Ironically – or perhaps appropriately? – for a post about spending time, this missive has been months in the making. In late May, I took part in a fascinating panel discussing how to reshape the future of work. But then a lot of fucked up things piled on top of the other fucked up things already happening in the world. And my attention was needed elsewhere.
Now, as we ease out of lockdown, it feels like a good time to step back and take stock. 2020 has given us many things, including the opportunity to reflect on what’s really important in life. How we want to live, and to work. What impact we want to have on the world. And how we want to show up in it, for ourselves and for others.
THE CULT OF WORKISM
I put to live and to work together deliberately, because our culture still conflates the two. Work has become our life, our identity, our source of meaning. This 2018 article explores philosophies on work and life from as far back as 1863; over 150 years later, and we’re worshipping more fervently than ever at the altar of work. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 21st-century working week of just 15 hours. Instead, we’re spending time working longer and harder than ever. And, as evidenced in this excellent essay, work really has evolved into a religion for many:
“The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that work…would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.”
Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to do things differently. But we’re still defaulting to what we know best, to doing things the way that we’ve always done them. Those of us with the privilege of being knowledge workers, and working from home, could completely revamp how we work and live. But instead, we’re burning ourselves out with long hours and endless Zoom calls.
At an individual level, it’s not our fault. The system is rigged against us. We live in a culture where constant busyness is a badge of honour. We’re quite literally taught from childhood to fetishise work, money, results, success. Technology has erased work-life boundaries, and used behavioural science to make being always available alarmingly alluring. Perhaps most dangerously of all, we’ve been conditioned to find our life’s meaning and purpose in our work. And yet our increasing levels of sickness and suffering are directly correlated with the insidious rise in overwork.
LOVE WHAT YOU DO
Another big part of the problem is that a lot of us genuinely love what we do. Which makes it especially difficult to switch off from work. That’s something I struggle with constantly, as does everyone I know what does something they love. Those of us in the music industry, for example, do it because we’re passionate about music (we sure as hell aren’t doing it for the money). But that passion can pave a very slippery slope. A job that includes getting paid to listen to music, go to gigs (when it’s safe to do so) and network with other folks from your industry seems like the dream. It is, and we’re lucky to be living our dream. But spending time doing those things eats into your own time. And that fortunate feeling very easily drives people to stress, burnout and other mental and physical health issues. Boundaries blur, balance tips completely off the scale and you’re compelled to be always on.
I’ve been there many times. Probably not even for the last time.
Added to that, the pandemic and the ensuing economic turmoil has meant many people losing their jobs, and the ones who still have theirs are scared to death of losing them. Economic chaos + a world in constant flux + a passion for your job + a desperation to keep it = one dangerously strong cocktail. And one of those hangovers that gets worse as the day goes on, and lingers through the week.
MAKING WORK BETTER
One potential solution is to revolutionise the way we work. After all, we’ve defaulted to a way of working which is an artefact from the Industrial Revolution. It’s time for systemic change at a company, cultural and societal level, instead of burdening individuals with wildly unrealistic and unhealthy expectations to do and have it all. Step forward Alex Pang, an author and researcher who suggests that when we work less, we get more done. Be still, my beating heart. And my overworked brain.
It’s taken a global pandemic to encourage deeper exploration into a 4-day workweek, which Pang suggests can re-establish boundaries between work and leisure time. We already know that the ways in which we work often don’t work. Being constantly connected means spending time being endlessly distracted, interrupted and in unnecessary meetings. Those days when you get to the end of the day and wonder, what the hell have I actually achieved? Pang’s research proves that when you get rid of distractions and create periods where you can fully focus on your work, you can get more done in a shorter period of time. Hence the ability to do 5 days’ work in 4.
Yes, I know, it’s blindingly bloody obvious.
So why haven’t we already changed the way that we work? Partly because our individual capacity to focus on work depends on others’ capacity to respect that focus. In short: if we can work together to stop constantly distracting each other, we can all get more done.
TAKE IT FROM THE TOP
But these changes need to come from the top, and take the pressure off the individual. And there’s hard evidence to prove that working less really works. The best bit is that these changes benefit companies, employees and society at large. Employees are healthier, happier, and perform better. Meaning that by working less, business are seeing profits and productivity increase.
Pang posits that the 4-day workweek can help to improve work-life balance, stress, burnout, and help parents to manage work and raising children alongside each other. All of which raises an interesting question: do companies have a moral responsibility to introduce initiatives like the 4-day workweek to improve the health of their employees? Pang suggests that work as something can be redesigned to make people healthier and happier. And that there are tremendous public health benefits to shorter, more focused working hours. Therefore, redesigning work becomes a societal and structural issue. We can restructure the ways we work and live to complement each other, and improve our health and happiness.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN
Which brings me to the part that’s not about work. The other side of the coin is – hurrah! – rest and leisure.
I’ve never understood those people who say that they get bored on holiday, and start yearning to go back to work. Psychopaths! There are literally so many other ways that you could be spending time. Personally, if money was no object and I didn’t have to work, I’d move to Ibiza tomorrow and become an Olympic showjumper. What do you mean, the two don’t go together?
Anyway. For those of us who struggle to switch off from jobs we love, Pang suggests that active rest and deep play are the solution. The key is to use our rest time intentionally; not just non-stop Netflix binges, but engaging in hobbies and activities that you love. Often, these activities are just as compelling as work, and offer us many of the same psychological rewards, but without the frustrations. Instead, they remind you what accomplishment at its best looks like.
GIVE YOUR BRAIN A BREAK
Active rest can also offer our brains a break. For example, walking, gardening, swimming, taking the dogs out. And by using your rest time well, and enabling your brain to switch out of work mode, rest actually becomes the perfect partner to work. Rest time becomes a playground for your mind to turn over ideas, which is why you often have ‘aha’ moments while in the shower, or out for a walk. Allowing our brain to let go is essential for our creative process. Rest is not the opposite of work, nor the absence of it. When you use your time wisely, work and rest support and sustain each other.
This is also borne out by the work of Ashley Whillans, a behavioural scientist and Harvard professor who studies the impact of how we choose to spend our time and money. Whillans has found that while objectively we have more free time today than we’ve had before, subjectively we feel time poor. Which is because we’re always connected, always multi-tasking, and our free time is broken up into tiny sprinkles of what Whillans calls ‘time confetti’.
TIME POVERTY AND AFFLUENCE
The problem is, time famine comes at the cost of happiness and health. Shockingly, Whillans’ research proves that feeling time poor has a worse impact then being unemployed. The consequences for our wellbeing are dramatic. But we don’t realise that, so we make poor decisions. We work more to earn more, but that results in time poverty. We think that busyness is a status symbol, which makes us important. And as we get ever busier, and overwhelm sets in, we don’t make time for the things that make us truly happy. Such as time with our loved ones, or doing those activities that bring us joy and recharge our batteries.
And when we’re tunnelling through, just desperately trying to survive, it comes at the cost of our connections to others. We don’t have the cognitive resources to think about helping others, or tackling the bigger issues that the world is facing. Pang highlights the paradox that, thanks in part to the religion of workism, more of us are now choosing jobs for passion and purpose, rather than the money or progression prospects. We want our work to have an impact. But we can’t have an impact if we’re overworked and burnt out. The problems that the world is facing need creative, innovative solutions. And we can’t be creative and innovative if we don’t free up the time and capacity to be our best selves.
BUILD A REST ETHIC
Again, the solution comes back to working less, spending time engaging in active rest, building boundaries between work and leisure time, and using the latter intentionally. And if your free time comes in confetti sprinkles, use those short breaks to do small, positive things. Reach out to a loved one, do something enjoyable, daydream and let your mind wander, have a few tech-free minutes.
Most importantly, learn how to build a rest ethic. Be more Aristotle:
“Relaxation, he warned, is often just something we do in order to recover for more work. But true rest, what Aristotle called “noble leisure”, is defined entirely in itself and is the highest thing we humans could aspire to, because it fills our life with meaning.”
So, there you have it. Proof positive that we should all be working less, having more fun, and spending more time doing things we love with the people we love. Excellent. Who’s going to tell the big boss?
We’ve evolved the ways in which we live and work to serve capitalism and drive consumerism. But time, not money, is the only currency that really matters. Spend it wisely. Because once we’ve spent it, we’re not getting it back. So what are we using it for?