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Note #101: All work and no play (2016.2.23)

So, here we are, roughly a week before the new semester begins, and I’m looking back at what I’ve gotten done versus what I had hoped to get done. Of course, the former does not match the latter. I knew it wouldn’t, and coming to that realization right away was a big help in avoiding some stress. Still, I know for a fact that I could have gotten more done, especially this past month. I know this because I’ve spent a significant portion of this year so far being sick. At the end of January I suffered from what I’ve come to think of as the “cold of the decade.” This past weekend I came down with some sort of bug that made life quite miserable. Fortunately I was recovered enough yesterday to get out to the office and get some work done, and although I still don’t quite feel one hundred percent, it’s not really affecting my work.

I realize that I have been primed to place extra emphasis on illness because I have recently been ill (I suspect that this may be some permutation of the availability heuristic), but it sure does seem like I have been sick a lot this semester break. This month alone, I have lost at least a week’s worth of productivity because of illness. The funny thing is that I decided well before the semester ended that we weren’t going to be taking any trips during the break. One of the reasons for this decision was the amount of work that I had to do. So it’s a bit ironic that I ended up taking a bunch of time off anyway.

You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Well, as I was convalescing on Sunday evening, I found myself wondering if it also makes Jack a sick boy. I expressed this thought to HJ, who said, “Next time, let’s just take a short trip somewhere where we can relax, even if you’re busy.” It is a tempting proposition—who wouldn’t want to think that the solution to the productivity problem is to take time off?

In fact, the proposition seems a little too tempting. So now I will poke holes in the above idea—and there are many. Firstly, work was not the only reason that we didn’t take a trip this winter; finances was another important reason. I mentioned in a previous post that we will be taking a trip this summer, and that is going to be a very expensive one. Also, the entirety of next year will likely be a drain on our finances. (Yes, I realize I am being cryptic, but all will be revealed in good time.)

Secondly, notice how I substituted “lack of productivity” for “sickness.” Even if I could guarantee that taking a brief, relaxing trip would prevent me from getting sick, that does not automatically equate to increased productivity. In fact, if the sickness truly was a result of being overworked, I would have likely figured out—perhaps against my will—some other way to ease the workload.

Thirdly, and related to the second point, how do I know that the sickness was caused by stress and being overworked? Even if those things were factors, they were likely not the only factors. And, to be honest, I didn’t feel that overworked over this break. So I might be guilty of falsely attributing the causes of my illness to work.

Fourthly, even if the sickness I did experience this break was fully attributable to stress from overwork, what guarantee do I have that I would not have gotten sick anyway, even if we had taken a trip? I can guarantee that I would have been out of commission for a few days had we taken one of our usual, cram-as-much-as-we-can-into-two-weeks trip, but even if we had taken a three- or four-day trip to a resort somewhere, I still could have gotten sick for reasons other than stress and being overworked.

Looking over my four objections, it seems that they mainly boil down to oversimplification of cause-and-effect relationships: ignoring alternate causes of not taking a trip in the first place, assuming that sickness is the only possible cause of loss of productivity, assuming that stress from overworking is the only possible cause of sickness, and assuming that the sickness I did suffer was the only possible sickness I could have suffered.

If you’re wondering why I’m so ruthlessly picking apart such an innocent thought, well, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on cognitive biases lately. It’s all very fascinating, but it can also be a little annoying when you realize how many of the thoughts that flit through your mind every day are prey to these biases. And being completely logical isn’t always everything, is it? The idea of taking a quick trip just to relax and recharge does sound like a good idea, even if it won’t solve all my problems. But it’s a bit late for that at this point. All I can say now is that being sick sucks, and I hope I’ve seen the last of illness for a while.

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