Some pretty random thoughts on time and work

In an interview published in Dumbo Feather, lawyer and human rights activist Julian Burnside says that, to fit in time for his work and his diverse interests, he works ‘a longish day’, sleeps about six hours a night, and makes ‘extra time by filling in the little gaps in the day’.

This approach to time is not uncommon for those who most of us would agree are highly successful people. It works for some; but is trying to emulate this kind of punishing pace damaging for those not suited to it?

Private life is often lived as though it were work – ‘diarised’ and every minute packed with predetermined, socially sanctioned activities. I’ve heard of people who go regularly to the gym at midnight and are up early the next morning for a full and long day of employment; families where the lives of the children are as tightly scheduled as those of their professional parents, and where the parents block out ‘quality time’ to be with them …

Then there are the people  who say ‘I haven’t had time to scratch myself’, while their eyes gleam – they look exhausted, but also charged, on a high, as they head doggedly to the next commitment. It’s as if they’re caught up in a secret addiction – and I don’t mean coffee. At the same time there is an aspect to this – how to put it? – as though what they’re doing is for public consumption. As though the having of many commitments is equated with success – looks like success, therefore must be success.

Many workplaces extract everything they possibly can from every minute of their employees’ time. It seems as though many of us have learned to live like this all the time: to be accountable for every aspect of our lives, whether or not there is a boss looming in the next cubby of the open-plan office; whether or not we actually are a boss.

In fact, the term ‘time-poor’ is associated more with affluence than with poverty. The very presence of affluence suggests there is a choice that can be made, to do with making do with less. But somehow many of us go about things as if there were no choice at all. Maybe there often is no choice, especially if work claims more than a reasonable share of our time.

The objective – and what is expected of employees – often seems to be not simply to use time well but to cram it full – in fact, fuller than full, judging by my own observations well as articles such as this one in LifeHacker on chronic overwork. (How about this line: ‘So the load was reset and anyone working at below 150% was told they weren’t pulling their weight.’)

This kind of expectation not only allows no room for anything that is not strictly a task, a getting-done of something; but means also that frenetic doing begins to feel like the only socially validated option for one’s waking hours.

Where is the time to stand back; to assess; to ask questions; to think? Deeply think, I mean, not just problem-solve.

And what of the health effects of chronic overwork, such as migraines, heart attacks, high anxiety and stress levels, breakdowns and near-breakdowns (some call it ‘hitting a wall’), lack of emotional resilience and depression? I don’t mean to be grim, but it is no surprise at all to read this article on death by overwork in Japan – karoshi, they call it – usually by stroke, heart attack or suicide.

* * *

Time heals all.

Well, if it does, we often don’t give it much of a chance.

Thinking of the drugged footballer hurtling back into the game after suffering a serious injury, and the long-term damage that does to his body …

I wonder if, in our race to get on, which seems to become ever more pressured and condensed (perhaps as we measure our pace to that of our machines?), many of us are suffering from a failure to properly heal.

I’m thinking particularly of organisational change. It is all very well to talk about the necessity to adjust to change: these days corporates make ever more frequent transformations to their structures, their technology, their procedures, their personnel. Logos are adjusted, mission statements revised. No matter how carefully it is done, the effect of these changes can be overwhelming, leaving employees feeling vulnerable, distrustful, detached and abused, while they are called upon to remain calm, credulous and loyal, and most critically of all, to keep working. And all this on top of the existing illnesses – and the burden itself – of overwork.

Do we allow time within organisations, in our conversations about work, for those wounds to heal? Do we check for healing before sending people back out onto the field? Before moving on to the next big change?

Of course we don’t.

* * *

Is it really such a disaster, where we are able to do so, to step out of the life of a worker for a while?

Many parents do it. Admittedly, I’ve seen many women (it’s only ever been women) struggle to re-enter the workforce after taking a substantial period of parental leave. Eventually many have given up their old jobs and taken a new path. I think the reasons for this are complex, and obviously vary from person to person; but among those reasons is the difficulty of becoming again a worker: to accept the rules and pressures of the organisation; to cram one’s identity back into that box.

Time becomes that much more precious; money and status, less so. Identity also grows a different way, and for all the world many a woman cannot force it back, whatever the expectations around work may be; however much she may contort herself to appear to be as she was before.

Though leave entitlements, parental or otherwise, are reasonably generous in Australia, we do not have a culture of taking time … of contemplation. The stages of life are often mapped in economic terms: school, which is a preparation for work; work, which enables (if you’re lucky) the purchase of house, car and other assets, and the supporting of a family; retirement, which is the cessation of (paid) work.

There is long service leave, but I hear it’s being phased out. Sabbaticals exist, but only for academics. The idea of taking real, substantial time out, except perhaps for travel, is really quite foreign.

I sometimes think of the Indian idea of the retreat, in middle age, into the forest for contemplation, following a period of life which focused on material wealth and happiness.

Of course, written into this is the idea that having the material wealth in the first place is what provides one with the freedom to retreat from the world … just as downshifting is only possible when there is a more substantial income or asset situation to step down from.

There is, of course, unemployment – but there is little freedom in the search for a job, or in poverty. In fact, to borrow an idea of Hannah Arendt’s (writing about the ancient Greeks), to have too little work is to be held hostage to the necessities of life, and to the whims of others. It is, more or less, to live as a slave.

We have such a horror of unemployment, that we can’t always see the difference between being out of work against our will, and stepping away from work life to try something new; to think about something else. Just to think.

* * *

To treat time, free time, as a problem – boring – an absence of doing – I think that is a deeply troubling phenomenon.

Then again, we complain about not having enough time, then when we have it, we crassly fill it. The pressure to be doing is enormous. It actually takes guts to do less: to focus on only, and exactly, the thing(s) you really value.

* * *

I suspect that many who feel they do not have enough going on to fill their days fill themselves with substances, with distractions. Much advertising, especially, suggests we should all be living our lives at a heart-thumping pace. When we’re not working, we should no doubt all be off in our Jeeps, careening through the wilderness, hearts in our mouths.

Is this what many of us have come to believe a successful life should feel like? Fast, high, risky and competitive? (Expensive, too.) Is the only alternative doddering around at home in your dressing gown and slippers?

Giving everything to work, allowing our work to shape our aspirations for our lives – is part of the problem. If we do not step back we fail to appreciate how much we are defined by it – how we have come to speak that language – have those beliefs – see ourselves in terms of the space we fill in the workplace, and the events and interactions that happen within it.

The rest of the world and its possibilities become a blur – become almost irrelevant. Not only that – given enough of this, we may soon be lost to ourselves; come to see our own self as a blur.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

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