Wake up. Brush teeth. Wash face. Internship meeting. Class. Yoga. Take pictures. Edit pictures. Class. Lunch. Internship meeting. Internship work. Edit podcast. Homework. Evening class. Dinner. More homework. Read. Pass out. That is what a typical Monday looks like for me. The rest of the week looks about the same. And I’m sure yours can look just as busy sometimes.
And there’s a reason for that: America loves to be busy. The average American works 47 hours a week. In the European Union, it’s 40 and still decreasing. Europe has taken measures to prevent people from overworking themselves. Spain has even started experimenting with a four-day workweek. In contrast, 40 percent of Americans report getting less than seven hours of sleep each night. We evidently value work over basic human needs.
I blame the American Dream, that belief that anyone can succeed if they just work hard enough. People work day jobs, night jobs and side hustles in hopes of moving up the social ladder. The thing is, though, it doesn’t work. The American Dream isn’t real— it’s a capitalist concept that puts the blame on people for not working hard enough when they fail.
Still, many of us subscribe to the idea and overwork ourselves in the hope that we will achieve greatness and recognition—myself included. As a full-time student with four jobs and gobs of extracurriculars, there’s not much time for me to rest. I’m lucky if I get five hours of sleep each night.
And it’s taking a toll on me. “It’s uncomfortable watching a human being deteriorate in front of you like that,” my roommate Clara told me one night. She and my other roommates had staged an intervention. I had been skipping meals so I could continue editing videos for my internship. I was staying up late to finish papers. I looked and acted like a zombie. It took them confronting me to make me realize just how bad it had gotten.
I gave myself a task to help me stop being so busy. I know, it’s counterintuitive. But to stop my workaholism cold turkey, I challenged myself to spend an hour each day doing nothing. No music. No meditation. Nothing. I needed to be okay with stepping back from my responsibilities.
I’m familiar with doing nothing. I just don’t like it. Even when the pandemic first hit and the stay-at-home order was issued, I still found ways to keep busy. I started new hobbies like ukulele, drawing and yoga. Then I started making virtual plans with friends. Then I learned how to cook. Then some more hobbies: piano, skateboarding, video games. New projects. More plans. I ended up over-committing myself once again. I was getting as little sleep as I had been pre-pandemic.
Amber Wilkins, a therapist at the Drake University Student Counseling Center, understands how having a workaholic mindset can be detrimental.
“Keeping busy has its benefits, but a chronic state of busyness can negatively impact our mental health,” Wilkins said. “When we are in a constant state of rushing, things can be done with less quality, and that can affect you both personally and professionally.”
My friend Alex Siegler experienced the effects firsthand after joining 14 organizations his freshman year of college. Between that, school, and his social life, he consistently got two to three hours of sleep a night. It wasn’t until he got a fever from overworking himself did he pull back a bit.
“Being sick for three weeks and not being able to do anything helped me put into perspective that I shouldn’t live to work, but rather vice versa,” Siegler said. “I left several organizations, studied less intensely, and tried to relax more. I’m in a much better place now after taking a step back.”
And here was my chance at taking a step back. On the first day of my challenge, I set my timer for one hour and sat against the wall. For once, I could just relax and not do any work, and I was relieved about it. Then ten minutes passed and I got bored. Staring at a wall isn’t as fun as it seems. My eyes kept drooping. I kept floating in and out of consciousness until my alarm rang. It didn’t seem that bad until I realized the amount of work I had to do for the rest of the night. I stayed up until 5 a.m. playing catch up with my to-do list.
Day Two was worse. I knew what to expect. I tried not to check the time, but I caved around the 40-minute mark. Even when I was doing absolutely nothing, I still found ways to keep working in my mind: once the hour is up, I have to eat dinner and then read a chapter for class. Oh, and I still have my podcast to edit. How much more time is left?
I dreaded the daily hour of nothing more and more each day. All I could think about while in my solitary confinement was how much work I had to do afterwards. I didn’t make it to Day Six— I couldn’t bring myself to just sit around when I had so much to do.
I talked to my roommate Jocelyn Ho about my struggle with work-life balance and she shook her head at me. She told me about how she took time off from her internship and her job this semester so she could have more time for herself. I envied her ability to prioritize her well-being above all.
“I think your workload is just a way for you to avoid having to take care of yourself because you’ve never actually done it and it seems difficult,” Ho said. “But you’ve always known how to be productive and work, so that comes easy to you.”
She was right. As much as my ever-growing to-do list continued to taunt me, I kind of enjoyed it in a twisted way. My busyness had become a part of my identity, and I didn’t want to know who I would be without it.
In the end, I admitted defeat. While I know my worth is not measured by my workload, I continue to bite off more than I can chew and over-commit myself. Old habits die hard. My hour of nothing was supposed to give me time to relax and reflect, but it ended up being just another stressor on my to-do list.