Do You Suffer From Productivity Guilt?

Duke students do not allocate enough downtime in our schedules. We operate under the conviction that we can slice away this so-called inefficiency and continue to function at an optimum level, neglecting to take care of ourselves.
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Portrait of a young woman running her hands through her hair.
Portrait of a young woman running her hands through her hair.

This column originally ran in The Chronicle, Duke's independent student newspaper.

Last summer, I traveled to Greece with 21 other Duke students on a summer study abroad program. Only two weeks after I completed my spring semester finals, I was swiftly whisked back into the Duke bubble. However, this bubble was quite different from the one to which I had grown accustomed throughout my freshman year.

During these four weeks, my primary task was to learn about ancient philosophers while immersing myself in a foreign culture. To wander into quaint cafes. To explore island ports. To sample exquisite foods. Although I attended lectures, no such thing as pressure existed. Sleepless nights became a blurred memory, replaced by refreshing days of simple pleasures. I had forgotten how refreshing eight hours of rest could feel. My mind was centered again as feelings of stress and responsibility slipped back beneath the surface.

My reunion with leisure time was an enjoyable one. I had moments to watch movies, catch up on my reading list and soak in my surroundings. I could have long, meandering talks with friends about life and not feel compelled to simultaneously run through a mental to-do list. I could sit for hours, let my thoughts roam and not feel guilty about it.


"At Duke and other universities across the country, a contagious attitude of 'productivity guilt' pervades our everyday minds."

When reflecting upon this, I stumbled across the alarming word: guilty. Abruptly, it dawned on me that I had not felt this relaxed in a long time. I was still with Duke students in a Duke world, but toned down several notches. The program involved a different type of socializing, not born out of rendezvousing at the library or meeting people through social affiliations and nightlife. It was a refreshing middle ground between the extremes of academics and Duke's social scene - satisfying, easy to appreciate and effortless.

This excess of downtime was a treasure that I truly appreciated. Throughout the spring semester, I had been engaged in a relentless pursuit of time: always seeking an extra minute to study more, attend another meeting or socialize with friends. I needed twenty-eight hour days to fulfill my goals and responsibilities, but I had been operating in a twenty-four hour world.

At Duke and other universities across the country, a contagious attitude of "productivity guilt" pervades our everyday minds. As overscheduled college students, we are obsessed with efficiency. A plethora of opportunities awaits and we are eager to seize them all. It's as though we fear if we allow ourselves to squander a few minutes, the world is at risk of changing without us; with the blink of an eye, we will no longer be able to impact it ourselves.


"We operate under the conviction that we can slice away this so-called inefficiency and continue to function at an optimum level, neglecting to take care of ourselves."

I reflect back on my favorite memories from freshman year. Late night talks in my common room, long Sunday brunches and walks on Ninth Street in Durham come to mind. All were trivial but meaningful moments. During these times, an outsider might conclude that my friends and I were not doing much at all. In terms of productivity, I suppose we weren't. Still, those are the moments I remember.

These simple moments are too rare and fleeting. Duke students do not allocate enough downtime in our schedules. We operate under the conviction that we can slice away this so-called inefficiency and continue to function at an optimum level, neglecting to take care of ourselves. We work hard and play hard to the extreme, pushing ourselves mentally and physically to our uppermost limits.

Constantly striving, always reaching, continuously in motion. Attaining great heights, but occasionally careening out of control.

As a student body, we are very familiar with the time and effort that goes into pulling off this balancing act. The enticing challenge to embody a bit of everything is what drew us to Duke in the first place and our multidimensional aptitudes perfectly suit its fast-paced culture. I would never suggest that we change this innate drive to succeed or reduce our aspirations, for these are the qualities that so uniquely distinguish Duke students.


"We would benefit from setting aside an hour each day to run outside, venture to a new restaurant or lounge on the couch watching football. We could use a few moments to stop racing ahead and touch base with ourselves."

Nonetheless, we cannot continue to plow ahead at maximum speed without acknowledging that personal time is necessary. I've begun to recognize that the pristine-looking balancing act we all seek does not always result in a life of perfect equilibrium. Overexertion has the propensity to push students everywhere to our tipping points if we allow it to dominate our lives. The key is to find a level of stimulation that is exciting and challenging, but sustainable.

We would benefit from setting aside an hour each day to run outside, venture to a new restaurant or lounge on the couch watching football. We could use a few moments to stop racing ahead and touch base with ourselves. We need to carve out this time for ourselves and cement it as a weekly appointment into our overbooked schedules. Equally importantly, we must learn not to feel embarrassed by this personal time and instead value it as useful.

It cannot be classified as procrastination or laziness. We need to appreciate the mental and emotional clarity these moments can bring; in the long run, they will actually increase our functionality.

Ironically, Duke students can become increasingly productive by "wasting" some time.

This post is part of our series on sleep culture on college campuses. To join the conversation and share your own story, please email our Director of College Outreach Abby Williams directly at abigail.williams@huffingtonpost.com. And you can find out here if the #SleepRevolution College Tour will be visiting your campus, and learn how you can get involved. If your college is not one of the colleges already on our tour and you want it to be, please get in touch with Abby.