Science

You’re Working Too Much & Enjoying Your Free Time Too Little

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Sheltering in place for the past…year and a half? Has been interesting for a lot of people who are accustomed to going into an office and having that hard distinction between work and home. I remember when I first started copywriting as a freelancer, working exclusively from home was really, really difficult. I would think about work all the time, and if I didn’t think about work during the “work day” I felt bad and unproductive. It was a real Catch-22, in that I felt bad when I was working and when I wasn’t working. The worst of both worlds.

But over time I learned to stop stressing about it so much. I rearranged my schedule so that I worked when I was feeling productive, whether that was in between 9am and 5pm or not. And if I wanted to take a break in that time, I would just do it. These days I have things down pat: I start working around 8am, stop for a shower and stuff around 10, work more, pause around 2 to goof off on Twitch, and then back to work until 5 or 6. But sometimes inspiration hits at different times, and that’s okay! And sometimes I need to take a few hours to go for a hike or work in the garden and it’s fine. I don’t work 40 hours a week anymore, which at first made me feel bad until I realized, why the hell do I think that’s necessary? The US had an average 60 to 100-hour work week in the late 19th century, and thanks to unions that came down to 40 hours in the 20s and 30s before being codified by Congress in 1940. But even that is arbitrary — Germany does about 26 hours per week, and France does 30.

And let’s be honest, when I “worked 40 hours a week” as a copywriter in an office, I spent a good deal of that time staring into space, goofing off online, or planning elaborate pranks on coworkers. One time I got into a coworker’s computer and adjusted his autocorrect to change his name, and he came up to me later that day and asked if I knew why he had just sent an email to a client that signed him off as “Pookie.” You know, normal office stuff.

As humanity has industrialized, we’ve developed more and more ways to reduce the amount of work we have to do in every aspect of our lives. Early 20th Century thinkers like John Maynard Keynes predicted that industrialization would lead to a 15-hour work week and people having way too much time on their hands. But culture is very difficult to change as quickly as technology, so we’ve decided that workers in 2021 should spend the same amount of time at work as those 100 years ago. Like, I’m a writer. A hundred years ago, some poor ad copywriter would have to use a god damn typewriter, with no backspace. And then he’d have to walk his little sheet of paper into his boss’s office for approval. And then walk it over to the art department, who had to actually lay things out on a physical piece of paper instead of using InDesign, which having had to use InDesign actually may be just as fast.

But the point remains: if an 8-hour job in 1920 takes 2 hours now, why am I still expected to work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week? Why do people celebrate working even longer hours, like this guy on Twitter who brags about eating every meal at the office and pulling all-nighters and getting divorced just to make Internet Explorer?

And more than that, why do I *expect myself* to do that sort of thing even when I’m my own boss? It’s ridiculous.

I’m not the only one who has struggled with this, as the pandemic has made clear. Prior to COVID, a lot of corporations were very much against letting employees work from home in large part because they can’t keep their eyes on them and making sure they’re extracting every last drop of work juice out of them from 9 to 5 (or 8-5, actually, considering the last two offices I worked at assumed your lunch hour was extra).

But now that everyone is forced to work from home (if they can), it turns out they’re actually working more. One survey found that people in the UK, Austria, Canada, and the US are working 2.5 hours more per day than they were before the pandemic. 

I’ve tried reading up on research that explores why we (at least in the US) are obsessed with productivity but in order to even get through it I have to sort through a thousand papers and articles about HOW TO BE MORE PRODUCTIVE. You can blame the religious, if you want — the old “Protestant work ethic” isn’t just a saying, it’s a real thing. It was coined by the German historian Max Weber, who described Protestants (particularly Calvinists) as transferring the idea of virtue and nobility from adherence to God to adherence to work and to productivity and ultimately to capitalism. And so a hundred years on here I am, a staunch atheist, who still has this weird belief that WORK makes me GOOD, and not working is bad. “Hard working” versus “lazy.” “Rich” versus “poor.” “Motivated” versus “stagnant.” “Hustling” versus “laying on the sofa watching Netflix.” Those are MY inherent beliefs that I’ve spent the past 15 years trying to remind myself aren’t real. They aren’t grounded in anything other than the culture in which I was raised.

And this isn’t a Boomer thing, or a Gen X thing. Millennials and zoomers and whatever else, they’re all about side hustles. Got an Instagram? Monetize it! Got a hobby? Now it’s a job. And the undercurrent is always this: if it’s not making capital, it’s not truly virtuous.

I mentioned in a recent video that I have a Twitch channel where I play video games more or less every weekday. I do it because every day around 2pm I feel like I could use a break from work so I play a game, usually Overwatch. And my handful of viewers at first tried to give me advice on how to build up my Twitch into, like, a moneymaker. Stream for longer! Set up a bot and a Discord and play a more interesting game than Overwatch or at least, like, get GOOD at Overwatch! And honestly I’m like…I don’t want to. I just want to play this terrible game, terribly. I don’t want to do all those things because I don’t want Twitch to be a job. I want it to be the thing I goof off on when I feel like it. I’m never going to be a famous Twitch streamer. That’s fine! I don’t care! But it’s weird for people to understand that because of this culture we’ve built that says you can’t just do something and be bad at it and not make money and have fun! What even is that?

All of which is maybe the longest introduction I’ve ever given to the actual study I want to talk about. Yes, there is one. Viewing leisure as wasteful undermines enjoyment was published this week in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and the conclusion is right there in the title so I won’t bury the lede — call it Protestant work ethic, call it capitalism, call it hustle, whatever you want, but it’s making your downtime worse.

In a series of four experiments, researchers found that people who think relaxing is a waste of time were less likely to actually get any enjoyment out of relaxing. To demonstrate causality, they tried priming people to think that leisure time is wasteful before having them relax, and found that, yep, those people who were primed were less likely to enjoy their relaxing time.

They even found that French people (who were more likely to say that leisure time was a good thing compared to Americans) had the same results — those French people who had a less rosy view on relaxation were less likely to enjoy it.

And across the board, people who had a dim view of leisure time had “lower reported happiness, and greater reported depression, anxiety, and stress.”

The research did reveal what I think is a bit of a mental hack: people were more likely to view their leisure activity as a good, enjoyable thing if they thought it was, well, productive. And reading that, I realize that I actually do that. I started bullet journaling a few years ago and I mostly keep up with it. I found that if I write down “leisure” things along with my work goals on my to-do lists, it makes me feel better about them. So one day it might be “write a script for two videos” and “read a few chapters of your book,” or “host a Patreon livestream” and “take the dog for a hike.” Because those DO further me toward goals, just not necessarily financial, capitalistic goals. Reading improves my brain. Hiking improves my physical fitness. Both of those things improve my mental health. It’s a little frustrating to realize I had to game my own idea of “work ethic” — like, I haven’t actually escaped that mindset, I’ve just found a healthier way to deal with it. But hey, it’s something.

So please keep this in mind as you continue to try to muddle through a global pandemic: there is nothing “ethical” about typing in an Excel doc, or waiting tables, or writing copy, or however else you produce capital for your boss. It’s no less virtuous to watch a movie or take a bath or just be “lazy.” If you work at it, you can escape the Catch-22 of trying to relax but feeling bad about it. That’s right, I’m telling you to work hard at feeling good about not working. It’s worth it, and that end goal should be enough to carry you through.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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