On New Year’s Eve, I did not experience the usual feverish cream/chocolate/wine-induced self-loathing. I was not being ascetic — far from it. This year, mindlessly stuffing mince pies into my mouth while slumped in front of A Christmas Carol didn’t trigger a resolution to increase my productivity, keep a bullet journal or optimise myself in any way.
In fact, I resolved to maintain some element of my Christmas stupor for as long as possible.
Such pledges are easy to make in elasticated trousers while sipping Baileys with so little care for timekeeping that you no longer know what day it is. They are far harder to maintain when back at the office, meeting deadlines, projecting a veneer of professionalism, doing the school-run and paying bills.
Before you point out some areas I could definitely optimise — relax, I know my flaws. Rather, my un-resolution was seeded by the joy of relaxing as well as by a book, Claudia Hammond’s The Art of Rest. It makes a case for giving up busyness and indulging in rest — different to sleep — to recharge batteries and nurture creativity.
Social media crystallised my resolve. While digital detoxes have become popular, so too has “hustle porn” — the lionisation of working hard — once decried by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian as the “idea that unless you are suffering, grinding, working every hour of every day, you’re not working hard enough”, which he denounced as “one of the most toxic, dangerous things in tech”.
Hammond’s book draws on research surveying 18,000 people in 135 countries about rest. The top favourite restful activities, she discovered, included daydreaming, walking, listening to music, doing nothing, watching television and reading. She makes a case for their benefits, dispelling any guilt.
The most common riposte to her campaign to encourage rest is that people have no time to do it. To which she has two responses — first, most people overestimate the amount of time they actually work and second, she proposes accepting that your to-do-list will never get done.
Hammond gives time-management techniques short shrift and suggests we rebrand time-wasting. “Maybe it’s true,” she writes, “that you waste some time at work chatting and you could concentrate harder all day and leave work a little earlier, but perhaps it’s having some fun with colleagues and checking Instagram every now and then that makes your job enjoyable, or bearable.”
The book reinforced my feeling of growing revulsion at the tyranny of self-optimisation, personal productivity and life hacks such as early morning routines. Some take it to extremes, like the man I met who monitors all his resolutions, via a spreadsheet (subdivided into health, work, personal, spiritual) across months, years and decades.
As the rate of economic growth has slowed, so we fetishise personal productivity, argues André Spicer, co-author of Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement, telling me we have become “obsessed with small interventions which make us feel a little more productive in taking up the slack of an unproductive system”.
Time management and life hacks are attractive to the great mass of what he describes as “unled” professionals — employees who have a job but no useful management. “This means they need to become their own managers, and direct their own work. One way to solve this problem is to fall back on the advice of the personal productivity industry.” In the future, he predicts a rent-a-boss service for freelancers and other unled professionals — a kind of work dominatrix, if you will.
For some employers, the solution to improving personal productivity is not better management or redesigning jobs but wellness programmes. Yet these do nothing if they simply paper over stressful work conditions.
They might even add to the workload. A friend told me about a team at his workplace that monitored its members’ sleep patterns. One employee was given the additional responsibility of compiling a sleep spreadsheet, which ate into his free time and was the opposite of restful.
I hope I fare better.
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