You Shouldn’t Be Working

If you’re an ambitious person you’re probably very familiar with that voice in the back of your head that says you should be working right now. There are so many fun things you could be doing. There’s a party tonight. An art exhibit you’ve wanted to see. A painting you’ve abandoned that you want to finish. But shouldn’t you be working instead?

It’s exhausting to always feel the need to be working, and to feel guilty about not working. In the beginning of a long stretch of work, such as a new semester, things seem to start off light. But when things start to ramp up, I am suddenly working all the time and any semblance of a balanced life is destroyed.

For a while I told myself that this is unavoidable since there is just more and more work as the semester goes on. But I don’t think that’s the full story. I’ve noticed that when something isn’t finished (i.e., all the time) I tend to guilt myself into continuing to work despite all signals my brain and body is giving me. I’m impatient. I want it done, and there are more things to do after that. So I sit around, not allowing myself to not work, but not making much progress either. I end up exhausting myself and being less effective overall.

So I’m going to try something new. I’m going to try saying “I shouldn’t be working”* on a regular basis. It’s 7pm on a Friday. I’d like to get dinner with friends and go to a party or two. I shouldn’t be working. I bet I’ll end up being far more productive, not to mention happier.

* Caveat: This only works if the amount of work you have is manageable. If you have so much work that you couldn’t possibly get it done in a reasonable interval of time, then this becomes unsustainable. Things go downhill rather than cyclically. I’ve thought about coming up with a mathematical model of productivity. There must be some phase transition from order to chaos that makes it certain workloads simply impossible to handle.


  1. A nice, brief post that probably applies to most of the people who are reading your blog. How’d the experiment wind up working for you?

  2. It’s a work in progress. I think the trick for me is to make deliberate plans for fun things. If I don’t, I’ll fill up time working inefficiently. Sorry for the super late reply… the email I had listen on here expired so I haven’t gotten notifications in months.

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