pressure to be productive

Is Our Free Time Really 'Free'? |Understanding The Pressure To Be Productive|

In my second year of college, I was introduced to Theodor Adorno’s essay “Work and Pleasure” which basically explains how falling in the dichotomy of work and play doesn’t actually leave any time for play at all. At that point I thought to myself - ‘wow, this guy really thinks everyone just has the privilege of leisure’. 

Back then, I was a staunch believer of getting everything I could out of everything I did. Do I like reading? Better only read things that’ll help me with my work, so limit my reading to stuff that’s just related to psychology. Ironically, forcing myself to do that has now left me reading much less than I used to before. And all that ‘free time’ does not really feel like a breather anymore.

That’s when I realised that what Adorno was trying to say was right. How we spend our free time is, more often than not, dictated by our professional lives and goals. We usually just chalk it up to self-improvement and don’t realise we need an actual break till we start feeling burnt out. 

Social media makes us feel like  everything we do must account for something. We assume that even the things we do in our free time have to be impressive or fit into some ideal that is presented to us by society. So if I’m not working on a side hustle, improving/capitalising on a hobby or reading a self-help book in my downtime, then I’m just wasting my time. Every minute of my life must contribute to the improvement of it or else it's of no use!

Let’s say we break away from this notion that our free time’s got to be productive. If not productive then it’s got to be fun! Or else we’re not making the most of our time with our loved ones or worse, we’re lazy/boring/antisocial. In his insightful thought piece, for lack of a better word, Adorno adds, “One is forced to have fun in order to be well adjusted or at least appear so to others because only well-adjusted people are accepted as normal and are likely to be successful.”

As much as our work is dictated by notions of productivity and maintaining appearances,  so is our free time! But before you spiral (like I did after my initial reading), here are a few ways you can (actually) reclaim your free time:

  1. Separate your spare and self-Improvement time: It’s easier said than done, especially if you’re someone who lives life by the minute, but even if it’s just for a few minutes a day, do something fun simply because you enjoy it. It might take some trial and error to figure out what’s fun for you, but hey, the process can be equally fun!
  2. Be present: Mindfulness has earned such a reputation that at this point, it may be included in the “being productive/ self-improvement” category of things. But in this context, it just means keeping those thoughts of ‘I’m wasting my time’ at bay. Personal hack that I follow?  Identify and name seven things I can see in the room to nudge myself back to the present.
  3. Accept that you’re not being productive: Your reclaimed leisure time is a beneficial use of your time, not necessarily a productive one. Ask yourself: Did I have a good time? Yes? Great, that’s all I had to do! No? Maybe try something else next time.
  4. Give it some time: At first, the guilt may persist, so maybe you can start with a small amount of time to keep your guilt at bay. Over a period of time, as it gradually starts feeling more natural, the guilt may start to subside.

Fair warning: As I write those tips, I realise that I am guilty of being one of the many voices making suggestions about what you should do in your free time (oops). This is just my take on someone else’s take. It helped me feel better about how I spend my free time and it might help you too. However, if it puts more pressure on you to make space for something that you may not have the mental capacity to do, that’s alright. Maybe right now you’re swamped and someone telling you to go have fun doesn't work (or maybe it serves as a helpful reminder). 


In any case, you’re the best judge of how you can reclaim your own time!

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