My friend's email comes through at 8 a.m. on a Monday: Everyone (well, mostly women) keeps talking about how BUSY they are all the time. It's like suddenly, being "busy" is a badge of honor or something. I just want to scream at them: We're ALL busy! And there's no prize for being the busiest!
I'm in my pajamas under the duvet. I look past my laptop screen at the sunshine filling my Andean garden and think about that decade of big-city living. Vegas, London, D.C., Bogotá, Medellín. Jostling every morning against metro doors, ironing suits to spend 45 mind-numbing hours a week manning a law firm reception, mandatory one-hour dog walks, lunchtime Pilates classes, cocktail dates three nights a week, two book clubs (fiction and feminism), tea parties, cinema memberships, riding buses all over town in frantic planning of that goddamn white wedding I thought I needed so much.
I know exactly what she was talking about with the BUSY thing.
Her words immediately remind me of an article by sociologist David Graeber called "On the Phenomenon of Bullsh*t Jobs." "Ever had the feeling that your job might be made up?" he begins. Then he proceeds to remind us how much of a disservice we're doing ourselves with modern living:
In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century's end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There's every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn't happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.
I quote that paragraph in full in hopes you'll actually read it. Because when I read it about eight months ago, the words moral and spiritual damage and scar across our collective soul put a label on the severe emotional funk I was wallowing in at the time.
I needed a rationale for changing my life, for slowing it down. David Graeber gave it to me.
Now I do clock about 15 hours a week, only accepting assignments that interest me from clients I actually like. The results of this lifestyle shift -- called slow living by people who are more hippyish than I'm still prepared to admit I am -- have been predictable: I have absolutely no money for anything, ever.
Hence, outside those 15 hours I tend to do things that cost almost nothing (but are surprisingly fulfilling): Read. Write. Translate. Dog-walk. Think. Smoke dope. Cook. Think some more. (I learned last week that the Spanish word for the pansies that line our garden is pensamientos. Excellent.)
I know what you're thinking: Ha! Nice for you.
I admit that the 60-hour workweeks and kids and Tube commutes and overbearing bosses no longer have anything to do with my world. (Not to mention the patchy/illegal access to a supply of cheap marijuana.)
I get it, I do. I'm not advocating that you collectively quit your jobs and head for the closest hippie commune. But from the looks of that Monday morning email, some of you are wondering pretty intensely why you spend so much time doing so much.
Has the logic of capitalism now taken over everything about our lives?
The way we believe we have to live our daily lives, manage our time, reflects the U.S.'s free-market fundamentalism, showing a sinister creep of commodification into our time-management priorities. Our time is classed as a "good or service," with its own supply and demand curves.
All sorts of attitudes branch outward from this belief that time is a scarce resource: It equates productivity with frugality, with holiness, even. (It's called "the Protestant work ethic" for a reason.) "Productive people" are seen as either clever or motivated enough to do a lot of things in a short time, and thus worthy of admiration. Busyness starts to look like righteousness, and people start to compete. After all, that's what it means to be a "good person," a person of status.
Women, as my editor mentioned, are particularly susceptible to this logic, because our social status is under fire anyway. We've drunk the Kool-Aid in the cult of busyness, and now it's driving us batty. Hence the near-hysterical tone of the productivity advice articles that probably clog your LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and email.
Here's a thought: What if we slowed down and adopted a Bucket List-style idea of time as an opportunity for living?
Warning: Lots of people would probably start shrieking at you in terror about the evils of socialism. (Happens to me all the time.) And they have a point: Slowing down is subversive. When you stop breaking your sanity by running around for other people, you take away their power. You set your own status.
It's time, I think, for more women to say f*ck it. And ask: How can we use the time we've been given not more productively, but more meaningfully?
And then we have to make that happen.
It was around the time I read Graeber's bullsh*t jobs piece that I stumbled across a provocative 1932 quote from Bertrand Russell: "The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery."
Funny, isn't it? I couldn't help but think of how free we Americans like to think we are.
This article originally appeared in the digital magazine Role Reboot on May 23, 2014 under the title "Are You Really As Busy As You Say You Are?" Republished here with permission.