The Delicate Balance between Productivity and Play

I can’t remember the last time I read a book for pleasure. Two things have adversely impacted my ability to read strictly for enjoyment: first, earning an English degree (too much required reading to even think about reading anything for fun), and second, growing up as part of a family business where a person’s value often seems to be in direct proportion to the contribution he makes to the bottom line.

Even during my unstructured time (no such thing as “free time,” is there?) I often feel the nagging feeling that I should be doing more. I attribute much of this to growing up with an extraordinarily driven entrepreneur dad. I haven’t yet figured out how to unlearn it.   

Excluding softball, I can’t remember my dad ever playing a single game. For him, softball was much more than simply a game, or even a sport— it was a competition, something at which to win. Games, he said, were not productive.

Reading for pleasure is similarly not productive.

Last year Jack Canfield introduced me to the concept of “Free Days.” Free Days, he says, are days that each of us should take periodically— ideally once or twice a week— where we do absolutely NOTHING work-related.

In a perfect world, Free Days are also free from other responsibilities. This means that during a Free Day one should avoid reading or sending even a single email, checking voicemail, doing any work-related projects or assignments, or even reading an industry-related article, even if we find these things enjoyable.

In addition to getting a bit of distance from our work, essential to Free Days is the full and conscious engagement in things we truly enjoy. These are, of course, different for everyone, but a few of my preferred Free Day activities include getting a massage, watching a matinee, making phone calls with or going to lunch with friends I haven’t seen in a while, or simply going for a walk, making a point to bask in the sunlight.

Although the thought of “catching up” on work during a Free Day can be tempting, keeping our Free Day activities strictly to things that bring us joy ultimately helps us to perform better when we do return to work. Embedded in the word “recreate” is the notion that through this sort of pleasurable activity we re-create ourselves.

When I first began to imagine how I would spend a Free Day I thought through activities I greatly enjoy but haven’t done for a while. For one reason or another (six kids, increased responsibilities at work, duties related to becoming a bonafide adult, etc) I realized that I had stopped doing many of the things that bring me joy.

One of those things was reading for pleasure. Just thinking about spending the better part of a day reading for fun— something I hadn’t done for as long as I could remember, for at least twenty years— made me giddy.

Last week I finally decided to read Dune, the best-selling science fiction novel of all time. The book will be fifty years old next year, but reading it today you’d never know it.

It’s been on my reading list for years, along with Zorba the Greek, A Walk in the Woods, Leadership and Self-Deception and about 300 other titles that have accumulated over the last few years.  

My reading list has grown long by asking people “What’s your favorite book?” and “What are you currently reading?” If I haven’t read a person’s favorite book I’ll almost always pull out my iPhone and add it to my Amazon Wish List on the spot. I have yet to read a book that someone told me was their favorite that I didn’t also love.   

One of the things I love about science fiction is that it gives us a glimpse into the possible futures we are creating.

Frank Herbert, author of Dune, once wrote, “Humans tend not to see over a long range. Now we are required, in these generations, to have a longer range view of what we inflict on the world around us. This is where, I think, science fiction is helping. I don’t think that the mere writing of such a book as Brave New World or 1984 prevents those things which are portrayed in those books from happening. But I do think they alert us to that possibility and make that possibility less likely. They make us aware that we may be going in that direction.”

It’s apparent to me that storytelling is a way that we as human beings attempt to make sense of the universe and our place within it. It’s one way we attempt to predict, and in some cases, avert certain futures, and to preserve and understand the past. Storytelling is as fundamental to being human as is worship, commerce or agriculture.

So, productive or not, reading is essential to what it means to be a human being. Now if only I could build one of those sci-fi machines that will prevent me from aging, or that would somehow manufacture additional time so that I can read for pleasure every day, guiltlessly.

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