Are you tired of being tired? If this question resonates with you, it’s not your imagination. The workforce is working harder and for longer hours than the decades before. Since 1979, American workers’ net productivity grew by 72.2%, even though hourly pay only increased by 17.2%—meaning that although productivity has increased, workers aren’t taking home the benefits of that increased productivity.
Advances in communication technologies have also come with significant psychological downsides: The proliferation of proliferation of smartphones and the associated expectation that we’ll always be online has increased burnout, as the boundaries between work and home become increasingly blurry. Social media also means that we are constantly comparing ourselves to the best-curated versions of other people; which makes us feel like everyone else is more productive than we are.
The end result of all of these factors is that you can feel like you’re never doing enough, or that you’re falling behind. But in reality, you’re probably doing the best you can, which is perfectly okay.
You’re doing more work than you might think
Even if it’s largely invisible from the outside, all mental activity has an associated physical cost. Scientists have observed that your brain adjusts its metabolic output when making decisions in response to the exertion of mental energy. Chess is typically thought of as a mental game rather than a physical game, but chess grandmasters often burn up to 6,000 calories per day when participating in high-level tournaments due to the intense stress of the strategic decisions they’re making.
While most of us aren’t chess grandmasters, we’re still constantly making decisions in response to the incessant distractions and stimuli associated with our busy lifestyles. Every time your smartphone buzzes with a notification, it can trigger a cascading series of decisions: Do I check my phone now? Do I respond to this email now? If not now, when should I respond to this email? All these little decisions add up over time.
Feelings of laziness are usually there for a good reason
You’ve probably been trained to think that feeling unmotivated or directionless means that there’s something wrong with you, and that if you just try harder, you’ll be able to push through. But rather than viewing these feelings as a reflection of something negative about your character, they should really be viewed as your body’s early warning system. When you’re overworked, you’re less effective, focused, and productive.
To make matters even worse, stress literally kills: chronic stress is a major contributing factor to the top six leading causes of death in the United States, including coronary heart disease and suicide, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that stress-related ailments account for about 75% of all doctors’ visits. Everybody needs time to mentally rest and recover. You can’t fix the problem of being overworked by working more, when what you actually need is to set boundaries and take the time to rest.
Laziness can help us find the most efficient path forward
Doing more work isn’t always a good thing, especially if you can accomplish the same task faster or with less effort by using an alternate approach.
Industrial engineer Frank Bunker Gilbreth, one of the pioneers of scientific management in the United States, got his start working as a bricklayer. By filming his fellow bricklayers, which you can watch on YouTube, he was able to analyze the motions they took while working in order to determine the most effective technique. He identified that the most labor-intensive aspect of bricklaying came when the bricklayers had to bend over to pick up their bricks and mortar. His solution was to develop an adjustable scaffold that would keep the bricks at a more advantageous height. Ultimately, Gilbreth was able to reduce the number of motions associated with laying a single brick from 18 movements to 4.5 movements—which tripled productivity, reduced worker fatigue, and improved workers’ long-term health.
There is also scientific evidence to support the benefits of doing less unnecessary mental labor. Idleness and letting the mind wander can lead to greater creativity and problem-solving: one study found that participants who daydreamed while performing a boring task performed better on a subsequent creative task than the control group and those who performed a boring task without daydreaming.
How to lead a productive lazy life
With all of this in mind, the benefits of allowing yourself to relax and embrace laziness are clear. This can be difficult to do since we live in a world that’s designed to keep us busy and distracted; even still, there are tactics you can use which can give you space to be lazy and relax.
Don’t be afraid of letting some things go: just because you can spend time and effort doesn’t mean that you need to. Not all inbound communication is equally important, but the notifications on our phones and in our inboxes are equally intrusive, which can make every message feel equally important, even when it isn’t. You might think that taking in and retaining every single piece of new information will make you feel more secure, but doing so can ultimately create stress commensurate with that amount of extra effort.
Napoleon reportedly had a unique way of dealing with his mail: He would only open a few letters which came from “extraordinary couriers,” and would simply leave all the rest unread for three weeks. His reasoning behind this was that minor, non-urgent requests would solve themselves, and that his time was better spent on the few tasks which truly required his attention. Depending on your situation, it might not be practical for you to leave your emails unread for three weeks, but the lesson we can take from this is that you can conserve your time and energy for what actually matters by strategically postponing demands on your attention.
One way to do this is by adopting better tools that account for human limitations and simplify the decisions that you have to make. Machines are good at performing routine tasks according to specific rules, whereas humans are good at creatively tackling novel problems. So, for example, you could take inspiration from Napoleon and set automated reminders on your inbound emails to strategically postpone addressing them to a more convenient time in the future.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to be kinder to ourselves and one another. It’s okay to need breaks; allow yourself the time that you need to relax and breathe. Hard work is good, but not when it comes at the expense of the rest that we all need and deserve.
Garrett Mitchell is the lead engineer for Twobird, an all-in-one inbox for task management.