It is ok not being productive all the time

It Is Ok Not Being Productive All The Time

Have you ever felt that leisure is wasting your time, not being productive and feeling bad about it? Engaging in leisure can provide a myriad of benefits for mental and physical health, yet many of us view leisure as wasteful and unproductive. This can ironically affect our overall productivity and mental health if we think this way and treat everything that we do must bring us forward in life.

I came across this thread on Reddit a few weeks back that shared a study on leisure and productiveness. The study suggests that when we feel that leisure is wasteful and unproductive may lead to less happiness and higher levels of stress and depression.

Getting Hold Of The Research Paper

I might not fully understand the technicalities of the research paper but I still wanted a copy to look closer at what was done during the study. The pdf costs US$36 but I wanted to see if I can get a free copy.

I always see this posted on Reddit on how to get access to a scientific paper for free so I decided to try it out.

I wrote to one of the authors via email to ask for a copy of the study and she very kindly provided me with a link to get access to the full study. If you never try, you’ll never know. I was pleasantly surprised that it worked.

Why Do We Want To Be Productive?

We live in a world that wants to do the most using the least amount of time. There is an increasing number of books and videos out there teaching us how to hack our productivity. The reasons that motivate people to be productive can vary and they can include

  • Making more money by being more efficient
  • Want to be better at what they do
  • Higher efficiency sometimes translates to more time for leisure

For the last point, I say that because many of us are constrained by working hours so even if we are more productive, we still work the same hours but doing more work at the same pay.

Why Do We Think Leisure As Unproductive And Wasteful?

According to the study, there are several reasons why do we associate leisure with wastefulness.

Time Spent On Leisure Is Sometimes Truly Wasteful

This is usually the case when we spent excessive amounts of time on leisure activities, resulting in neglect of things we got to do like work, study or errands. As the statement is sometimes true, some of us might over-apply the association between wastefulness and all forms of leisure that leads to a general inference that all leisure is wasteful.

Time Spent On Leisure Comes At The Expense Of Productivity

We only have 24 hours a day and a minute spent on leisure is a minute NOT spent on necessary activities like work, study or errands. We have so much we want and need to do but not enough time to do them.

When Leisure Feels Wasteful n=153
When I’m procrastinating 68%
When I should be working 64%
When I should be taking care of other responsibilities 64%
When I have a lot on my to-do list 64%
When I have a goal  I could be working towards 51%
When I’m feeling unmotivated 35%
When I know other people (e.g. friends) are working 20%

Source: Table 1 of “Viewing leisure as wasteful undermines enjoyment

The survey done on 153 undergraduates shows that a high percentage of people think that when they are not being productive, leisure feels wasteful.

When we believe that leisure is unproductive, we might also reasonably perceive a large opportunity cost of time, where we could have used our time more productively. As a result, we might be distracted from the leisure activity at hand, experiencing less enjoyment.

The Stronger The Belief, The Lower The Enjoyment

Results from the study also showed that the more the participants believed leisure to be wasteful, the less they enjoyed leisure activities.

The correlation was true across different types of leisure activities that are active (exercising) or passive (watching TV), social (hanging out with friends) or solitary (meditating).

On top of that, the more the participants thought leisure was wasteful, the lower their levels of happiness and the higher their levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

“We live in a global society and there are people everywhere that hear the same messages about how important it is to be busy and productive. And once you believe that, and internalize the message that leisure is a waste, our results suggest you’re going to be more depressed and less happy, no matter where you live.”, Reczek, one of the authors of the study said.

How Does Leisure Improve Productivity?

Instead of being a waste of time, leisure in appropriate amounts increases our productivity.

Diffuse Mode Increases Understanding

I went through this free course called “Learning How To Learn” on Coursera last year. It is a highly popular course which has almost 3 million people enrolled. The course talks about how our brain works and some techniques we can use to increase our productivity like the Pomodoro Technique where we take breaks in between work or study. Instead of just studying or working for 8 hours straight, a timer is set for 25 – 40 minutes and you take a short break when the alarm rings. This can reduce burnout and also allows you to focus better, reducing mistakes and increasing productivity.

The course says we have two thinking modes, focused (during working and studying) and diffuse (taking a break) mode and switching between them, allows us to work and learn more efficiently. This is a video that describes the two thinking modes.

The short breaks also allow our mind to subconsciously bridge the various content that we are working on so that we can see things from a big picture perspective and not just focused on a certain narrow topic.

Your mental block can become unblocked after taking a walk.

Neglecting Leisure And Getting Burned Out

Getting burned out at work is a type of work-related stress that can be caused by the lack of work-life balance and others.

Burnout can take a serious toll on your health, productivity, career prospects, psychological well-being, and relationships.

Although one might get a short productivity boost before the burnout phase, once you get burned out, there will be an overcompensation of a drop in productivity due to the various consequences.

Leisure allows us to disconnect from work which will lower work-related fatigue, lower rates of procrastination and increase engagement during work, increasing productivity.

Don’t Let Work Make Up Your Entire Life

According to this study, two individuals who work 54 hours and 80 hours per week respectively has about the same productivity. The additional hours of working is a waste of time for both employees and employers.

There is always work that cannot be finished. Take care of yourself and don’t sacrifice your physical and mental health to please your bosses or chase unnecessary materialistic needs.

I understand that some of us are not in the privileged position to control the hours we work. If you have the choice to do so, treat yourself better and don’t feel guilty about taking a break.

Now we will look at some of the countries and occupations that have crazy work hours.


I come from an accountancy background and the default path for most accountancy graduates is to go into the audit industry. Before graduation, the majority of the cohort already got an offer for one or more Big Four. This is the standard for most graduates during my time at least. I did audit during my internship and I hated it. I don’t see much purpose in checking receipts that they match the accounts. During my internship that the permanent staff are all online shopping and surfing the internet as they didn’t want to leave before the boss.

I have heard stories that that young auditors work 12 or more hours a day during peak periods. Most of them use a job in the Big Four as a medal and stepping stone in their resume so that they can jump to another company after a few years. It is probably not true that being in the Big Four audit gives as much advantage as the graduates think they are but it is a safe job and they are almost always hiring.

While doing the research for this article, I came across a sponsored post by CPA Australia trying to change the impressions of the long hours of the job. I am sure some of them will be able to have a good work-life balance but the truth is many of them work long hours and will be too exhausted after work to pursue any of their interests.

Before graduation, the majority of the cohort already got an offer for one or more big 4. This is the standard at least during my time.


The Japanese have the word karoshi (過労死) which means “death from overwork”. Stories of karoshi have made several headlines where overworked employees either pass away from fatigue or suicide due to overworking themselves.

If you sleep at work in other countries, you might get fired. But in Japan, it is seen as a sign of working so hard that you fall asleep at your desk. Although they work super long hours, it doesn’t mean that they have the same productivity as someone who works normal hours.


China has a 996 working hour system especially for the tech industry where they work from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week. Alibaba’s Jack Ma endorsed 996 culture and got slammed by the netizens for it. The Chinese government has since declared that excessive 996 is illegal.

This is a video by Vice where they show the perspective of the employer, the employee still in the 996 system and another employee who left the 996 system.


How Much Leisure Is Reasonable?

We need everything in moderation. Leisure becomes unreasonable when you neglect your responsibilities like binging Netflix every time you need to wash the dishes. Don’t go crazy and just do 1 hour of work for every 8 hours of leisure.

According to this study, any amount of work done above the 54th hour, your time is better spent on leisure and rest for the average person. The average working hours worked for Singapore employees were around 44 hours per week but I believe most people think that they will want more leisure time.

Source: Tenor

If you feel that your performance and productivity is dropping, it might be time to take a break. I think the key point is to find a balance that works for you. The ratio of leisure to productivity will differ from person to person.

Do share with me in the comments if you have any tips on when and how should we take breaks.

How Can We Combat Feeling Leisure As Wasteful?

When I was still employed, I didn’t know when to take a break except during the weekends so I got burned out towards the end. Every break means that I had to catch up when I got back to work which made me feel like shit. The negative feelings of needing to catch up after a break did not balance out the positive feelings from taking a break.

For people like me that think that leisure is a waste of time, it can be useful to think of the bigger picture where leisure plays a part of enhancing productivity. When thinking in terms of reaching goals, it might reduce the feeling that leisure is wasteful.

When work boundaries get blurred due to technology, it is important to learn how to block off leisure time so that we can separate work and play. For example, when we go on leave, we should fully turn off from work as much as possible or only check our messages only after all leisure activities of the day has ended.


Leisure plays an important part in not only increasing and maintaining productivity. It is possible to have bursts of productivity without leisure but it cannot be done in the long term before it comes back to bite you. We shouldn’t let work overtake our lives as employees as if you go down, you will be replaced almost immediately and no one will miss you. If we are in the fortunate position to have enough time for leisure, we should not go crazy on work hours just for the sake of career progression or money.

If you have anything to share about your experiences with taking breaks and having leisure time, please share them with me in the comments.


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