As the daughter of two incredibly hardworking academics, I was aware of “overwork culture” in the United States long before I fully understood it. But this trend goes far beyond the bounds of academia, and I know I’m not alone when I say I feel very real feelings of guilt if I’m not working all the time. Statistics show that the average American, regardless of their profession, takes only 53% of their allotted vacation time. Beyond that, two thirds (66%) of Americans report working while they are on vacation. Technology connects the world in beautiful ways, but can also make it exceptionally difficult to disconnect when that’s called for. Anecdotally, I know very few people who feel comfortable relaxing, even when they are stretched to their breaking point.
The “hustle economy” (or “gig economy”, a term that resonates particularly well with me as a freelance musician) feels very real to me, both because I can see it consuming my artist colleagues and because I consider myself a part of it. I’ve spoken with colleagues often about how we all admire and uplift one another for our hard work, and while we would never dream of begrudging someone else vacation time or time off, we often find it incredibly difficult to allow ourselves the same rest.
I know I am personally guilty of occasionally wearing my busy-ness as a badge of honor, and I also know I’m not alone in doing so. And like many others, I am fascinated by the productivity industry; I’ve read books by David Allen, Timothy Ferriss, and Carson Tate, and love implementing new methods for time management and focus. But I fear that I have been overworking for a long time, and it’s an extremely tough habit to break. Research shows that there are massive benefits to taking breaks (including an increase in energy and focus) and yet most American workers resist taking downtime, preferring to power through the day/week/year without slowing down. I’ve noticed this to be especially true in the world of nonprofits and the arts, where long hours are often assumed and expected. When we are doing work that we’re passionate about, it’s especially easy to push aside recommendations to rest, even if we know it’s better for our health (and our creativity!) to take regular breaks. I’ve been lucky enough to have had supervisors and colleagues who see that behavior and tell me (very lovingly) to “scram” when I need to be reminded to stop, and a partner who has been known to pry my laptop from my hands and announce that it’s time to take a break if I’m showing signs of having worked nonstop for too long. I know I can’t always depend on external forces to interrupt the habit of overwork, so I think it’s imperative to practice resting.
What if we finally begin to listen to what science is telling us? What happens if we change the way we think about downtime, and allow it to help us succeed? Some of the most objectively successful and influential people in the world, past and present, have embraced taking mindful breaks from their work. In an article he wrote for Medium, author Michael Simmons makes note of characteristics and practiced habits some of a wide range of successful figures have in common. He considers a varied group that includes Oliver Sacks, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Benjamin Franklin, Gandhi, Steve Jobs, and Arianna Huffington, and something all of these people have in common is their commitment to taking time away from their work:
Despite having way more responsibility than anyone else, top performers in the world find time to step away from their urgent work, slow down, and invest in activities that have a long-term payoff in greater knowledge, creativity, and energy. As a result, they may achieve less in a day at first, but drastically more over the course of their lives.
Whether we take a break to call a loved one, to make soup, to dream, to read something new, go on a brisk walk, to nap, to journal, or to simply reflect — the impact of taking time to slow down could dramatically improve the way we work. As we prepare for the projects, performances, and adventures ahead, let’s commit to giving our minds and bodies the breaks we need to fulfill our potential.