Back at work barely an hour, maybe, and beating yourself up for what you didn’t get done over the holidays? Maybe you started thinking about it last night -- the time off is over, and all you have to show for it are too many extra pounds and a too big credit card bill. Maybe you’re wondering what you actually got out of the last few weeks; or maybe your trying to figure out when you can take your next vacation, where you’ll go, and how you can get slim and fit enough to show some skin – and how you’ll pay for that trip when the time comes?
If you’ve had any of these thoughts, rest assured, you’re not alone. Many of us get caught in this trap, especially after big holiday seasons like Christmas and New Year’s. But there’s hope. First, let’s look at what exactly is this trap that we’re caught in?
It’s actually a trap with many different parts; but one that gets to most of us has to do with the feeling that we are supposed to be as productive in our festivities as we are in our work. This idea, that we are always supposed to be doing something meaningful, has roots both in our individual psychologies and in our culture.
For example, Tim* is a researcher at a big hospital. He has won several awards for his work, is admired by his colleagues, and clearly valued by his bosses. He loves what he does. But his wife and kids complain that he doesn’t know how to relax. They worry that he’s going to end up with a heart attack before he’s fifty. He says that isn’t true. He loves spending time with his family on weekends, after work and when they go on vacation. And at least once a week he goes out drinking with his buddies from work.
Tim’s wife agrees that he is a great dad and terrific husband. “He coaches our son’s basketball team and our daughter’s soccer team,” she says. “We have a date night once a week, and he’s very considerate of me. He even helps with the cooking and housework. But,” she says, “he doesn’t know how to slow down. He’s working hard even when he’s supposedly relaxing.”
Tim is a basically happy, psychologically healthy man. But he suffers from what the German sociologist and economist Max Weber describes as a kind of confusion of activity with morality. As the industrial revolution took hold, Weber says, we began to equate being productive with being good. That is, the more we produced, the better we thought we were.
I am a psychotherapist, not a historian or political analyst, so my understanding of Weber is very limited; but what I take away from his ideas is that as capitalism grew, many people attributed moral and ethical values to work. We began to think of productivity as a sign of goodness and resting or non-productive behavior as laziness. Today we teach our kids that if they are highly productive in school, they will get into a good college; and that if they are highly productive in that good college, they will have a successful, meaningful life. And of course, we teach them this because we believe it.
We even believe that vacations have to be productive. Sitting on a beach is fine, if we are actively enjoying ourselves, and if we worked hard enough prior to the vacation to “deserve” the time off. But just hanging out at home, having a couple of beers with friends – that’s not productive in anyway, is it?
So when the holidays come, we work at eating, drinking, even having fun. And we measure our enjoyment by how much we did, how many people we saw, how much we drank, how much good food we ate. Here’s the funny thing. Most of us don’t even measure our pleasure by the gifts we got. We may measure it by the things we bought ourselves, or by the gifts we gave or the parties we went to or the clothes we wore – all ways that we have developed to measure our personal productivity.
On the other hand, although physical fitness has also become a symbol of productivity in our society, we tend to give ourselves “time off” from that, as well as from “healthy diets,” when we’re on vacation. But it’s a paradox, because we still have to show ourselves how hard we played or even, ironically, how hard we rested during our vacation!
So you might even say that feeling badly about having eaten or drunk or spent too much is a sign that we really did have a good time over the holidays!
Only it doesn’t always work that way. Back at the office, we don’t feel rested or relaxed, which we should if we really had a restorative time off.
So we can’t undo the holidays; and maybe we would do exactly the same thing all over again. But maybe not. But the real question is, what do we do next?
I’m a great fan of Thich Nhat Hanh, and like many of his sayings. Here’s one that I find very useful in this kind of time: “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” I don’t remember what book it’s from. But it helps me think about the importance of just being, of taking one step at a time, of not worrying about what I did or didn’t do, but trying to appreciate what I’m doing and experiencing now, in the present moment. That’s one way of coping with the fear of “not being productive.”
I’d love to hear some of the ways you cope with it.
*names and identifying information changed to protect the privacy of everyone involved