In the Middle Ages, the sin of sloth could mean two things: the laziness we picture now and the sense that “There’s no real place I’m going, but by God, I’m making great time getting there.”
It seems we have contradictory information. John Robinson’s studies show people work the same amount of time, or less, as 40 years ago. He believes “Saying, ‘I don’t have time,’ is just another way of saying, ‘I’d rather do something else.'” Meanwhile, a Health Canada report shows more and more experience role overload, leading to mental and physical ails, suggesting “these workloads re not sustainable over the long term.” Any leisure time is scattered and fragmented by multi-tasking.
Busyness serves many purposes, making people feel important with purpose. Many feel guilty for any leisure. But the chronic stress of busyness actually shrinks the prefrontal cortex (while mindfulness grows the prefrontal cortex), which is responsible for our highest cognitive executive functions. It also impairs the immune system, increasing vulnerability to inflammation and a host of ails. And, it can literally alter the DNA in children. How you feel about stress in your life is the best predictor of your general health.
Overwork is also harmful to work performance. Face time for the sake of face time, for instance, impedes creativity and good thinking. When employees have a full personal life, though, they are more engaged, productive, and innovative in their professional life. This is why France, Germany, and the Netherlands established rights to flexible or short work hours. This is why the Dutch government promotes a program that allows parents to work overlapping 4-day weeks so childcare is only needed for three days.
Danish mothers have on average 1.5 hours of child-less leisure time daily – more than any other country studied. They belong to sports clubs, take courses of interest, and build lasting friendships at mothers groups. They tend to value achievement and possessions less – instead prioritizing a good life and finding status in leisure activities. At work, they focus on efficiency. Denmark is one of the most productive countries with one of the highest standard of living, and the smallest gap between rich and poor.
The ability to choose what really interests you and follow through on the leisure plans, without letting them become more work, may need to be re-learned. Part of it has to do with developing self-efficacy to put yourself first by (1) doing things you do well to remind yourself you can, (2) finding role models or mentors, and (3) accepting and believing positive feedback. When you worry you’re not enough, you set unrealistic expectations for yourself to try proving that worry wrong, but it backfires because you set yourself up to fall short. The other part is priority. Plan weekly the important stuff in the calendar, including a small chunk of time to complete the unimportant stuff, and everything else will flow around it.
Experiment and periodically review to adjust. One thing to try is working in 90 minute pulses of deliberate work followed by deliberate rest. You could also try creating rituals to automate decisions, like laying out clothes the night before. Try getting the to-do list out of your head by writing it down and adding as thoughts surface so you don’t have to work at remembering those tasks on top of everything else. Another recommendation is to think of the most important thing for each day and aim to do it first, when the brain is most alert.
As strategies at the organizational level, though clear mission and expectations are always needed, each system is unique and it’s important for programs, policies, and practices to align with corporate culture. Some organizations are virtual while others have strict limits of office time, while others still allow flexibility to schedule around personal obligations, either formally or day-to-day. Some allow nurses to schedule their own hours in an online calendar. And we all know about Google giving employees 20% of their time to work on whatever they want. The message is clear: performance results matter, not work hours.