Somewhere along the line I absorbed the nearly universal belief that hard work is a defining value of a person’s worth. Intellectually, I don’t buy into this meme – but emotionally I can feel its pull and weight for every hour “wasted” on “non-productive” work. Although the nature of work has changed dramatically since I was a child, the thinking that governs the value of hard work hasn’t changed much. If anything, it’s gotten worse.
In the “halcyon” days of my youth, most people generally worked 40 hours a week. Back then, white-collar “bosses” rarely asked workers to work late, and labor laws required hourly workers get overtime pay to compensate for their efforts. Most people expected to eat dinner at home with their families and weekends were nearly always reserved for family life and leisure. Hard work was expected, but the expectations of when and how it was done were very different.
In the highly publicized article, Nurse Reveals the Top 5 Deathbed Regrets – the subject of work shows up on the list at #2 – I wish I didn’t work so hard.
First, let’s define what work means. In most cultures work is still defined purely by economic value. When we work in a community garden, producing food for ourselves and perhaps a few neighbors, unless we receive payment for our lettuce, most cultures would not recognize this as work.
People, mostly women of course, who work in the home, care for children, prepare meals and do the housekeeping, but receive no remuneration for their labor, are in economic terms not working. We have mindless social policies in the U.S. that codify these beliefs; if you are a woman who receives benefits from the TANF program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and have a child under 6 you must work 20 hours outside of the home. It’s not uncommon for women in the program to work outside of the home as child-care workers; while family members or other child care workers care for their children. This particularly maddening catch-22 exemplifies that in 2013, our ideas about work still reflect early 20th models that don’t suit 21 century realities.
But let’s face it – most of us have to work to make money.
We seek self-expression through our work and for many people, work is meaningful and satisfying. And while meaning may be a moot point for the majority of working people who earn so little that they must do multiple jobs just to survive – how we think about our work still has a great deal to do with how we feel about it. The late historian Studs Terkel captured the essential meaning of work when he said, “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Everyone has a work mindset. That mindset, the aggregate of all the beliefs, feelings and experiences we’ve accumulated in our work history, plays a major role in how we do our work. One important question is how much of the mental atmosphere we create around our work is energizing and not overwhelming and enervating?
There are two words in particular that seem to reside in the background of work like a specter ready to measure and judge our every act – productivity and procrastination.
You Can Never Be Too Productive?
A quick Google search turns up 19 million results for productivity and over a million for procrastination. Articles like, 12 Things Highly Productive People Do are common and very popular. We want to know how to do things faster and more effectively. We are living in a “time famine’ and in a race to cram more into every minute of every day.
No amount of productivity seems enough. We aspire to ever higher standards of work efficiency grabbing every time-saving tip and mechanism that comes along. We measure our achievements by people we deem as more successful. We assign words like excellence to those who figure out how to eke out every last drop of activity in any given hour. We live by hard work quotes like this one by Jose Ortega y Gassett, “Effort is only effort when it begins to hurt.”
We relish our war stories of ridiculously long hours and nights spent without sleep in accomplishing our goals.We adopt rules about the number of phone calls we must complete to make a successful sales call. We latch on to ideas like Malcolm Gladwell’s, 10,000 hour rule as formulas for success and miles to go that we must complete to get there (wherever there is).
What accounts for this ever-growing drive for personal productivity? Certainly the effects of the 2008 recession have disrupted and reorganized the labor market, mostly to the advantage of corporate employers, but these trends predate the recent economic downturn. Increasingly, the drive for personal productivity in many cases is a drive to secure employment and this reality creates terrible stress for the growing pool of the unemployed, self-employed and the so-called contingent worker.
Certainly technology has increased speed and the expectations for speed, rendering yesterday’s productivity models quaint. Social media and the 24/7 world of work where there is no rest and no place to hide has also played a major hand in the new work mindset. We know that cell phone addiction is real and studies with young users show that deprived of phones participants actually suffer “phantom limb” syndrome similar to that of amputees. How much of the attachment to our mobile devices, technology and our productivity rate is emotional?
“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”
I’m sure we have all heard this quote or some variation of it sometime in our lives. It’s usually attributed to the Christian theologian, John Wesley, but surely has its roots in Biblical scripture. Moral prescriptions such as these helped to shape the mindsets of the Protestant and Puritan ethics that guided Northern European and American cultural imperatives. The resilient memes where work is always meritorious and “idleness” is always an invitation to danger have formed the basis for the Western worldview of work that continues to influence corporate conduct today.
The truth is that some days, many of us just don’t feel like working. OK, I hear some of you groaning out there. “Some days – how about every day!” Others may be thinking, “Of course we don’t always feel like working, but we have to get motivated to make things happen!” While there are always exceptions – and the more industrious readers of this article may be losing patience with my apparent defense of dawdling – everyone experiences days where they just don’t feel like being “on.”
I am not talking about “sick” or even “mental health” days or vacation days – I am talking about an average Tuesday morning when you just don’t want to produce anything! You don’t feel particularly sharp or organized or interested in the work at hand. Creativity seems a very tall order. Attention to detail feels impossible. What you tell yourself about those thoughts and feelings say a great deal about your work mindset. The no-slack mindset is often ready with a deluge of judgments and get back-to-work propositions with a zero tolerance policy.
In this mindset there is little place to just Be. In his article, Finding the Being in the Doing, Balanced Action blogger Phillipp Schneider writes, “In a society where mostly outcome counts, we run the risk to slowly turn into elaborate windup toys, spinning out of control through life, disconnected from the flow of life.”
I’ll admit that I’m good at procrastinating. I can pleasantly divert myself to many interests and activities that are not connected to my work, per se. I’m not necessarily proud of it, how could I be? But I will say – a part of me likes it. Naturally, it doesn’t serve me when I have looming deadlines or long-delayed projects that need my attention. But fortunately, I usually rally to work on what is truly essential and allow myself fun diversions without too much self-recrimination.
Procrastination’s a pretty dirty word in the land of Productivity. There are articles everywhere on how to beat it. Seems that the act of “putting off until tomorrow” evokes really strong emotions and harsh criticism, often self-inflicted. One theory is that because procrastination typically produces guilt, it serves as evidence of internal conflict. I’m often quick to defend this much aligned emotion, but guilt can be free-floating and show up in places where we can most easily inflict self-punishment.
Psychological theory and neuroscience make the case that when we procrastinate we “give in to feeling good with short-term rewards but long-term pain.”
I know there’s truth in this theory. I believe that work, even hard work, can be enormously rewarding. I know that the honing of skills like discipline, tenacity and perseverance build character and reap unexpected results.
But I also know another thing. It’s great to take an unscheduled hour or even a day off from work, for no reason other than you feel like it – and not worry, or judge or compare your actions to anyone or anything else. In fact, it’s a bit of a luxury that everyone deserves! In the words of another rebel of his times, Oscar Wilde, ‘I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do – the day after.”
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Related Articles: Reflections on the Busy Trap; How Many Hours Do We Need to Work to be “Productive?“; Work isn’t Life