When you live by the clock, relaxing is often hard work

Blizzard 2005. On Sunday, I woke to learn that the red line of the Boston subway was severely delayed and there was a good chance my train would be canceled: I was stuck in Beantown. I was also elated: I had been granted another day with my boyfriend, a three-day weekend, 24 free hours. I had no obligations, nothing to do. And nothing was exactly what I did.

My boyfriend Mark, his housemates at Tufts and I spent over eight hours on the couch watching football (and other choice programs such as “I Love the ’90s, Part Deux”), drinking beer and eating salty snacks. In the beginning, I was enthusiastic about relaxing; I enjoyed the first Tostito with salsa and cheered as the game began. I was proud of myself for participating in a typical college leisure activity. Miraculously, I was laid-back.

But it didn’t last long. By the third quarter of the Eagles-Falcons game, I felt disgusting. The junk food was doing to my body what the television was doing to my brain. I asked, “What’s the plan?” a simple question expressing my growing anxiety: Did my peers actually intend to watch the rest of the NFC Championship — and then the AFC Championship after that? When was dinner; was I spoiling my appetite with Chex Mix and Baked Lays? At least eight more hours of my snow day were left. There had to be a better way to spend my free time — a more efficient form of relaxation. But is productive leisure an oxymoron?

On the surface, this concept seems perfectly logical to me because efficiency dominates the rest of my life. At Yale, I budget my time in meticulous blocks that are usually based on 15-minute intervals. I take a gym class called “Cardio Conditioning” because it claims to be “the most efficient and effective way to improve cardiovascular performance while strengthening and sculpting muscle mass.” In fact, to some extent, I even economize my relationships. I have never had AOL Instant Messager because I reason that anyone worth actually talking to will call, and anyone whom I don’t care enough about to chat with over the phone will e-mail. I imagine that I’ve saved countless hours, even days, over the years by not using AIM.

The benefits of my operational style are fairly clear. My time-management skills are what got me into Yale in the first place, and in college they enabled me to juggle coursework, extracurriculars and, most importantly, sleep. But perhaps the greatest (and most dangerous) advantage of efficiency is that it exempts me from stopping and evaluating the quality of my life. When you are always moving forward — and in neat 15-minute intervals at that — you’re too busy to wonder what you’re missing.

And then a blizzard hits. Forced to sit still and reflect, I realized I have become too efficient for my own good. While I don’t regret missing hours of football, gallons of beer and pounds of salty snacks, I am sorry that I was too busy to have spontaneous conversations, to stay up later than I intended, to make mistakes.

But I am afraid to let go of my efficient habits, to loosen the grip — and at times, chokehold — I have on my daily life. Efficiency is addictive and contagious: It spread from schoolwork, to exercise, to relationships and, now, to leisure itself.

So what about days like Sunday; is it desirable, or even possible, to relax efficiently? Leisure activities can range from extremely sedentary (watching football) to moderately active (going on a walk). But is there value to relaxation that’s undertaken with the same drive as work? I believe that there may be a place for efficiency in leisure, but only in the same way that chocolate chip cookies often contain a pinch of salt.

I need to learn to relax. Perhaps I will not be able to transform the way I approach my work or exercise, but I must quarantine my leisure from my efficiency. One way to start is to designate small periods of time for doing absolutely nothing. I realize this may seem like forced relaxation, but it is a start. With practice, I should be able to work my way up to an entire football game.

After I had spent almost eight hours sitting on the couch in Boston stewing in my inefficiency, Mark’s parents called. His mom, a journalist, asked about my column. “Do you see everything as potential material now?” she asked. “Sort of,” I replied through my haze. “I bet you could write a column about being snowed in,” his dad chimed in. A ray of excitement cut through my television-induced stupor as I realized I had not spent the afternoon doing nothing: I had been doing research.



Emily Fenner is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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