases, battling complex mental health issues. Instead of expressing awe at these superhumans, Dr Price’s fellow professors were constantly disparaging them, commenting that they were lazy, uncommitted or weren’t “graduate school material”. “And when I got to know these students, they were always incredibly hardworking, busy people,” Dr Price says.
The central thesis of Laziness Does Not Exist contends that, like these students, most of the people we view as lazy are actually working the hardest, it’s just that outsiders fail to grasp the full picture of their burdens and circumstances. In reality, people don’t choose to fail. “We’re actually an interdependent network: people want to help each other, people want to feel capable,” Dr Price says. So we work harder than we’re often capable of, and thus, what Dr Price has coined “the laziness lie” persists.
“Most of us are only capable of about three hours of decent work a day, far less than the standard working day”
But our current culture of work is unsustainable. Unlike robots, human beings were not built to produce perfect work day in, day out for eight hours straight. In fact, Dr Price explains, most of us are only capable of about three hours of decent work a day, far less than the standard working day in the majority of the world. We need breaks to maintain quality work and for our bodies and minds to function properly. And, as psychologists have been trying to tell us for years, allowing yourself time to rest and recover actually increases productivity and creativity in the long run.
Procrastination, too, Dr Price explains, is not another form of laziness, as it is often cast. In fact, hesitating to get stuff done usually arises from a fear of failure, feeling overwhelmed or the desire for perfection. Our culture of deadlines and performance reviews doesn’t help matters, either. “Shame does not motivate people,” Dr Price says. “Not only are you really anxious and paralysed, you also feel a lot of shame about the fact that you’re anxious and paralysed, which causes a downward spiral.”
Things have only gotten worse during the pandemic. For those lucky enough to be able to work from home, our bedrooms and living rooms have become our makeshift offices. And while the illusion of being granted this “extra time” has guilted many of us into picking up so-called “lockdown hobbies” (does the Duolingo owl’s chirping haunt your dreams yet?), physical presenteeism in the office has been supplanted by a virtual kind. Employees are feeling the pressure to make themselves consistently available, reply to emails and messages at all hours of the day and night and maintain such a pace or else (reprisals or redundancy hang over us all in the face of global economic instability).
The pressure, perceived or real, is having a tangible effect. “There is actually some data showing that our perceptions of how much we’re supposed to be doing are really distorted,” says Dr Price. “One report said worker productivity went up 47 per cent during the pandemic.”
Employers themselves have also started to panic that they can no longer monitor staff’s working habits while they can’t watch over them. Some have even convinced themselves that the next best thing to counting the number of toilet or coffee breaks they take (yes, this actually happens) is installing software on their computers to measure an employee’s number of keystrokes throughout the day. Numerous workplaces also continued to insist employees come into the office during the height of the coronavirus outbreak, despite the fact they could effectively work from home. “This time reveals just how absurd our attitudes to work are as a culture,” says Dr Price.
A lot of what Dr Price discusses in Laziness Does Not Exist, which was written before the coronavirus pandemic, isn’t particularly new information, though. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that micromanaging employees, increasing workload and extended working hours all decrease productivity rather than increase it, but very little has changed in the decades since this body of research has been published. While we may be able to individually unsubscribe from “the laziness lie”, collectively it’s a little trickier. We can consciously draw a line between work and home, but that doesn’t mean your boss, friends or family will agree with or respect them.
“No one can unlearn this stuff after reading one book,” says Dr Price. “I thought it was really important to acknowledge that this isn’t an individual-level problem that we can all solve through doing more self-care. A lot of the time, it means looking at your own life and trusting your understanding of, ‘What can I get away with?’, and then also think about, ‘How can I help build a world where we start having more freedom?’, where everybody has more freedom to say no, set boundaries and live the way that they want to live.”
Here are five tips to get you started.
Do a bad job
If you often find yourself procrastinating, remember that your first try doesn’t have to be flawless. “Find ways to do a really messy job for a little bit,” Dr Price advises. “And slowly get more comfortable. It’s really hard and terrifying. Set aside 20 minutes a couple of times a week, work on it for just that allotment of time [without] holding it to a standard of perfection. Attempting is better than perfect, because perfect doesn’t exist. Making progress is better than the imaginary version of something that you’re comparing it to in your head.”
Say no (even if you feel guilty)
Saying no is often touted as a cure to burnout, but for people who strive to prove their productivity, it’s often a source of anguish and guilt. Dr Price advises doing your best to push through those feelings and starting small. “Finding small ways that you can disappoint someone, where you know it’s not going to damage you in any way: you’re not going to lose your job or a friendship that is very secure. Identify places where you can start to relax and practice developing disappointing people by saying no in a safe way and get used to the discomfort that initially comes with that,” Dr Price explains.
Your colleagues are your allies
Remember that agreeing to extra work sets unrealistic standards for your colleagues, too. “I think it’s really important that we get out of this arms race where we’re all saying yes all the time because we’re terrified. It creates this never-ending cycle where you say yes, your co-worker feels they have to say yes and now you’re comparing yourself to your co-worker, so you take even more on,” Dr Price says. “Realise that you’re not a bad worker for saying no, you’re actually helping liberate the people around you. That really helps me, when I feel the need to say yes to something at work, I think, ‘Oh, [saying no] actually relaxes the standards for everybody.’”
Learn to give yourself credit
It’s hardly a shocking revelation that we tend to focus on the negatives rather than the positives, but we rarely view others through that lens. Instead, we reserve our harshest criticisms to unleash upon ourselves. “There are so many things we do every day in our lives – take care of people in our lives, take care of our homes, support people we work with. We are not recognising how much effort and impact it has. Recognising how much you’re actually doing, makes it easier for you to say, ‘I’m really at capacity, I can’t take on anything else right now.’”
Just do nothing
Actually allowing yourself to do nothing is especially difficult for people who measure their worth in terms of how many things they’ve ticked off their to-do list that day. In fact, Dr Price thought the prospect was ridiculous (or “full of shit”, to be precise) when their therapist first suggested it. Having given it a go, in the form of jotting down their thoughts and feelings for an allotted 30 minutes a week, however, they’ve found the exercise offers clarity, calm and a reassuring presence of thought, which allowed them to recognise the things that were important to their wellbeing and the things that weren’t. “I was getting more attuned to my emotions! This silly-sounding ‘feeling my feelings’ thing was actually paying off!” Dr Price writes.