Posted 2:58 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18, 2022

UWL Assistant Professor Brian Kumm-Schaley teaches a mindfulness class. Here students sit on cushions in a circle practicing mindfulness on the UW-La Crosse campus.

Rec Professor shares tips to do less and be more productive

There is a notion that if we work harder and we do more things — build more widgets, clock more hours and manage more of the attention-grabbing stuff of our existence — we will do better. We lock ourselves into that “tight chain of efficiency” as the late Philosopher Josef Pieper called it.

But Brian Kumm-Schaley, UWL assistant professor of Recreation Management and Therapeutic Recreation, says this fast-paced, do-more mentality has its flaws. Kumm-Schaley has studied the works of historically great idlers, writers and philosophers of our past. These thinkers shared a common premise that a mind chained to infinite tasks has a narrowed focus that can miss the clearer and more creative way to achieve our goals — not to mention meaning in life.

“By not conforming to that culture, you can find that creativity comes not from work, labor and busyness but from a different space like leisure and repose,” says Kumm-Schaley. “If you envision your life like a rapid river flowing, you choose to tuck into the eddy and just see what happens.”

A history of ‘slower is better’

Our cultural obsession with doing more is not a new problem. Philosophers have mulled over this cultural phenomenon for centuries with many authors urging society to resist the pressure to “yoke yourself to that great chain of efficiency,” explains Kumm-Schaley.

More than a century ago, Robert Lewis Stevenson argued that idleness does not consist of doing nothing but of doing a great deal in “An Apology for Idlers and Other Essays” in 1877. German Philosopher Josef Pieper made a similar appeal after World War II, noting if there is any culture to be built after the war, leisure needs to be preserved. He argued that leisure is the basis of culture. Meanwhile busyness with work became the mentality of war, symbolized by the words over the entrance to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, which translates to, “Work sets you free."

In the post-WWII era, Americans were mass purchasing the latest appliances like dishwashers and washing machines, devices that were intended to give us more space for leisure, but this goal remained elusive. Mass consumerism in America, including technologies like TV and computers, seemed to fill those spaces, says Kumm-Schaley. Yet buying more stuff doesn’t appear to make us any happier as a culture. Kumm-Schaley points to the paradox of affluence. Countries that are more affluent based on their gross domestic product do not necessarily report having greater levels of happiness.

How do we do less?

By not conforming to the culture of “do more to achieve more,” you can find that creativity comes not from work, labor and busyness but from a different space like leisure and repose, says Brian Kumm-Schaley, UWL assistant professor of Recreation Management and Therapeutic Recreation. Here a student in Kumm-Schaley's class practices mindfulness.

So, if doing more and buying more isn’t a recipe for happiness, how do we find space for actual leisure and repose with the goal of finding greater fulfillment in life and increased productivity?

  • Be in the here and now: Start with what is most immediately in front of you, suggests Kumm-Schaley. Engage with that rather than going through mindless motions. Go for a hike and leave your phone at home [or in the car if you have to have it with you.] Eat lunch away from your computer screen and engage in conversations without multitasking. Is there anything so pressing that it can’t wait an hour?  
  • Adapt to a new mindset. Understand that productivity doesn’t come from doing more stuff. Doing less or idleness doesn’t mean not doing anything. It means having a different mindset that a brain that is open and free from obligation will allow you to engage in something or see creative ideas you wouldn’t otherwise. In “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” Author Jenny Odell writes about “hauptstrom,” the disruptive potential of idleness or leisure, describing it as a creative flash or an electric spark. “There is something disruptive about finding a different way of relating to the world that is not dependent upon your schedule and where your value is not determined by the number of widgets you produce,” says Kumm-Schaley.
  • Scrap the efficiency tools. In today's culture we have subscribed to heaps of tools for efficiency. “But these tools are used to make us do more and more, which is like water on the fire of creativity,” says Kumm-Schaley. “Creativity demands an open space where you can see, listen, feel, connect and think without preoccupation of the next shoe to drop.”
  • Set boundaries and continue to set them. If people are asking you for unachievable and impractical tasks that are merely more busyness, resist the urge to passively accept. This isn’t a one and done. You will need to continually set expectations to control your schedule.
  • Help spark movements for alternative ways of living. The “Bread and Roses” strike, January - March 1912, in Lawrence Massachusetts, was a fundamental moment with an inspiring message that has continued to resurface more than 100 years later. The meaning of this textile strike was that fair wages and dignified conditions were needed – bringing the bread, yes, but also the roses.
  • Build on moments from history. Kumm-Schaley doesn't believe there will be some future eutopia where we don’t have work. But it is important that we continue to move in ways that build upon all those moments of history, he says, [like when unions helped us secure a weekend] and push for justice, racial, sexual, economic, environmental and even a justice of basic level of living a life that is not just mere existence. We also deserve to thrive and flourish, he says.

Busyness vs. Productivity

Being busy is not the same as being productive. Being busy is being engaged in a lot of work. It is irrelevant whether that work is meaningful and helping you achieve important goals or not. Being productive is about the outcome — what you achieve or bring to the table for the work you put in.

The myth of multitasking

UWL Psychology Professor Ryan McKelley explains that our brains are not wired to engage in multitasking — engaging in two tasks simultaneously. When we attempt to do this, we spend more time on each task because our brain is bouncing back and forth between tasks. A Standford University study found that “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.” 

Multitasking is only possible if two conditions are met:

  • At least one of the tasks is so well learned as to be automatic, meaning no focus or thought is necessary to engage in the task (e.g., walking or eating)


  • They involve different types of brain processing

So, try structuring your day to focus all of your attention on one task at a time. Get rid of the mindless technology interfering with your head space, and you’ll probably feel less stressed and your brain will thank you for more efficient processing.  

Read more on the myth of multitasking.

Brian Kumm-Schaley, Recreation Management & Therapeutic Recreation, authored the article "Parting Thoughts XI: Be Idle, That is All" in Leisure Sciences published on Sept. 12 by Taylor & Francis.