Vakil: Why it’s productive to be unproductive

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Caroline Vakil, Columnist

I’m sitting at a cafe an hour before my class starts with the intent of catching up on the day’s readings. A minute later, I’m perusing Facebook, reading articles from The New Yorker and writing this column. Even though I tell myself every time that I’m going to change my habits and try focusing on my work, I can’t help but neglect it for the moment in exchange for the greater pleasure of doing something else.

Many of us hate the idea of being unproductive. There are a million things we think we have to do and a small span of time in which to get things done — we rush against the clock to get it all done in the course of a day. And often we become frustrated with ourselves because we fail to achieve the laundry list of things we want to get done. We’re failing to achieve the ideal day of work.

But it’s toxic to think this way because being unproductive is often productive. Saying that we’re going to work on homework for three hours straight without taking a break or checking Facebook is simply not realistic, and we should not assume it is even possible. We are not meant to exert all of our energy into one thing for such a long span of time. We get drained.

Many studies have proven that taking a break can be healthy and even increase your productivity. One 2012 study by researchers at Hiroshima University in Japan found that when researchers asked a group of people to look at cute animal photos before playing a game, they were able to finish the game faster and with more efficiency than the group of people who did not look at the pictures of cute animals. Although it might sound silly, there’s a good reason for our online kitten and puppy craze — they not only are cute to look at, but also make us more productive, too.

More importantly, it’s not what you do necessarily that makes you more productive, but how much time you give yourself away from your work. The app DeskTime measures the computer use of employees. Data from the app showed that the top 10 percent of employees in terms of productivity worked for 52 minutes and then took a 17-minute break, often away from their computers. Small, frequent breaks are important because they re-energize you and keep you focused so that you come back to your work with a fresh eye.

Plus, I know from personal experience that I don’t work effectively if I stay in one spot for too long. The longer I work on a math problem or an essay without short breaks in between, the more mistakes I’m apt to make, even if it’s making silly grammar mistakes or switching negative and positive signs in a formula. Smaller mistakes can soon mount to bigger issues, and I find that I expend more time fixing my mistakes than it would take for me to just take a short break in the first place.

It’s also important to be honest with ourselves about our limitations. I know myself well enough to know I won’t finish this column in one sitting, and that’s OK because I space out a reasonable amount of time to write it rather than assume I can write it an hour. Sure, you can call it procrastination, but I call it realistic thinking of how I spend my time. This is the system that works best for me.

I’m not going to suggest how you should spend your time or what a break necessarily should look like. Taking breaks will not hurt you. To be productive we have to be unproductive.

Caroline Vakil is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern. 

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