FINDING BALANCE IN THE AGE OF ‘TOTAL WORK’
Why downing tools regularly makes you more productive
‘Work becomes total when all of human life is centred around it; when everything else is not just subordinate to, but in
the service of work,’ writes practical philosopher Andrew Taggart.
Sounds familiar, right? Even after putting in long hours at the office, we never truly switch off. We might leave our workplace, but we’re always connected to our work lives – checking emails, planning the work week ahead and making sure we sleep enough to maximise our work output. We even exercise to manage work stress and, on weekends, try to complete to-do lists during our downtime. And when we do take time off or even just sleep in, we’re racked with guilt because there are things we believe we ought to be doing.
German philosopher Josef Pieper first coined the term ‘total work’ after World War 2 – at the time, it was nothing more than a prediction for the future. Now we’re living it.
‘Total work,’ says Taggart, ‘is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers and nothing more, while more aspects of life are slowly transformed into work.’
You could even argue that we’ve become conditioned to like the way our jobs and personal lives are intertwined. Ryan Avent, an editor
at The Economist, reckons that ‘our jobs have become prisons from which we don’t want to escape’.
He writes: ‘Perhaps we just live in a nightmarish arms race – if we were all to disarm, collectively, then we could all live a calmer, happier, more equal life. But that is not quite how it is. The problem is not that overworked professionals are all miserable. The problem is that they’re not.’
But there are ways to create momentary distance from workthink – and it’s crucial that we do. Imagine facing retrenchment or professional failure if your identity is built on your work life – your whole sense of self could implode.
The good news? There are ways to redress the balance. These steps are about reframing rather than forming disciplined new habits.
STEP 1 ‘The better you are at rest, the better you are at working’
After getting much more done while he was on sabbatical than he did at work, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a business consultant in Silicone Valley and visiting scholar at Stanford University, decided to research the subject, eventually publishing the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.
First off, he suggests we broaden our definition of rest: ‘We usually think of rest as the opposite of work, or a negative space defined only by the absence of work. Conversations about work-life balance imply that work and rest are competitors. In the lives of the people I write about, work and rest complement and complete each other. Rest isn’t this optional leftover activity. Work and rest are actually partners. They’re like different parts of a wave. You can’t have the high without the low.’
Rest also doesn’t need to be totally passive. Pang found that deliberate rest – what he classifies as activities of ‘serious leisure’ – is the most restorative. Things like long walks, hiking and mountaineering, painting, gardening and any such pastimes fall within his definition of deliberate rest.
While the more passive forms of rest (like binge-watching Netflix) have their place, deliberate rest is most beneficial because it allows space for creative reflection.
‘The experience of having the mind slightly relaxed allows it to explore different combinations of ideas, to test out different solutions.’ No matter how you spend your leisure time the key, Pang writes, is to aim for a restorative experience – a term coined by psychologist Stephen Kaplan.
‘He wanted to understand why walks in the park, or even looking at a picture of a landscape, can recharge your mental batteries,’ explains Pang. Restorative experiences, he discovered, share these traits:
• ‘They’re fascinating: unlike a conference call or spreadsheet, they hold your attention without effort.
• They provide a sense of transporting you from your usual life and environment.
• They strike a balance between complexity and compatibility: they’re rich and fully realised worlds, but you can make sense of them.’
Restorative experiences aren’t just limited to activities either. ‘Natural environments like parks and beaches, and built spaces like churches and gardens, can be restorative. So can the theatre or good books.’
In order to make enough time and place for these serious leisure experiences, it’s important to understand that rest and leisure aren’t optional activities, squeezed in if we have time. Work and leisure are equally important, or as Pang puts it: ‘The better you are at resting, the better you will be at working.’
STEP 2 Take longer sabbatical-style holidays
Restorative experiences create the ideal space and time to think, contemplate, consolidate and invigorate creativity. But this can be near impossible to achieve in your day-to-day life. That’s where long holidays, or sabbaticals for those who have the opportunity, are highly valuable. Frequent short breaks like long weekends away are great, but to truly get to a phase where you’re relaxed enough to think deeply takes more than that. Which would explain why sabbatical-type holidays are making a comeback. StacyLee Swart, a 30-year-old senior art director in advertising, did something similar when she took a two-month holiday to Russia:
‘Because it was so long, it almost felt like I’d quit my job. I could forget about everything and immerse myself in our trip. Comparing it to the seven-day trip to India we did three years ago where we barely got a chance to relax before we were on our flight back, I’d definitely recommend this style of travelling instead (if
‘It’s important to understand that rest and leisure are not optional activities, squeezed in if we have time.’
your work allows it, of course).
‘I told my company a year previously that I wanted to take two months off. They didn’t really believe me at the time, but six months before we left I gave them my set dates and put in my leave form. They discussed it with the CEO, who wasn’t 100% convinced, but I reasoned with them that most women my age are taking maternity leave at this point in their lives, so this was mine except my baby was a backpack and I’d be coming back with vodka and amazing stories of Russia instead.’ Personally, I also experienced the benefits of a lengthy break when I took a month-long holiday last year. During week one and two, I was just so relieved to be on holiday; by week three I finally relaxed but was exhausted from the stressful time leading up to the break. It was only in week four, when I’d finally got enough distance from work, that I felt mentally and physically recharged.
Employers are also cottoning on to the value of longer holidays. Richard Branson enforced an unlimited leave policy shortly after Netflix announced it would. In 2016, web development company Basecamp CEO Jason Fried announced that employee benefits would include a month-long sabbatical every three years, four-day workweeks during the summer months and a flexible leave policy where employees would get three weeks of holiday plus some personal days to use at their discretion.
STEP 3 Take back your lunch break and go outside
No lengthy holiday in sight? Shorter increments of rest are just as important, as they allow us to turn a mental page if we’re stuck. A study conducted by the Harvard
Business Review found that when participants took regular breaks between the creative thinking tasks assigned to them, they generated the most novel ideas.
Getting out for your lunch break will make you more creative in your problem-solving approach, which means you’ll get the same amount done in less time and therefore have more downtime.
Going outside into a park or among trees for your lunch break can have a more profound effect than we realise. A study published in BioScience found that connecting to nature can lessen antisocial behaviour and increase social connection and harmony.
‘Forest bathing’ has taken off, first in Japan and now in the US. Loosely translated, the Japanese word ‘shinrin-yoku’ means ‘taking in, in all of our senses, the forest atmosphere’. Research has proven the benefits of forest bathing on our stress levels and brain function, and even inflammation. If you don’t have a forest close to your office, short bursts of exposure to nature can have a positive effect, and the immersive experience is a break from your phone and emails.
All these steps have the same end-goal – to reconnect us to life: with people we love, places we want to see, things we’d like to experience, worlds only our imaginations can visit. By nurturing that side of ourselves, we’ll ultimately be able to do what Taggart says is the secret to achieving balance in the age of total work: ‘detach[ing] our notion of success from that of happiness’.