Productivity is the buzzword of the modern working world. We all know that person who rises at 6am and slots in a quick boxercise class before flawlessly churning their way through a mountain of tasks. They’re optimal performers who thrive on cramming the most into their days, and we want to be the same. We yearn for seamless morning routines, a killer to-do list, a “work-smart” ethic and a gleaming inbox. We dream of making time for meditation, friends, foodie pop-ups and other things we know make us positively glow. The problem is, it all feels so… unobtainable. And exhausting.
Ditch the diary and go rogue
Instead of dreaming up more habits to reign in our increasingly busy lives, wouldn’t it be better to let ourselves just be? That’s what digital strategist Ji Son Choi decided to do for an entire month, after her own frenetic work-life hit saturation point. “Being time-starved is a perpetual, borderline addictive state that many modern people have adopted as a lifestyle,” she writes, in a piece published by Thrive Global. “Still, it’s neither healthy or sustainable, even for the most ambitious!”
To break the cycle, Choi opted to take a month-long “life break”, where she consciously stepped back from her frenetic agenda. She scrapped all aspects of her schedule, and just followed whatever she felt like doing day by day in her native New York.
“Everything was up to chance and whim — if it was raining that day, I might check out a museum. If it was sunny, I might get to a pretty outlook near a canal or garden to picnic and read,” Choi writes. “I felt like a kid discovering an unknown path home as I explored the city’s streets and neighbourhoods. If I made a new friend that day, I’d often ask them to join me on my impromptu itinerary or would tag along to whatever fun activity they had on the books.”
A day of freedom a month
Amazing as Choi’s experience sounds, most of us don’t have the luxury to just take a month out. And it might not work for that amount of time anyway, without the backdrop of stimulation that a city like New York provides. But Choi recommends assigning at least one day a month to explore a town, city or anywhere of your choosing – without plan or agenda. “No pre-work required; just use a map app on your phone and go already,” she says.
Why? Hardly anyone makes room for an unstructured day like this. We thrive on action and routine. But in a world where structure makes us feel safe, it’s actually a quietly radical act to just follow your heart. And more importantly, it’s a brilliant way of helping your overloaded mind unfurl. Choi quotes management professor Allison Gabriel, who tells us that “the brain is like a muscle. You can strengthen it or deplete it. If you let this muscle recharge and replenish, you’ll feel better mentally and see improvements in your [work] performance.”
The power of being
Taking an unstructured day taps into the practice of being, not doing. Urban lifestyles, in particular, have all but eroded this. We do, achieve, attend, tick off – all at a compulsively frenzied pace. Very rarely do we just be. And yet, it’s key to cherishing the moment and developing self-awareness; qualities that advocates of the Slow Living movement rave about. “Speed is often an instrument of denial, a way of avoiding deeper problems,” says Carl Honoré, whose book, In Praise of Slow, is an international bestseller. “Instead of facing up to what is going wrong in our lives, we distract ourselves with speed and busyness.
“Slowing down can be the antidote to that,” Honoré notes. “It allows us to reflect on the big questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? What sort of life should I be leading? How can I make the world a better place? Such questions can be uncomfortable but confronting them ultimately brings greater depth to our lives.”
Learn how to play again
As well as allowing yourself to just be, taking an unstructured day off is a clever way of tapping into the power of play. According to author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown, play is a “state of being” that is “purposeless, fun and pleasurable”. As adults, we tend to dismiss all but competitive forms of play. And yet this sense of succumbing to the moment – of doing something novel, silly or pointless, just for laughs – doesn’t become redundant as we grow up. We still crave it as much as we ever did. It’s just that real life takes over, and we forget we need it.
Read more: Using travel to de-clutter the mind
“What you begin to see when there’s major play deprivation in an otherwise competent adult is that they’re not much fun to be around,” explains Brown, who is also head of the US non-profit the National Institute of Play. “You begin to see that the perseverance and joy in work is lessened and that life is much more laborious.”
An unstructured day of exploring creates a catalyst for purposeless play. You’re carving out an opening for surprise, spontaneity and pleasure that just wouldn’t happen in your day-to-day life. You’re focusing on an experience, not accomplishing a goal. You may even make a deep connection with a stranger along the way, as a result of impromptu playfulness. All this will open up your imagination and reinvigorate your soul, making you more creative. You’ll become intuitively better at relationships and problem-solving. And you’ll form an ready-made antidote to the inanity of everyday routine.
“Play is something done for its own sake,” says Brown. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.” Play, he says, is like oxygen: “it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing”.
Travel, play and unstructured days
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the whirl of multi-tasking in your everyday life, why not see whether an unstructured day a month helps ease the pressure? If you really struggle to find time for this, taking time out for travel may be a good starting point.
Travel is a shortcut to unstructured days, and the many benefits they bring with them. It’s the crossing point at which spontaneity, lack of agenda and the thrill of exploration overlap, sparking pure joy. Whether you’ve just touched down in Buenos Aires or have three days free in Lusaka, there’s nothing quite like the prospect of discovering a new place on your own terms.
You really do have the power to just be. You can re-charge your brain and reinvigorate your spirit, simply by the act of ditching your schedule and wandering around at will. This, in turn, will open up avenues for all the impromptu delights of play. And that’s a lesson you can bring with you, long after you’ve returned home.