Work inspiration

Is working too little just as bad as working too much?

- October 18, 2023 4 MIN READ


Work-life balance. Soloists like to laugh out loud when we hear it. Though we may have different reasons as to why, explains Tom Valcanis.

For some of us, 50, 60 plus hour weeks are just the norm. For others, who may have successfully pulled off author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris’ four-hour-work week and “escaped the 9 to 5, are living anywhere, and have joined the new rich” … they may ask, what work?

Though increasing one’s productivity tenfold seemed fanciful in 2011, is now a reality. Using Generative AI and automation, who’s to say one could dip into an interactive dashboard once a week, make a few tweaks and sip pina coladas poolside at a Barbados resort the rest of the time?

Or for people like me, in creative industries where Generative AI may be more of a threat than a companion, would I get paid to spot spelling mistakes and inaccuracies instead of writing like I used to?

Surely being paid to sit around and do nothing is the dream. Right?

Work without purpose

Not according to case studies by German anthropologist David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs, born from an essay written in a left-wing magazine.

The premise of the book is government and corporations, through co-creation of perverse incentives, regulatory capture, and other trickery, have created a class of meaningless, trifling, and soul-destroying jobs that demand filling yet serve no purpose. He posits that not working for any reason is a moral failing while working for no reason is something worth celebrating.

If you’ve ever had a retail or hospo job with a boss who insists you “sweep the floor again” just to look busy, you’ll know what he means.

These BS jobs may include “box ticking,” “duct taping”, being a “flunkie” or a “goon”, or a “taskmaster” assigning real work to other people, or what Graeber calls “complex multiform bullshit jobs” which are combinations thereof.

One such “box ticker” was “Eric.” According to Graeber, “Eric” was paid a six-figure salary in British pounds to essentially not do anything. Originally a history graduate, he was offered an IT job at a prestigious English firm. His job? To ensure purposely buggy communication software stayed that way, keeping the petty fiefdoms of the firm’s corner-office partners intact. He reported using the time to read novels and learn languages at first, but then became despondent, depressed. He started drinking and taking drugs. He stopped bathing and shaving to get the sack but was instead offered more money to hang on. The unbearable lightness of doing nothing caught up with him and he quit to live on a commune instead.

Getting paid to do nothing? You might think. That sounds awesome! Or is it the stuff of Twilight Zone nightmares?

According to Dr. Joe Issak, a psychologist who looks into the behaviour of success, says that working too little will lead to a sort of “mind atrophy” – just like muscles that aren’t being used, the brain will waste away too.

“There’s tonnes of contemporary research about Alzheimer’s disease and different mental disorders,” Joe says. “It suggests the more you use your brain, the more you break your patterns, it gets the brain working. If you train it, and take your brain to the ‘gym,’ it will keep going. If you have nothing to do, the worse it gets. You might go shopping every day for a week but eventually you will have bought everything, and you won’t know what else to buy.”

Work and identity

The missing ingredient in any work scenario intention. Bayu Prihandito, founder of Life Architekture, psychology expert and life coach says that if we aspire working for 15 hours a week we must ask ourselves; “what will I do with the remaining 25?”

“Do I need a direction, or can I feel happy sitting around sipping cocktails?” he says. “If someone doesn’t know their own intention for doing things, they will feel empty inside. If you have that spare 25 hours and you’re sipping on margaritas, it will be nice for a couple of weeks, maximum. You might have been striving for this your whole life. Then you achieve it, but then you go – shit, the happiness isn’t there.”

“It puts your whole identity into question. If your identity was built on a pedestal of being ‘busy’ and ‘useful’ then a long holiday doing nothing will not fulfil you. You have to start asking yourself the hard questions. Why you are doing this in the first place? You can ask that of people who are working 60 hours a week. Why are they doing it? Every person will have a different answer. It’s important to be radically honest with ourselves.

“The longer we do things blindly, the more our identity is under threat when things drastically change.”

Joe says self-perception and self-direction are key determinants of fulfilment. He shares a story about a psychologist and psychiatrist who runs her own practice and social research firm. She has armfuls of degrees, doctorates, and accolades from universities. She’s well-to-do and the business could run itself without her.

“What is the likelihood of seeing this lady working security at a nightclub?”

Zero-to-none was my guess.

“You say that because you can’t see any obvious reason to. The money isn’t great, and she doesn’t even need it. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a very simple job. You check IDs and you might tell drunk people they can’t come in. It’s like directing people in or out. It doesn’t require someone very qualified. But she feels it is important. It’s an opportunity to test her social dynamics theories in the field.

“She documents things in her head and that goes into her ongoing research. If someone doesn’t feel like they are worthy of their position, like a President of a big company, it will become a reflection of themselves. If I don’t think I’m worth it, then nothing will ever be worth it.”

Working too much or not enough

So, what’s better? Working too much, or not enough? Well, that’s where our personalities come into play. Whether you are looking for the four-hour-workweek or crave the pressure of the 60+ hour hustle, the map one needs to navigate toward contentment is mindfulness.

“You can observe yourself without labelling yourself,” Bayu says. “See yourself with compassionate eyes. Be aware of the words you’re telling yourself. Are you working 60 hours on the verge of burnout? Is the four-hour-workweek boring you to death?

“It’s okay to acknowledge it without hitting yourself on the head for it. It’s an invitation to explore yourself before you end up in a catastrophe.”

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