Thursday, May 14, 2009

Work Less and Play More

I wonder if busyness has replaced money as North America's greatest idol. Seriously. Too often I run into people who look rushed and/or brag about their packed schedule. With eyes darting toword their watches, they say things such as:

"I woke up at 5:00 am again today so I could put in some extra hours."

"Retirement is for lazy old people. I'll rest when I'm dead."

"I don't have much time for anything other than eating, sleeping, and working."

"Working full time means putting in at least 50-60 hours a week. It's just the way it is."

"Kids should be in school all year. They need to figure out how to work."

This list could go on and on. Comments like these make me wonder about the health of our nation, families, and selves. Our brains need a certain amount of creative play and renewing recreation. Our bodies need a certain amount of physical exercise. Our families need a certain amount of fun time together. All work and no play is not the way it has to be. And it's not the way it is in other nations.

Many European nations have a work week that is less than 40 hours per week. Norwegians work 37.5 hours per week - and are talking about dropping it even lower. They believe that working less hours per week has many benefits including: reducing sick leave, increasing productivity, and making it easier to raise a family. The ironic thing is that despite people in the US working longer hours, Norway's hourly productivity was 10 percent higher. It seems that working less is more productive - and better for everyone involved.

Since working less is better for productivity, family, and health, what inspires the propensity to overwork? Is it an addiction? Is it affected by Free Market fundamentalism? It is affected by the ol' protestant work ethic? Is it affected by local need? Is it affected by local greed? Is it affected by an underlying need to look "busy" in order to feel "important"? Is it affected by all these things and much more? The last question probably gets to the problem. All of these things work to encourage us to be busy, busy, busy.

John De Graaf, a filmmaker I met at Holden Village, argues passionately that North Americans need to work much less. He says: "Europeans have made a tradeoff between quality of life and hours worked. We Americans have chosen to trade all our increases in productivity for more stuff. And to pay for it, we need to work even more." Ouch. I know this speaks to me. De Graaf goes on to ask a powerful question: "Do we care about having enough leisure time to enjoy some of our production?" In other words, he saying that we don't even get enough enjoyment out of life to make all our work worthwhile. Prophetic, challenging words. But these may be words we need to hear. Myself included.

De Graaf doesn't say this stuff to make us feel bad. He wants us to do something about our "poverty of time." In fact, he is the national coordinator of Take Back Your Time, an organization that seeks to help people find more balance and enjoyment in life. It's good stuff. But obviously the idea of finding balance and enjoyment is not original to De Graaf.

In the 1800s, Henry David Thoreau said: "I wish to suggest that a person may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living."

Several thousand years before Thoreau, the writer of Ecclesiastes reflected back on his life at an old age and confessed that busyness, education, popularity, etc. were all vanities that mean nothing in the end. One thing is very important in life: enjoying it. So he concludes his reflection with this message to young people: "Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the people whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life." Okay, white clothes and an oiled head may not sound so great to us today. But the point is that we're supposed to fully appreciate the things we have in our lives. And even more important than that, we're supposed to fully appreciate the people we have in our lives.

People on their deathbeds, like the author of Ecclesiastes, don't talk about their desire to be richer, busier, smarter, etc. The only things they mention are friends and family. They say things like:

"I wish my wife and I would have taken that big vacation together."

"I wish I would have spent more time with my kids."

"I wish I would have said 'I love you' more."

"I wish I had made more time to spend with friends."

"I wish I would have taken more time to have fun."

These end-of-life desires don't have to be things we that we wish we would have done, but didn't do. They can be things we do right now. We can hang out with our loved ones - today. We can spend time with our friends - today. We can exercise our bodies - today. We can relax our minds - today. We can take a vacation - this year.

We all need to play a little more - and work a little less.

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