BY BEN THOMAS | Original Illustration for Ember by Zeloot
Every morning when I turn on my phone, the barrage begins. New emails in my personal and business inboxes. Voicemails. Missed calls. Text-message replies. DM notifications. App-update alerts. All received in the past eight hours alone; all demanding my attention immediately, simultaneously, with equally fervent urgency.
I don’t have to face this deluge first thing in the morning, obviously. I can turn off my notifications, as many younger Gen Zers are making a conscious decision to do to avert anxiety. I can open each app in order of importance, and organize my tasks into a neat little checklist. I can put off answering emails until the end of my workday.
But none of these countermeasures really cuts to the root of the issue.
The real issue, in my view, is that we respond to unreasonable multitasking demands by finding ways to become more productive—which only frees up more time to be filled by even more unreasonable demands on our attention. To escape this vicious cycle, we need to stop trying to do more, and start purposefully doing less.
Most of us live under pressure so constant we hardly feel it anymore. We’ve become like deep-sea fish, adapted to being crushed on all sides by relentless demands for our attention. It’s not enough just to meet deadlines—a growing number of coworkers and clients expect us to be instantly reachable and responsive at all times, by phone, text, and Slack.
If the above paragraph doesn’t describe your job, then count yourself lucky. Even those of us who aren’t forced to skip bathroom breaks still struggle to maintain healthy work-life boundaries in a post-quarantine world, where unexpected Zoom calls can shatter our personal time, and myriad screens, apps, and inboxes battle over which will be next to capture our focus.
Is multitasking all that bad, though? Yes. Yes, it really is. Research shows that splitting our attention makes us more error-prone, disrupts our ability to store and recall memories, raises levels of stress hormones like cortisol, leads to sleep problems, and sometimes causes more severe mental health issues, like chronic depression. Neuroscientists agree: “Our brains are not wired to multitask well.”
So much for multitasking. But what about productivity in general?
If the idea of becoming less productive makes you a bit uncomfortable, you’re not alone. I too once recoiled at the thought. I believed I was happiest at work; most fulfilled in the midst of a flow state—which is, after all, allegedly “the most productive state” known to humankind.
Deep in some secret recess of my brain, though, I knew all was not well. I felt unhappy and guilty when I wasn’t working, so I worked relentlessly to stave off those feelings. The only way I could relax was to treat downtime as recharge time; to trust that daydreaming and idleness were rewiring my brain while I rested, preparing me for my next burst of creation.
This framework seems to be inescapable in modern Western culture. Even articles praising the Dutch concept of niksen—“doing nothing on purpose, without purpose”—emphasize the intentionality of this inactivity, pointing out that “niksen can help you solve problems,” and that it’s crucial to “think of niksen not as a sign of laziness but as an important life skill.”
We can justify relaxation, in other words, as long as it counts as work. Doing nothing unintentionally, by contrast, is an unpardonable sin—and a massive source of guilt.
This neurosis of “non-working guilt” is all too familiar for freelancers, as well as many people with disabilities. In fact, the whole world has now gotten a firsthand taste of how persistent and loathsome this feeling is, thanks to our homestuck 2020 life. Articles with titles like, “How to Avoid Productivity Guilt (And Become More Productive)” probably aren’t helping much, either.
In this circular logic, the option to do anything but work, produce, and recharge to work again has been erased off the board altogether. Apoorva Tadepalli wrote in The New Republic that “nonproductive bodies... become illegitimate [bodies],” whose idleness under capitalism serves as a source of self-shame—robbing us not only of our time and attention, but of the fundamental right to rest comfortably in our own skin.
Maybe it’s time we turn elsewhere for lifestyle inspiration.
In 1915, the Anglican Church established a mission in the territory of northern Australia’s indigenous Yir Yoront people. The missionaries brought a supply of steel hatchets to share with the Yir Yiront, hoping to make the tribe’s life easier. All did not go as planned. The tribe’s young men hoarded the hatchets from their elders, disrupting long-established social structures. And while steel did increase the Yir Yiront’s work efficiency, the group showed no interest in further life-hacking optimization—preferring instead to spend their newfound free time taking leisurely naps.
This story contains two clear lessons: 1) productivity is an extremely mixed blessing, and 2) time—and our bodies—do not have to be productive in order to have worth.
By forgetting these realities, we’ve lost touch with an understanding that may pre-date our species itself. In The Trouble with Being Born, philosopher E. M. Cioran recounts this tale of one of our closest animal relatives:
"A zoologist who observed gorillas in their native habitat was amazed by the uniformity of their life and their vast idleness. Hours and hours without doing anything. Was boredom unknown to them? This is indeed a question raised by a human, a busy ape... Inaction is divine; yet it is against inaction that man has rebelled... Thereby he shows himself unworthy of his ancestor.”
When I give myself permission to do nothing, I’m just trying to stay sane and let go of pointless shame. Bringing honor to my gorilla ancestors is, however, a very nice added bonus.
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture, and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect. Find him on Twitter at @writingben.