by Ema Klugman.

I think our modern society is obsessed with productivity. Every hour of every day is supposed to have a goal. This starts with kids in school, whose schedules are set from breakfast to school to after-school sports practice to homework time to dinner. Of course, these kinds of schedules provide structure to kids and teenagers, instilling in them a sense of organization which helps them develop good habits.

As we grow up, we have more leeway to make our own schedules, but in general we still feel that everything should be scheduled. All the minutes are supposed to be devoted to something, and we are scared to not assign time to a task because that might mean that we are wasting time and not being productive. Even “self-care” is ironically goal-oriented: you are supposed to take a bath or go for a walk or watch a movie in order to achieve something in a particular amount of time.

We allot ourselves a certain number of minutes for tasks and then become furious at ourselves if we get sidetracked or distracted and fail to complete them. I do this frequently. And I do think that it is good to have some self-discipline (particularly when it involves work or school, which are in the category of tasks that my future self often thanks me for doing on time).

However, I also think that my most creative moments occur at random times: when I’m sitting in a lecture, I think of a different way of training a horse that I can try, or when I’m doing paperwork, I think of an idea for an article. Rather than shoving these thoughts away, I’ve learned to jot them down somewhere, or to set myself a reminder with a short description so that I can consider them in earnest later. Sometimes they are too pressing to ignore, so I pay them more attention, but then inevitably I become annoyed that I’ve gone off-task.

I hate the feeling of being un-productive. I think lots of people do. As I’ve written about before, it’s addicting to keep scampering away on the hamster wheel. But the hamster wheel will still be there later if we get off of it. Just like training a horse doesn’t (and shouldn’t) take a specified amount of time, so too do other goals that we have not need strict time-schedules. You might think your career should reach a certain height at a certain time, and you might have mapped out all of the steps you need to take to get there. But if you talk to anyone in pretty much any industry, they’ll tell you that the steps they took to get where they are were non-linear and their plan rarely followed the time-schedule they set.

As a professional rider, I often think that every ride I have needs to be productive. It is true that every day we ride, we are either training or un-training our horses. But this mentality puts a lot of pressure on us, which translates to putting pressure on our horses. We should have days (or weeks) where we are less goal-oriented: where we allow ourselves to just “play.” This can mean going out for a hack or a bareback ride through the woods. But it can also mean working in the arena in a playful way, not drilling the horses but really listening to them. It takes some bravery to let go of the productivity obsession, I think because we fear that we will not be able to get back to that level of discipline. But freedom is good, and creativity is fun. We should have some fun.

If we were not so worried about being productive, maybe we would stumble into more new and interesting ideas. Maybe we would let ourselves be more artistic and creative. Maybe we would stop and think, and treat ourselves less like machines and more like people.