When I was a freshman, I watched Parks and Recreation every single day. I would binge episodes during my lunch breaks and sneak parts of shows in during long lectures. I loved every character, every story line, every cheesy joke. In particular, I loved the episode where I learned about Tom and Donna’s “Treat Yo Self” day, where once a year, Tom and Donna treat themselves to whatever they want. It’s a designated splurging day, and I loved the idea.
The problem was that I loved it too much. I found that I was “treating” myself to things that I didn’t actually earn or necessarily deserve for the work I was doing. Did you just finish two pages of reading? Treat yo self with a 20 minute nap. Finally opened that Word document with instructions to that 10 page paper? Yeah, you can go get Chipotle.
What was worse is that when I actually was able to do work and my celebration was deserved, it did not feel like a true celebration. At this point, I was just going through the motions: do a little work, take a big break. My post-hard-work-treatment barely felt like a celebration because it wasn’t rare anymore, it was a given.
I felt like this was my plight. My overabundance of celebratory breaks was actually diminishing my output of satisfaction. I was allocating too much time to Netflix and Facetiming friends instead of to studying and work, even if I thought I earned it.
In economics, there is something called the law of diminishing returns. The law states that if input in production is increased, while all other inputs stay the same, there will be a point where the increasing input starts to hinder production rather than progress it, or diminish the output of production. Like when you make pancakes, adding just a little milk will give you more pancakes with little loss of flavor, but if you add a lot of milk they become too liquidy and gross. It had seemed that I was adding way too much milk to my pancakes.
In addition, my celebrations weren’t as grand because they were so frequent. This is a fairly simple principle in economics: the more there is of a good, the less value the good holds. The more Taco Bell runs I made, the more online shopping splurges I had or the more Starbucks Frappuccinos I consumed, felt less and less deserved. Not only did I recognize the loss in value of each binge session I had, I felt horribly guilty too.
One of my favorite TED Talks of all time is by Tim Urban, a blogger who dives into what it’s like to be a procrastinator. In his talk, he mentions this concept that he calls “the Dark Playground,” and describes it as the place “where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not suppose to be happening.”
While Urban uses it in reference to putting off work, I found myself roaming the Dark Playground without even noticing it. I was hiding behind this illusion that I earned this time in the Playground, and that doing the bare minimum amount of effort was justifiable for me to put off other work for a while, because I deserved this rest.
But then it all stopped being fun. My production was diminishing, the value of each “treat yo self” moment was decreasing, and the fleeting bursts of joy I got from throwing my notebook aside for the day were tainted with phony merit. As Urban put it, “the fun you have in the Dark Playground isn’t actually fun, because it’s completely unearned, and the air is filled with guilt, dread, anxiety, and self-hatred…”
No, I am not saying that we should never treat ourselves to things, because we should. But we should try and limit those treats to times when we really deserve them. If you’ve been studying all week for a midterm, go out drinking and celebrate. If you finally finish that huge paper you have been working on for what feels like forever, take that weekend trip to the city. I’m not even saying that you can’t take little breaks in between studying — you can — but just not ones where you read a single page and then go on Instagram for 20 minutes straight.
Treating yourself is important, but remember to do it at the right times and in the right proportions.