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We Produce, Therefore We Are...Fried

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It's vacation primetime, and millions of wage earners are on the road in search of R&R. But for many it will be a futile quest, thanks to a big, fat killjoy stowed away on the trip: OCP, Obsessive-Compulsive Productivity, the frantic fixation to wring results from every minute of the day, even our play.

Of course, 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 unofficial national religion, many of us can't turn off our productive machinery anymore.

It's a habit that's becoming increasingly counter-productive, evident in soaring job stress bills (a $300 billion a year tab for American business) and longer workweeks that leave parents no time for kids and citizens no time for communities. The all-output, all-the-time mandate of OCP programs us to do holidays like our jobs. So 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 experience of the trip 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, since vacations aren't in the output business. They're the realm of an increasingly rare species, input, which can't be measured by the 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? Gauging a holiday by how much we accomplish on it defeats the point of it all, to disengage from job mode and a life defined by outcomes and taste the freedom of living for its own sake.

Vacations can help us get out of the OCP box and when we do we might just see that there are limits to indiscriminate output, a lesson we can take to other areas where this urge can get in the way of what we want--say, family and friendships, which require time overperformers don't have. Or quality of life, a realm of tedious nonproduction.

The U.S. has doubled its productivity since 1969, says Boston College economist Juliet Schor, but none of that dividend has come back in additional free time, and is simply fodder for more productivity increases. 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 redo's and rote performance. A study last year by the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that chronic 12-hour days increase your risk of illness or injury by 37%.

Work without the time to think, analyze, or recharge feeds knee-jerk performance and the hurry-worry of stress. Everything appears urgent when there isn't a second to qualify what is truly urgent and what isn't.

Americans create identity more through labor than other countries, but the ever-increasing 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 to handle on the horizon. The focus on future results squeezes out the experience of living and, as irony would have it, the very thing we need for optimum performance: input.

The consulting firm McKinsey & Company asked managers where they got their best ideas and found it wasn't at the office. Instead, the inspiration came when people were disengaged, at play--on the golf course, out running. Fatigue research since the 1920s has shown that performance goes up after a break in the action, whether it's a few seconds or 15-minute breaks.

Studies have also found that job performance increases after a vacation. Income doubled at the H Group, an investment services company in Salem, Oregon, after owner Ron Kelemen increased time off at the company to three-and-a-half weeks. When Jancoa, a Cincinnati cleaning company, switched to a three-week vacation policy a few years back, productivity soared enough to cut overtime, while profits jumped 15%.

The source of true productivity isn't nonstop output; it's a refreshed and energized mind, something vacations specialize in. But that means the taskmaster drill sergeant of OCP has got to stay behind, along with the other holiday-crashing office behaviors, like work guilt, quantifications, expectations, and control freak attributes that close off new activities, tastes, and people.

With a premise opposite that of production, vacations require a different skill set--leisure skills. Yeah, there is such a thing. Without the tools to know what to do with free time, we wind up in default mode--more production. My dad was stunned when he went back to his former company some years after he retired to see a couple of guys who retired with him back at their desks. They didn't know what else to do.

We knew how to entertain ourselves as kids, but many of us lost the knack when we learned that play for its own sake didn't have a payoff. Instead, we began to associate value with what could bring us rewards--status, back pats, money, goodies--from other people. By the time we're in OCP territory, we've forgotten how to do things for intrinsic reasons-- 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," says Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi 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, Czikszentmihalyi adds, "When experience is intrinsically rewarding, life is justified in the present."

Things we do for our own 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. Increasing levels of performance can't provide happiness, psychologists contend, since production is based on external approval, which is ephemeral, gone by the next morning's to-do list. But the research shows that the more active leisure lifestyle you have, the higher your life satisfaction. Leisure also increases initiative, confidence and positive mood.

So, if you haven't left on your trip yet, maybe it's time to brush-up the leisure portfolio and resuscitate the ancient 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.