Segal | The counter-productivity of staying busy

Opinion by Julia Segal
Jan. 29, 2023, 8:54 p.m.

When asked how life is going, or how Week [insert a number] is treating me, my standard response is, “oh, the usual, so busy.” To which the standard reply is: “I know right, same!” While the specific language might vary in each interaction, the overall theme stays the same: how freaking busy everyone is. 

But as those words escaped my mouth a few weeks ago, they startled me. Why had I said that? I wasn’t really that busy. In fact, I was ashamed to admit it, but lately, I had had free time. The thought was so despicable that I tried to push it away immediately. I would never tell anyone that humiliating secret. 

Sitting in the back of CS106A during my freshman year, I couldn’t help but notice how few people were paying attention during class; rather, the sea of open laptops revealed that many people were actually doing something entirely unrelated to the lesson. Editing their resume. Updating their LinkedIn. Applying for an internship. Coding their own app (don’t ask me why these people are in CS106A to begin with). In other words, they were spending their time in class doing something far more productive than paying attention in class. And yes, I am guilty of being one of those people. 

At Stanford, there is a social pressure to be chronically busy; to constantly maximize the productivity of every second of every day. We are made to believe that if something doesn’t have a real-time benefit for our career, it is a waste of time. (We rationalize social interaction by the fact that many relationships with peers at Stanford will be “useful networking connections” one day.) This article itself is the result of this: I was deliberating between settling down with a book and writing this article, and decided that this article would be a better use of time because it has a tangible outcome. 

This phenomenon can be characterized by a simple pattern: as Stanford students, we feel an overwhelming urge to constantly create things, or put things out into the world, rather than take in the knowledge the world has to offer. 

I should pause here and admit that this is an overgeneralization of the average Stanford student; there are also plenty of us who are passionate about learning simply for the sake of it. Yet when you scroll through Instagram and see someone posting about the start-up they founded, or the award they just received, or the talk they just gave, or them posing with the president because they just passed a bill through Congress, it’s hard to feel okay with just sitting back, relaxing, and doing something that doesn’t have an immediate outcome. Maybe that’s why, even though writing music is something I have done my entire life and is a form of therapy for me, I haven’t felt like I have had time to write a song in six months. 

But almost every work of genius or revolutionary idea emerged from hours, days, months, or even years of participating in an activity that is frankly the opposite of being busy: thinking. Isaac Newton got bored during quarantine in the time of the Great Plague and invented the theory of gravity and calculus in one go. JK Rowling dreamt up the world of Harry Potter while she was bored on a 4-hour-long train, simply sitting and staring at the scenery outside the window. These people weren’t multitasking, but simply and truly just thinking. Many scientific studies have corroborated the notion that boredom leads to creativity: a 2019 study published in the Academy of Management Discoveries asked some participants to complete a boring task, such as sorting a bowl of beans by color and asked others to complete a more engaging craft activity. Later, those who had been given the boring task outperformed the others on an intellectually challenging problem. Boredom puts us in a daydream-like state, and unlocks our creative potential by letting our imaginations roam freely without interruption or distraction. 

But in order to reach this state, you are probably not running 500 clubs, giving Ted Talks, or publishing a book at the age of 18. Frankly, you are doing nothing of note at all. Nothing worth posting about on Instagram, anyway. 

But life without constant stimulation became a foreign concept long ago. In fact, it’s difficult for me to recall the last time I felt completely bored — probably because when I have, I resolved that issue immediately by pulling out my phone. That’s what boredom has become — a problem to be solved. But I can faintly remember when boredom didn’t have such a negative connotation; being bored was exciting, a world full of endless possibilities. I remember being bored, pulling out a blank piece of paper and a pencil, and feeling a rush of exhilaration. What brand new thing was I about to create? As a student at Stanford, being bored feels shameful; a reason to apply for a few more internships or clubs. 

As we fill our calendars to the brim with activities that load up our LinkedIn profiles, I think that we should all learn to stop for a moment and embrace not being productive for a little bit. Learn from the world around us, instead of trying to convince the world to learn from us. While our LinkedIn might look blank for a while, maybe one day, it could say that we invented calculus. That would be pretty dope. 

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