I started to write this last night but really I should have been relaxing, or launching into my epic 10-hour night’s sleep. If I had done either of those things I would be more productive today. Shoot. That means I have to take a nap this afternoon, and preferably a nap lasting 60 to 90 minutes, which a researcher at the University of California, Riverside, found is the ideal time needed to improve results on a memory test. I am very susceptible to such warnings, and judging by the popularity of Sunday’s New York Times story, “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive,” so are a lot of other people.
And probably like many of them I have tried. I have tried to leave my desk to take walks, and to get more sleep, and to not think about work at all while on vacation. I have tried not to stay up until 2 a.m. chasing the elusive Inbox Zero. I have tried to do more yoga and not think about my grocery list while doing it. And I have even tried now and again to unplug completely and really get into the Sabbath. The problem is, all these strategies for relaxing just end up feeling like one more thing I have to do, or more likely one more thing I worry I am failing to do. And anyway nothing kills relaxation more than an oversized bold headline that reads “Relax!”
Given my epic failures, I can only assume that the problem is even deeper than we realize. I can grasp the superficial diagnosis: the endless possibilities for electronic communication mean that spending an hour off the grid, i.e. napping, seems preposterous, and shockingly irresponsible. In the early days of my career I semi-routinely wasted hours of my afternoon, sneaking out to bike with my friend at work or shop or eat long lunches. But now I almost never do that, probably because I can quantify my wastage so precisely by the numbers of emails that have gone by while I’ve been away.
But telling people to strategically nap or do “daytime workouts” seems like a symptom of the same disease, because it just reinforces the notion that we humans are precision machines that must be kept in perfect order in order to operate efficiently. Find a way to relax, the Times story advises, so you can boost “productivity” and enhance your “job performance.” Even that most common directive: Recharge! Wasn’t that meant for batteries?
Recently I was in Paris and met up with some colleagues at Slate France. They were laughing over a recent Slate debate about whether people should eat lunch at their desks. This struck them as bizarre behavior, not because it was failing to fill up our tanks or boost our productivity or make us hum, but just because it seemed so unfun. All of which made me, la bête americain, feel like we had lost ourselves somewhere, if we could only conceive of even our relaxation and slumber as a form of performance enhancement.
What we actually need is a much more radical reinterpretation of the human being’s relationship to work, an allowance for people’s commitment to work to come in waves and be imperfect and even include days where they might be tired, for one reason or another. This seems especially important for women, who always suffer for being perceived as having outside commitments that demand too much of their time—commitments that won’t disappear when they wake up from their nap.