It turns out that we treat ourselves much like we treat the planet’s environment; we push ourselves far past our limits, create unsustainable systems in the name of growth, and end up feeling crummy and exhausted (not to mention looking less attractive). In an article in this weekend’s Sunday Review section of the New York Times, Tony Schwartz wrote the following, which really made me sit back and think about my own life: “ ‘More, bigger, faster.’ This, the ethos of the market economies since the Industrial Revolution, is grounded in a mythical and misguided assumption — that our resources are infinite.” Schwartz made me see myself, for a brief moment, as an overtaxed system, and how pushing myself past my limits (which aren’t exactly slackerly in the first place) might actually be hurting me. I might write about sustainability for the planet, but what about my own?

Sure, I understand that if you force a field to grow crops season after season with no rest (or fallow period), you will end up with dead soil that you will have to drench with chemical fertilizers and artificial fertilizers to get anything to grow. I know that when you ride a horse, you need to make sure they have time to warm up, cool down, rest between rides, and have plenty of opportunities to do horsey things, like rolling around in the mud, or chew grass contemplatively. If you don’t, you will "ruin" the horse, which usually results in a neurotic, moody animal that will kick you or take off with the bit in its mouth in a manic gallop across a field.

I’m not that different from a field growing myriad nutritious plants (this is a great metaphor for the creative process) or more directly, the potentially neurotic or angry horse. Like them, I need downtime, not only to be "happier" in a general sense, but also to literally grow new ideas and do the best work that I can.

We know that Germany, to use just one example, isn’t exactly a country full of lazy folks (nor are they perceived that way). The country has extremely high productivity per worker (depending on the report, either slightly higher or slightly lower than the U.S.), and its GDP is strong and getting stronger. But German workers get an average of 30 days of paid vacation per year (that increases to 40 days when paid holidays are taken into account). Other competitive countries like the U.K. and Japan get 28 and 25 days off, respectively. In the United States, the average is 13 (and how many people do you know who don’t use them?). Taking time off during weekends, which is a challenge for some people, is probably not enough. This is not helping our mental or physical health, and it’s time we took this issue seriously.  

But we probably won’t — unless of course, time away from our work means we are actually more productive. And it turns out, contrary to conventional wisdom, data shows that this is the case. More time at work, to the detriment of mental and physical health, is actually less productive.

Schwartz writes, “Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office, and longer, more frequent vacations — boost productivity, job performance, and of course, health.” It might be a surprise, but more does not equal better when it comes to work. 

Does this new information make you feel like you can take more time off in 2013? 

Related post on MNN: Why we need Sundays

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