In Praise of Being Unproductive

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Are you productive?  Efficient?  Useful?  More to the point, are you productive, efficient, and useful enough?  These are the kinds of questions that arise (naturally and terrifyingly) when technology makes it easy to stay online and connected 24/7.  But all this connectivity brings two unfortunate side effects.  First, the expectation from bosses, friends, the media, etc., that we will be available at all times, has increased.  Second, the concepts of productivity and efficiency have been redefined according to what our devices enable.  If you could be working, a certain line of thinking goes, then you should be.

Yet, as Josh Olejarz writes in the September-October 2019 Harvard Business Review, being able to use technology as much as we want doesn’t guarantee that we’re using our time well.  The devices we love are full of bright, colorful distractions, tempting us to scroll just a little further, to refresh again and again.  (Let’s not forget: Tech companies design their products to be addictive.)  And the downsides of heavy technology use, studies show, are numerous: depression, loneliness, isolation, lower empathy, and even suicidal thoughts.

In her new book, 24/6 Tiffany Shlain, the founder of the Webby Awards, lays out a plan for surviving our “always-on” culture. Taking a cue from her Jewish heritage, she suggests a “tech Shabbat” or “Sabbath”: one day a week without screens or devices.

For thousands of years, Shabbat has prescribed that people set aside time to rest and reflect.  Shlain writes that her modern interpretation benefits our mental and physical health—and she has spent the past decade practicing it. Unplugging gives us more chances to enjoy hobbies and socialize, but one of its greatest gifts is perspective.  When we step away from technology on a regular basis, it becomes easier to consider whether we’re using it wisely.

What else can you do to resist a digital world that demands your nonstop productivity? The artist Jenny Odell has an idea: nothing.  In How to Do Nothing, her treatise on capitalism’s tendency to equate “useful” with “can make money,” she argues for the value of being useless.  But the nothing she favors isn’t...

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