Taking it easy: Recognizing the merits of unproductivity

“In my four years at the College, I’ve taken challenging classes in many departments, studied abroad and performed independent research. I’ve spent valuable time with great friends and teammates, participated in organizations seeking to make real change and taken all kinds of interesting electives and Winter Study courses. I’ve pushed myself academically and grown tremendously as a student and person.”

This is the story I tell prospective employers and inquisitive family members, and I see similar stories reflected in our admissions brochures. It is a story about productivity, about “making the most of my time here,” and it is the story I feel like I am supposed to tell. I could tell a different story, one about afternoons spent watching YouTube videos, evenings spent playing video games, weekends spent watching movies and shows with friends – but would my job interviewer nod their head approvingly? Would my grandmother tell me how proud she is that I’m “really making the most of my time”? It seems unlikely. We might say that one story is more impressive than the other, and it might be true that the first story is more relevant to a job interview. I think we forget, however, that the second story is important, too.

Completing assignments may be satisfying, but my leisure time is when I smile, laugh and really enjoy my time on campus. I sometimes have a hard time justifying this to myself – perhaps my leisure helps me recharge so I can be more productive in the future. After all, everyone knows that we should be productive: We consider it morally good to work hard, receive good grades, build solid resumes, pursue careers we are passionate about and find vaguely defined “success” there. At each step along the way, “success” will make us happy, and the whole thing will have been worth it. We should be driven by a deep passion for our work, and if we are not passionate about our work, we should either become passionate or find different work. Phrases like “work-life balance” have lost their sway, because our work should be our lives, and our personal time should be productive. At best, we can “work hard, play hard,” if we have been working hard enough to earn a bit of play, but we had better really play hard to prove we’re not “wasting time.”

Here at the College, I find myself struggling to feel like I have earned my relaxation – if I complete all my work early and have an entire weekend off, I can relax through Friday evening, but by lunch on Saturday I feel like a failure, like I should be doing something “better” with my time. I suspect I am not the only student who goes to bed worried about not working hard enough. It is one thing to face the pressure to achieve, but we are exhorted to constantly push ourselves to our limits. As Williams students, “the best” potential members of the capitalist elite, we should be competing with the world every day! If we work hard enough, improve enough, grow enough to consistently accomplish our goals ahead of deadline – congratulations, time to set harder goals, join a new group, take a fifth class or a second major or a new club sport! I wonder, though: Is free time really free when we are pressured to make even our leisure productive?

There is a hierarchy of hobbies: Cultured hobbies like reading books are better than activities like watching television and playing video games, social hobbies are better than solitary hobbies and hobbies that result in a useful product or skill are more useful than those that only entertain. Meanwhile, the classic college hobby of partying may not be work in the traditional sense, but it can be “productive” and socially valued insofar as it becomes part of networking, part of “playing hard” and part of fitting in with other high-achievers. Even when we are not working, there is pressure to ensure that our time still serves some purpose. We want to justify our reading as educational, our dancing as social, our cooking as a valuable life skill.

I would like, however, to make a brief plea on behalf of our “unproductive” hobbies – our pastimes that keep us up late, make us procrastinate on assignments and might not even leave us refreshed and ready for work the next day. Can we be proud of the things that do nothing but make us happy? Perhaps we can justify it by thinking of it as hard work – struggling to change ourselves, in a campus that glamorizes exhaustion, to unlink our self-esteem from our perceived productivity. Maybe, if we try hard enough, we can learn to appreciate our free time for its own sake.

Connor Swan ’18 is from Tulsa, Okla. He lives in Currier.

  • As I like to say, the time you enjoy wasting really isn’t wasted.