America’s high stakes political and economic systems take away the ability to enjoy leisure activities.
I sometimes wonder what motivates me to do certain things: volunteering for an event, taking a certain course, applying for summer internships, friending someone on Facebook or adding them on LinkedIn, journaling, taking a friend out to lunch, writing an article. I question my motives because, even if I want to see a friend or take a course, there is still somehow this attached mental weight attached to scheduling and maximizing the day’s productivity.
In my mind, I’m running through how I have to show up on time for the event in question and ensure that it doesn’t run overlong and make me late for the next item on my agenda. It’s like having a washing machine in my head, the same unfinished tasks and yet-to-be-solved problems constantly whirling around.
“I still need to pencil in some time to write this paper and email a professor, and I probably need to call my mom because it’s been over a month since our last chat. And now that I’m thinking about it, I should be in contact with my last boss in case I need a recommendation from them down the line. Let me put that down in my calendar for right after I tell someone that I can hang out and then never following through and then feeling a light sense of guilt for the next week or so.”
That’s not even getting into feeling a constant sense of inadequacy when I’m not “on my grind” or whatever you want to call it. It’s this feeling that, unless something can go on my resume or make me generally more employable, I probably shouldn’t be doing it. And just in case anyone says that I’m using this article as a public therapy session, I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. I can’t think of any peer that I’ve brought this feeling up around who doesn’t relate, which is a bit worrying in itself.
This pervasive, insidious thought process leaks efficiency (i.e., anxiety) into everyday life and can make every aspect of a routine feel like it needs to justify itself. I like to call this “resume panic,” but I think it probably works the same for everyone, regardless of a given title. It translates free time into time where we are either productive or unproductive, with the unproductive portions making us feel badly about ourselves.
Why are we always in our own heads about being more efficient, better scheduled and more competitive in the social and professional marketplace?
Well, for one, it could just be a symptom of being a college student in 2019: every day, in some form or another, we’re told just how scary the world is and just how unprepared we are to face it. Politics are a nightmare right now (although they have always been a mess), there’s a large-scale workforce mechanization transition on the horizon, and acts of terror are only becoming more common. Given the state of the world, it only makes sense that I should prepare myself as well as I can to get a good career where I don’t have to be in danger. At least that’s how the thought goes.
There’s also the pressure that we put upon ourselves that idolizes an imaginary lifestyle in which every second from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. is used with utmost precision and planning (including half an hour for meditation, of course). This sort of content is all over social media, and it has seen considerable growth over the past five years or so. If you get productive enough, you can even monetize your own productivity through self-help books or a Patreon for a YouTube channel.
While I don’t have any particular vendetta against self-help content, I don’t think life should be about efficiency, cutthroat competition and profit/time maximization. Feel free to call me naive for believing that there are things to do outside the workforce and a scrubbed-clean homelife, but I have to hold out hope for something beyond constant mental schedules and cost-benefit analyses of a full night’s sleep. The problem is, I’m not exactly sure how we get there, and I’m not sure that our current political and economic structure would support it.
I bring up politics and economics because I believe they are a large, though silent, motivator behind all this advocating for productivity and efficiency. It seems self-protective to me, and I don’t mean that in a capitalism-makes-us-all-selfish-and-greedy sort of way, but rather that we’re protecting ourselves in a system that doesn’t do it for us. Say you break a leg and can’t work for a while, or maybe you’re born with or develop some sort of chronic illness. It happens to people, and yet there’s little that society or government puts in place as a safety net. You better make one yourself, the construction of which can often manifest itself as valuing productivity. What’s our other option? Is there one?
My best guess for a simple solution is to stop putting so much societal pressure on having a capital-C Career and to start emphasizing hobbies and cultivation of genuine, non-corporate-minded relationships. This would have to be coupled with policy reform, particularly for healthcare and welfare. Call me a “neo-marxist, postmodern communist” or whatever buzz words are in vogue right now, but there’s an undeniable link between our nation’s current policies and a rise in public anxiety, particularly in minority groups.
I know saying “we should just simply change society overnight” is simplistic and overplayed, but I do think that there’s societal roots in individual anxiety, and I hope that we begin to better the way we think of ourselves soon.