- Constant hustling is exhausting and often counterproductive.
- Spiritual traditions have long counseled the need for periodic times of rest.
- Spiritual traditions offer ways to align with time in a healthier way.
North Americans are well known for their hard-driving attitudes toward work. Blame it on the influence of the Protestant work ethic, immigrant ancestors, or the pressure of a 24/7 economy—it seems people are working longer hours than ever. Research is also revealing that even within the workday, people are not taking breaks to which they are entitled. This should result in greater productivity. Right? Wrong.
While there is much to admire about the moxie of the “hustle culture” it would appear that this has led to a place that is not conducive to either mental or physical health. Scarfing lunch at the desk is all too common. Increasingly, businesses are beginning to recognize the hazards of this “powering through” approach. As rates of burnout increase, attention is now being turned to this cultural phenomenon and its impact on both health and productivity.
The need for periodic breaks is equally true when looking at study habits. In research done on the motor skills of groups of university students, it was shown that those who took even a short break performed better. Researcher William S. Helton (2019) concluded, “No matter which type of break they were given, all of the students in the break groups performed better on the attention task than those who kept slogging away without an intermission.” (40).
Spiritual traditions have long counseled the need for periodic times of rest. They have always structured time ensuring that that period of activity is followed by relaxation. This is embodied in the idea of the Sabbath found in both Christianity and Judaism when all productive activity is halted once a week. Holidays (holy days) practiced by all the world’s traditions set aside days of the year when the focus is on rest, relaxation, and communal meals with friends and family. This is not simply a quaint and archaic practice but one that is vital to well-being.
The teachings found in spiritual works such as the Daoist text the Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) have a great deal to tell us about our relationship with time. This famously riddling text associated with the Chinese sage Lao Tzu (c 551-479 BCE) counsels the art of wu-wei or “action in inaction.” In which it is “necessary to do nothing in order to achieve all.” These periods of introversion naturally come to an end and give rise to times of action and manifestation. These cycles are, in turn, related to those of the natural world.
Our increasing tendency to push through in our tasks is no doubt related to the fact that we have become so disconnected from the natural world. Clock time increasingly overrules the rhythms of the body, which are pushed aside and ignored in the face of a time crunch.” Those whose occupations remain tied to natural cycles know that there are certain times that will result in a successful planting and harvest and all sailors know that we are subject to time and tides.
When a sense of the natural rhythms is understood, it begins to make sense that so many scientific and creative ideas have come about when the person stops actively trying to solve the problem. This is now referred to as the “shower effect.” Richard Sima (2013) writes, “Our ability to generate novel ideas and creative thoughts probably arises from our brain’s 'default mode network,' a constellation of brain regions that are active when our thoughts are turned inward, such as when mind-wandering.”
Spiritually based practices that press the pause button produce real and important psychological effects. They move us from the goal-oriented, driven modes of being and seeing the world. They also prevent the all too common phenomenon of rushing through life and never really engaging fully with the present moment. And they make us more productive in the long term.
Lao Tzu. 1994. The Tao Te Ching. Translated by D.C. Lau. Penguin Random House.
Oliver, Mike, Karen Rodham, Jennifer Taylor, Claire McIver. “Understanding the psychological and social influences on office workers taking breaks; a thematic analysis.” Psychology & Health, 36 (3) 2021.
Weir, Kirsten, “Give Me a Break”. American Psychological Association, 50 (1), January 2019.