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Don’t Forget to Breathe

By Garrett M. Lam

As I’m waiting for a genetics lecture to begin, I watch a girl do something we’re all familiar with—organize her day into a schedule: 1:00-2:30, LS1b lecture; 2:30-2:40, mocha latte from Greenhouse Café and walk back to dorm; 2:40-4:00, math p-set; 4:00-4:10, write professor email.

4:10-4:15, bathroom.

Okay, that’s just weird.

Whenever I ask people how they’re doing, it seems like the most common response is “busy.” Busy busy busy. A Bokononist would be proud. There seems to be a certain kind of pride behind telling others how you have two midterms tomorrow, how you’ve gotten six hours of sleep over the past two days, how you don’t have time go out for lunch this weekend or next Saturday but maybe a quick, super-quick, Burdick’s run on Sunday might work out. Maybe. Thoroughly filling out schedules seems like the right thing to do; we all want to succeed, so why not pack in as many classes, sports, clubs, and social events as possible, and let sleep take up the rest? Isn’t any unorganized free time an unproductive waste of our precious few years at Harvard? People rarely take a moment to catch their breath, so they never get a chance to even ask themselves if they should be this busy.

So let’s take a moment to breathe. When we have so many planned activities, the usual response is multitasking, and the usual outcome is unenjoyable inefficiency. Rather than cutting down, we double up (or triple up); we write up emails during lecture, read for our Gen Ed on the elliptical, or study while we eat. The net result is an information overload that physically prevents our brains from working at their full capacity. Multitasking gives us an illusion of efficiency and a reality of ineffectiveness that generally results in sub-optimal work.

Furthermore, we enjoy activities a lot less when our minds are directed elsewhere. We feel burdened by our obligations, even if we create them by our own volition. It’s hard to focus on a science p-set when you’re thinking about that op-ed you have to write, and it’s hard to write that op-ed when you’re thinking about that science p-set you have to do. The amount of pleasure we derive from activities is directly proportional to how engaged we are in them, so if our minds and bodies are in two separate places, we cannot truly appreciate an activity. As research suggests, we can only focus on one thing at a time, so why not focus on the task at hand? And if that can’t be done because a schedule is packed, we help both our efficiency and our engagement by freeing up our schedules.

Simply opening up a schedule for one activity at a time, however, is not enough, because leisure is an important part of a happy, balanced life. Studies have shown that we focus better after we take breaks, and we’re definitely happier when we do. By leisure, I don’t mean binge-watching Breaking Bad or refreshing the texts on your iPhone so frequently that it turns into a callisthenic exercise; I mean actively using your mind for something that you find meaningful. Maybe it’s chatting with a friend on Facebook, but maybe it’s taking the time to write about your day, read that book you always said you would get to over vacation, or reflect about your life. I don’t mean to say that doing so many activities can’t be intrinsically rewarding, but there is definitely something unique about absolving yourself of any commitments for an hour or two and letting your mind wander, letting your whim decide what’s next.

Don’t feel the need to do everything. When we try to take advantage of everything Harvard has to offer, our schedules take advantage of us. I don’t want to suggest that we shouldn’t make schedules; they can be effective ways of structuring the day. But when we’re at the point where efficiency dictates our bowel movements, I think it’s high time to realize that we’re making our lives busier than they need to be. And I don’t want to suggest that we shouldn’t ever be busy; working hard now can definitely pay off later. But when we compromise our sleep to the point where we are clinically drunk, we’re just paying now for no return later.

When we deny ourselves leisure, we deprive ourselves of serenity and ease. We lose the freedom and bliss of a day spent on our own terms. Leisure isn’t idleness; it’s the freedom of action from the release of commitment. Leisure isn’t a luxury either—it’s a necessity. So, every once in a while, when you look at a floor covered with English drafts and math p-sets and lab reports and textbooks and research articles, don’t forget to breathe, don’t forget to reflect on your life, don’t forget to ask yourself whether what you’re doing is enhancing your development as a person. After all, that’s what we’re all here to do, right?

Garrett M. Lam ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Thayer Hall.

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