In running and cycling there’s a concept called “junk miles”: activity that you’re doing without proper direction or intention. You’re not going hard enough to improve your fitness, or far enough to improve your endurance. You’re stuck in the middle: not engaged enough to benefit, but not relaxing and getting the benefit of rest either.
We often make the same mistake in other aspects of our lives, but don’t notice because we don’t have a word for it.
“Junk entertainment” is something that keeps you occupied, but you don’t love it and won’t remember it a few hours later. The TV show that’s just good enough to keep you from changing the channel or summoning the energy to get off the sofa. The third auto-playing YouTube video you’ve sat through, drifting ever further from what you went there to watch in the first place. The book that’s just OK, but you feel a strange sense of duty to plough through to the end.
“Junk work” is time you spend in a work environment doing something that isn’t not work, but isn’t achieving anything meaningful either. Re-organising your files, scrolling through LinkedIn or fiddling with your website could all count as junk work. In an office you might call it “presenteeism”, but self-employed people even do it when no-one else is watching.
“Junk relationships” might be those friendships you’ve had for a long time, and continue out of obligation. If you find yourself wishing for a last-minute excuse good enough to cancel and just stay at home, you might be in a junk relationship.
There’s even “junk parenting”, where you’re interacting with your kid but neither of you are getting much out of it. Maybe she’s happily engrossed in a game she’s invented, and you feel you “should” get involved and teach something or take an active interest – even though you’d rather take the few minutes to boil the kettle or read a few pages of a book. Or, heaven forbid, get dressed.
These types of junk have exactly the same negative effect as junk miles: they contribute to your overall fatigue and eventual burnout, without generating the benefits that more focused or intentional activity would give you.
The solution is simple: “do less”. Shut the laptop at 3pm if you’ve done everything you’re usefully going to accomplish for the day. Bail on the boring book. Halve your social engagements without diminishing your enjoyment. Leave your child happily in her own world and spend some time in yours.
But “simple” doesn’t mean “easy”, and we all have one enormous barrier: guilt.
Guilt is what keeps me at my laptop until at least 5pm every day, even if I don’t have much to do or I’m not in the mood – and even though nobody would know if I’d stopped an hour ago, and they wouldn’t care even if they did know. Guilt is what keeps us all non-stop flat-out busy all the time, even if only 30% of our activity generates meaningful results or produces real enjoyment.
I don’t know how to banish this guilt and do less, but it’s worth trying. We all need to put our lives on a strict training programme: work hard when we’re working, be all-in when we’re playing, and cut out all the junk that keeps us unproductive and overwhelmed.