Workism

Yesterday I watched a video by The Atlantic about the problems associated with our always-on culture. The video chronicled the rise of work becoming more intertwined with our personal lives, and made a point which I had not considered until watching the video: our work and personal lives are now almost the same. We are starting to let work become part of our identity, and so it is more difficult for us to become detached and focus more on the various other aspects of our lives — our relationships, side projects, interests, et cetera. Because work is becoming part of our identity, we now let it define who we are as a person. Saying that we are “busy”, as I have written about in the past, is now a way in which we can show that we are viable and productive. Working while at home — responding to a work email when we wake up — is now seen as the norm: our society has adjusted and now we always want to be available.

Work as Our Identity

The video referred to this this trend as “workism” — America’s new religion. Workism refers to a state when we are almost addicted to work and when we let it interfere with other aspects of our lives. We are all guilty of replying to a work email at home, but for many people, work has become more than that — it consumes most of their lives. One of the main reasons behind the rise of workism is that we are now starting to turn to work as the source of meaning in our lives. In the past, we worked to survive and when people achieved a certain level of success — when they became rich — they would stop working. Now, however, our jobs are turning into careers, and with that comes our passion for finding a job that makes us feel like we have a purpose. There is nothing wrong with this — working in a job that makes you feel purposeful makes you feel like you are necessary to society, and that is a liberating feeling. The one problem with this though is that we have lost sight of the fact that there is more to life than working: relationships, interests, and more still matter a lot, but our culture of work has changed the way we see these things.

I have a confession to make. I derive a lot of my sense of purpose from my job. I feel liberated and purposeful whenever I am writing and researching — it makes me feel alive, and I go into work each day with the mindset that today I can learn something new and help someone else learn something new as well. But, as I have started to grow closer to my job, it has become an even larger part of my identity. I now only feel productive when I have done everything that I needed to do at work, and sometimes that means I forget about all of the other things I have set aside to do. The rise of workism has mean that our internal motivations — the reasons behind why we work — have become less clear. Indeed, I derive a lot of pleasure from knowing that I can learn something new every day. But for most workists, it is incredibly difficult for them to balance work and life. There are awards that we can earn at work; recognition that we can seek from co-workers; bonuses we can attain if we accomplish certain goals. All of these new sources of motivation have made us focus less on what matters: our internal motivation. I often refer to Warren Buffet’s notion of an “internal scorecard” in my writing — the inner values he cultivated which acted as his moral compass and source of motivation. Workism has resulted in many of us losing touch with our inner scorecards, and now we seek more outside recognition than ever for our work.

It Wasn’t Always This Way

Our jobs were never meant to be this way — they were not supposed to be a religion that we aimlessly followed just to keep up with everyone else. The competitive element of the labor market has meant that many of us see working as much as possible as the only way to advance in society. The people who get ahead are those who work more, we tell ourselves. But we have lost sight of another key principle: it doesn’t matter how hard we work. What truly matters is what we work on, and whether we work to the best of our ability. We have started to see our work as a requirement and no longer focus on the historical goal of work: to buy free time. In the past, workers would work hard so that they could earn more money and spend that on themselves and their families. Or workers would save that money for something that they wanted to do in the future — go on vacation, for example. We now work for a different reason: for the sake of working. We are not so focused on long-term goals and our life outside of work because our life is work.

The rise of workism has had a significant impact on our lives. We are now less likely to take vacations — many people sacrifice most of their vacation time because they want to get ahead at work — and are more likely to work later in the office. Many workers are also at risk of developing more mental health conditions such as anxiety because they have become so focused on their work that taking a moment to do something else makes them feel like they will fall behind. I have been guilty of this, as recently as a few months ago. I thought that if I stopped, I would fall behind and people would see me differently. I had been consumed by the work monster — I was now a preacher of workism.

How Our Lives Have Changed

In amongst all of this, we have become less happy. There are dozens of research papers to suggest that employees are happier when they spend more time with family, friends, and romantic partners. Taking time away from the office to build our relationships, advance our knowledge, and work toward our hobbies is not a burden. We see it as a burden though, and so our focus is always on how we can work harder and smarter at work, and not on achieving the balance that we all need. Indeed, for many of us spending a lot of time on our hobbies sounds like a waste of time. But it is actually an investment in our happiness; it’s just that workism doesn’t see it that way. Our new focus on working hard resulted in the emergence of “hustle porn” and “productivity hacks” — a trend where so-called “productivity gurus” would share their tips on how to become your most productive self. This movement was an extreme cult of workists. These people promoted a type of work where every day we should be looking for new shortcuts to help us save a few minutes on common tasks. Their gospel was saving time, and they preached that the most efficient use of that time was to work more — and then to optimize that time as well.

The Stoics believed that we should never become all about business. Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic, had one of the most important jobs in the world at the time. His face was on the currency; he had to lead the Roman Empire. And yet in his Meditations, he reminded himself not “to be all about business” because he knew that in the future, nobody would care about most of your work. Aurelius would remind himself of the names of his predecessors — the people who came before him who were now largely forgotten. He meditated on the prospects that most of his actions would be forgotten in the future. He recognized the fact that there is more to life than work and if we spend all of our time on work, then we will never become our best selves. That email you wrote yesterday will most likely not be remembered next week; the meeting you have tomorrow will likely be forgotten about within a few days. Aurelius was almost always cognizant of this fact and refused himself to become obsessed with work — instead, he made a lot of time for philosophy and reflecting on his life. Earning money or becoming stronger and faster in the workplace is great, but it is not everything. The most important work we can do is to become a better person, and a lot of that happens outside of the workplace too.

Take a Step Back, Take Control

The first step to absolving yourself of the burdens of workism is to take a step back and recognize how work has interfered with your life. Take a moment to reflect on the amount of time you have spent working and how much of that time could have been better spent focusing on something else — learning, spending time with family, et cetera. Then ask yourself the question: what will I miss out on in the future if I don’t change my relationship with work? What beauties of the human experience will you miss if you don’t take a step back from work? After gaining a firmer understanding into how you spend your time, your next step is to think about how you can break free from your work.

Ask yourself: when should I stop working? Then you should consider how you can establish boundaries and what those boundaries should look like. Perhaps you stop working after you have left the office at 5pm and leave your phone in another room the whole night so you can’t check your work emails. Or perhaps you decide that on weekends you will go to the movies with your friends or watch a baseball game with your family — during that time, no work is allowed. Whatever you decide, make sure that you don’t have access to your work. Make it difficult for you to do work outside of your actual work times. And if you do have a great idea, note it down in a notebook and leave it until when you go back to work. Your mind will slowly work on it in the background and when you get back to work you will likely have a more formulated idea.

Workism is a Choice

Remember that workism is a choice. It is just something that we have subconsciously let ourselves subscribe to. There is no requirement in most jobs for us to work for most of the week. Indeed, many workplaces are now advocating for employees to take more measures to detach themselves from work. You should realize that while we may all have to work, there is more to life than work. Cultivating relationships, learning about the world, going for walks and embracing nature are all parts of the human experience. We should never lose sight of the fact that work is one piece of the puzzle. For the most part, our fellow employees will not care if you have taken a day off or refuse to work at home. Indeed, many of them may even admire you for it: they will be curious as to how you can maintain a sense of work-life balance. I am by no means an expert in the science behind all of this, but I do know one thing: if you let work become part of your identity, the nature of your relationships and side interests will change. Don’t let work take over your life — take back control.

Don’t work to hard. Reflect on the fact that most of what you do will be forgotten. Don't be all about business -- take time to build relationships, learn, and experience the rest of life.

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