Josh Cohen, author of Not Working: Why We Have to Stop, unravels the many ills of overwork
Dear ______, so sorry I haven’t got to this yet, I’ve been…”; “Hi __________! Thanks for the reminder, I’ll do this asap, unfortunately have been….”; “Hello, I realise you’re still waiting on this, profuse apologies, I’ve just been completely…”
Sound familiar? Is your sent mailbox overflowing with these kinds of abject apologies to colleagues and administrators, even friends? Perhaps you find that a subtle but unmistakable tone of self-righteousness creeps into and complicates your apology? You might tell your correspondent that, “Of course, your request is burnished on my heart, and is definitely at the top of the to-do list… Once I’m through with all the other important requests from all the other important people.”
In other words, “Please recognise my tardiness not as neglect or laziness but as an effect of my doing so much and being so very productive and purposeful, so fully committed to a robust work ethic.”
In our culture of overwork and hyperactivity, being busy, and being seen to be busy, have become the ultimate source of our pride and meaning. In his seminal 1905 tract, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the German sociologist Max Weber suggested that Protestant movements such as Lutheranism and Calvinism had entrenched a kind of sacralisation of work in Western societies. These movements enjoined people to the most efficient and thrifty use of their time in order to maximise productivity. On this view, the most egregious sin is to idle, meander or stray, especially into activities – or inactivity – that have no discernible profit or purpose.
We can see the legacy of this ethical attitude in the shame so many of us seem to suffer when we resist the demand to work and yield to the impulse to rest, to drift aimlessly, to stop. I often wish I could be more brazen when responding to reminders to action this, follow-up that, perhaps tell my politely-nudging correspondent that no, I didn’t have time to send the report or fill in the evaluation form because I was using the time allocated to stare gormlessly out the window, shoving ginger nuts into my gob while thinking up, say, ten words that rhyme with Audi, or recalling my favourite advertising jingles from 1980’s American TV.
Like so many of us, I work long hours. But temperamentally, spiritually, I am more lazy and sluggish than I am dynamic and thrusting, more dreamy than urgent. When, as a child, teachers and senior family members would throw these adjectives at me accusingly, I found it hard to argue.
As I child, I’d lag behind the task at hand, barely processing instructions before everyone else had executed them. Cross-country runs would be completed before I was 200 metres in, easy catches brushed the tips of my fingers as they dropped to the ground, shots on goal would glide blithely through my legs. Major cities were mapped, major events dates, major organs labelled before I was at all aware of where or when or what I was supposed to be.
But what was wrong with dreaming, with finding the window held more interest than the blackboard, I wanted to protest. I’m not doing anything!
It took a while – a good decade or two – for the penny to drop that “not doing anything” was the issue. I chose a scholarly career in literary studies largely for the appeal of spending my time reading and talking about novels and poems, only to run into the unpleasant truth that an academic department would require a little more from me; there would be committee meetings, exam boards, tutorial hours, course administration, essay grading. If I was to survive, I’d need to learn to at least resemble a responsible, functioning adult colleague.
But deep down I’ve remained in solidarity with that dopey child. He makes me feel embarrassed by my hasty email assurances, reminds me there’s something quietly pernicious about the unwillingness to recognise the inactive, non-working dimension of ourselves. Why should our sense of self be so exclusively premised on doing and acting, effectively outlawing other states of being?