Some people think it’s the Protestant work ethic, others that it’s a genetic predisposition. Me? I think it’s to do with the highly competitive nature of western societies.
Whatever you think causes it, the inability of adults, including myself, to spend a day doing nothing is kind of problematic. It’s something I often discuss with Laura Hilliger (and she refers to it regularly in her excellent newsletter)
There’s a university in Hamburg, Germany, giving out ‘idleness grants’ for people to do absolutely nothing. Emma Beddington’s answers to the questions on the application form aren’t too different to how I’d answer:
What do you not want to do? I want not to compare my achievements, or lack of them, with others’. If successful, for the duration of my idleness grant I will crush the exhausting running mental commentary that points out what those with energy, drive and ambition are achieving and enumerates my inadequacies. When one or other of my nemeses tweets the dread phrase “some personal news” (always the precursor to an announcement of professional glory), I will not feel bad, because I will have accepted that “being quite lazy” has inherent merit in 2020.
Once you remove the specific details from the lives of the ancients, their lives were remarkably like ours. Take today’s title, for example, which is a quotation from Seneca. He knew what it was like to be so busy doing ‘productive’ things to the exclusion of almost everything else.
My good friend Laura Hilliger wears her heart on her sleeve, and is the most no-nonsense person I know. By observing the way she lives and works, I’m learning to set limits and say exactly what I think:
The thing is that western society, implicitly at least, assumes that people are ‘fixed’ in terms of their personality and likes. But that’s just the way that we choose to see ourselves:
I feel that the biggest thing that constrains us is our view of how we think other people see us. That perceived expectation becomes internalised, creating a ‘psychic prison’ which becomes an extremely limited playground. For better or for worse, we perform the role of how we think other people have come to see us.
One way many people find to avoid responsibility for their life choices is to play the ‘busy’ card. They’re too busy to make good decisions, to look after their mental and physical health, to ensure that they’re doing your best work.
The trouble is, that’s simply not true. We’ve got more free time than our parents and grandparents:
As the above chart demonstrates, it’s not true that we actually work more hours. Instead, I think, it’s that we’re so concerned about how other people see us that we spend time doing things that feel like work but are mostly to do with presentation of self. Hence the amount of time spent on social networks like Instagram trying to create the highlights reel of our lives to show others.
One way of viewing this is that we’ve collectively internalised capitalism. The logic of the market has become as invisible to us as an ideology as water is to fish. In fact, some people say it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism!
Of course, it’s become something of a cliché in our pseudo-enlightened times to talk of capitalism as the meta-problem behind everything. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
When we act as if we’re in a rush, things aren’t properly scrutinised. Yesterday’s news (and opinions, and facts) don’t matter. It’s all about today. Our politicians have no shame, and ethics are entirely subjective.
Our identity is mediated by the market, by what we produce instead of who we are. I keep coming back to a fantastic episode of Jocelyn K. Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast entitled Who Are You Without The Doing? in which she explains that we should learn to ‘sit with ourselves’, learning that change comes from within:
You have to completely conquer the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with your human nature, and that therefore you need discipline to correct your behavior. As long as you feel the discipline comes from the outside, there is still a feeling that something is lacking in you.
Jocelyn K. Glei
Derek Sivers uses the metaphor of ‘doors’ to explain where he finds value and wants to spend time doing. Some doors he opens and it helps him grow as a person and fosters positive relationships.
But one door is really no fun to open. I’m horrified at all the shouting, the second I open it. It’s an infinite dark room filled with psychologically tortured people, trying to get attention. Strangers screaming at strangers, starting fights. Businesses set up shop there, showing who’s said and done bad things today, because they make money when people get mad.
We keep wringing our hands about people’s behaviour online, but it’s that way for a reason. Hate is profitable for social networks:
Massive platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube “optimize for engagement,” and make automatic, algorithmic suggestions for every bit of content or action. From “you might also like” to “recommended just for you” to prioritizing things — anything — that will get you to click, comment, or share.
They know what will catch your attention. They know what will get you “engaged.” They know what will be more likely to lead you deeper into a rabbit hole, and what will make it harder to climb back out. Is it a literal, iron-clad trap? No. But the slippery, spiral path that leads people to the darkest corners of the internet is not an accident.
Hate is profitable. Conflict is profitable. Schadenfreude and shame are profitable. While we smugly point fingers, tsk-tsk, and think we’re being clever as we strategically dole out likes and shares, we forget that we are all just gruel-fed hamsters running on wheels deep inside giant, hyper-engineered, artificially intelligent, fully gamified, corporate-controlled virtual worlds that we absurdly think belong to us.
This all comes back to the time equation. Because we feel like we don’t have enough time to curate things ourselves, we outsource that to others. That ends up with handing our information environments over to others to manipulate and control. It’s curate or be curated.
Nobody cares about how much money you earn. Nobody cares how productive you are. Not really.
Also, without sounding harsh, nobody else cares how productive you are. Of course, productivity is important for important things, and “getting stuff done” or whatever, but it doesn’t define you in any way. What does is things like your sense of humour, where your passions lie, how you comfort a friend who’s upset, and that weird noise you make when the delivery guy calls you to say he’s outside with your food.
The trouble is that we don’t want to have this conversation, because it questions our identity, and everything we’ve been working for over our careers and throughout our lives:
But we don’t want to hear that because accepting this truth means asking a lot of complicated questions about our society, in which work is glorified as the pinnacle of self-expression, and personal earnings are viewed as a measure of merit and esteem.
Instead, we would instead read about buy into the idea that success in our work life is a merely a matter of being more productive. If you just follow the ‘right’ set of algorithms or rules, you too can achieve ‘success’ in your work life, along with fame and recognition and a fat bank account.
So, to finish, let me revisit a link I shared recently from Jason Hickel. We can choose to live differently, to recognise the abundance of time and resources we have in the world. To slow down, to take stock, and reject economic growth as in any way a useful indicator of human flourishing:
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can call a halt to the madness – throw a wrench in the juggernaut. By de-enclosing social goods and restoring the commons, we can ensure that people are able to access the things that they need to live a good life without having to generate piles of income in order to do so, and without feeding the never-ending growth machine. “Private riches” may shrink, as Lauderdale pointed out, but public wealth will increase.
It doesn’t have to be difficult. We can just, as Dan Lyons mentions in his book Lab Rats, decide to work on things that ‘close the gap’ or ‘increase the gap’. What that means to you, in your context, is a different matter.