In This Era of Persistent Burnout, Brands Need to Make Downtime ‘Cool’ for Consumers

This article has been originally featured in Adweek on June 18th, 2019

Being busy is not “cool” anymore. There is increasingly talk about the benefits of wasting time, the dangers of hustle porn, the skewed economics of millennial burnout, the rise of anti-strivers. Just like Instagram photos of the unnamed variety of pink objects and avocado toasts, being “crazy busy” shifted from being a boast of self-importance to the opposite of aspiration.

In the contemporary branding context, decoupling busyness from aspiration is a tricky proposition. Brands are built on stories about industriousness of their founders. “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” wrote Elon Musk on Twitter before his very public meltdown, presumably of overwork.

Strivers are the lore of the American Dream, the backbone of Silicon Valley, apostles of the 996 work ethics in China, and avid owners of treadmill desks. They are also the core experience promise of every sportswear brand, and the target audience of a better chunk of consumer startups, which are predicated on the notion that we are too busy to cook, exercise, sleep, watch TV, see a doctor, shop for clothes, get over a jet lag, or get a massage, so we want these services outsourced and delivered.

“Doing things is better than not doing things,” claims Outdoor Voices. “Just Do It,” says Nike. “You eat coffee for lunch. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice” boasts a campaign from Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelancers. Accompanying #doingthings is the $4.2 trillion wellness industry offering us not a respite from the relentless productivity, but the support for it. Marie Kondo and Headspace are there to keep us working more and harder.

Our sense of confidence and self-worth is seemingly innately linked to being busy, productive, and efficient. We are primed to think that we have failed if we don’t constantly work.

A lot of this priming has been done by brands, and with a good reason: working all the time fuels consumer economy. But like tobacco smoking, fast food and fast fashion, and social media, relentless productivity is addictive and bad for us. Taking a guilt-free time off is a necessity that, in addition to being thoroughly enjoyable, ironically also makes us better at our jobs.

The old narratives of busyness can be undone. In the same way they promoted achievement, ambition, and busyness as aspiration, brands can flip the script and start to celebrate anti-striving. They can alleviate our guilt of doing nothing through the same marketing mechanisms they used to create it. They can inspire us to do less without feeling like failures and to celebrate our idleness. They can portray unceasing productivity as an unenlightened and passé choice.

There’s a story in intrinsic joy and purpose that comes from simply living one’s life and not rushing through it. There’s a force and mystery in it. Nikola Tesla was famously communing with pigeons in New York City while Thomas Edison was, in his own words, perspiring 99 percent of his time.

Busyness is not an aspiration. It’s an ideology. People like Nikola Tesla and brands like Supreme or Off-White are cool because they reject accepted ideals. Emerging ideas of cool often function as a way for society and culture to revitalize itself by questioning its own truths and norms. Beyond being a mere marketing tactic, cool reveals what we collectively aspire to. At this moment, brands can capture our budding anti-striving revolt, and accelerate it by making #notdoingthings cool.

We are already seeing this shift in the transformation of the meaning of luxury that, since the Veblen time, represented the ultimate aspiration. Modern luxury celebrates experiences over things, and time, privacy, inconspicuous consumption, and cultural capital as the biggest social achievements. A next-generation Marie Kondo, instead of showing us how to thank our excess clothes as we bid them sayonara, will teach us how to thank our excess workload as we opt out. Similarly, an updated version of Headspace is the one that’s not needed. #Notdoingthings is fulfilling enough.