It’s vacation prime time. Millions of wage-earners are on the road, in the air or on the water in search of overdue recreation, relaxation and adventure. But for too many, it will be a futile quest, thanks to a big, fat killjoy stowed away on the trip: OCP, or obsessive-compulsive productivity, a frantic fixation to wring results from every minute of the day, even our play.
Americans have always had an insistent work ethic. But thanks to technology that allows us to get things done 24/7, growing job demands and the elevation of efficiency to an unofficial national religion, many vacationers simply can’t turn off their productive machinery. Every minute of the day, even of play, must be productive.
It’s a habit that’s increasingly counterproductive, evident in soaring job-stress bills (a $300-billion-a-year tab for U.S. business, according to the American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit organization) and longer workweeks. Nearly 40% of Americans work more than 50 hours a week. The all-output, all-the-time mandate of OCP wires us to do holidays like jobs. We cram downtime with to-do lists and a performance-review mentality that dooms trips to disappointment because we couldn’t see or do everything we wanted. The trip’s experience is an afterthought in a crazed race to polish off sights to the finish line of the holiday.
But trying to make a vacation productive is like trying to get a cat to bark. It’s the wrong animal for the outcome, because vacations aren’t about output. Instead, they’re about the realm of an increasingly rare species -- input -- that can’t be measured by a performance yardstick. The most packed itinerary can’t quantify play, fun, wonder, discovery, adventure. How do you tally the spray of an exploding waterfall? The pattern of ripples on a sand dune? How do you produce quiet?
The productivity of U.S. workers has doubled since 1969, according to Boston College economist Juliet Schor. But none of the dividends have come back in additional free time. The added time that greater productivity creates is simply fodder for more productivity increases -- and OCP jitters that we must get more done. How much production is enough?
Even on the job, too much time on task can lead to burnout, heart disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, mistakes, costly do-overs and rote performance. A study last year by the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that chronic 12-hour workdays increase your risk of illness or injury by 37%.
Work without time to think, analyze or recharge feeds knee-jerk performance and the hurry-worry of stress. Everything appears urgent when there isn’t time to judge what is truly urgent and what isn’t.
More than anybody else’s, Americans’ identity comes through labor. But the reflex to define self-worth by what we get done makes it hard to relax without a heap of guilt because there’s always something next on the horizon to handle. Our focus on future results shrinks our experience of living and, ironically, the very thing we need for optimum performance -- input.
The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. asked managers where they got their best ideas. It wasn’t at the office. Rather, inspiration came when people were at play -- on the golf course, running. Research on fatigue in the workplace since the 1920s shows that performance rises after a break in the action, whether a break of a few seconds or 15 minutes.
Studies have also found that job performance improves after a vacation. Income doubled at the H Group, an investment services company in Salem, Ore., after owner Ron Kelemen increased employee time off to 3 1/2 weeks. When Jancoa, a Cincinnati cleaning company, switched to a three-week vacation policy, worker productivity soared enough to cut overtime. Profits jumped 15%.
The true source of productivity isn’t nonstop output. It’s a refreshed and energized mind, something vacations specialize in.
But for that to happen, we must leave the OCP drill sergeant at home. Vacations require a different skill set -- leisure skills. Without them, we lapse into default mode -- produce, produce, produce. My retired father was stunned when he visited his former company and found a couple of his fellow retirees back at their desks. They didn’t know what else to do.
As kids, we knew how to entertain ourselves. But many of us lost the knack when we learned that play for its own sake didn’t produce rewards -- status, pats on the back, money, goodies. Once we’re in OCP territory, we’ve forgotten how to do things simply because we enjoy doing them.
Researchers say we had it right as kids. “Quality of life does not depend on what others think of us or what we own,” contends psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” “The bottom line is, rather, how we feel about ourselves, and about what happens to us. To improve life one must improve the quality of experience.”
Famed for his studies on when people are at their happiest, Csikszentmihalyi adds that “when experience is intrinsically rewarding, life is justified in the present.”
Things we do for our amusement are particularly good at improving that experience, delivering what’s supposed to come out of all that production -- self-worth, a sense of competence and, best of all, life satisfaction. Upping levels of performance can’t generate happiness, psychologists contend, because production is tied to external approval, which is gone by the next morning’s to-do list. But research shows that the more active your leisure lifestyle is, the higher your life satisfaction. Leisure also increases initiative, confidence and a positive mood.
So, if you haven’t taken your vacation yet, maybe it’s time to dust off the leisure portfolio and resuscitate the childhood practice of play. The packing list should include participation, engagement, spontaneity, a nonjudgmental attitude, the ability to ferret out amusements, take detours, wander without aim, plunge into things you haven’t done before, and get out of your head and into direct experience. Along the way you may discover something long forgotten. Recess rules.