How to Care Less About Work

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COMMENTARY | As we peer around the corner of the pandemic, let’s talk about what we want to do—and not do—with the rest of our lives.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for its newsletter.

At the bleakest moment in the pandemic, when you felt your most stressed, most scared, least centered, you probably heard some variation of the phrase This is really hard. Maybe you read it; maybe your manager said it to you; maybe you said it to yourself. But that’s the truth: Our nearly two years of living through a pandemic have been hardAnd like everything else in the United States, that difficulty has not been evenly distributed. It has been hardest for those on the front lines, those afraid of how customers will react to their requests to put on a mask, those out of work or in constant fear of the way COVID variants are whipping through their community. It has been hard, in different ways, for those attempting to work and supervise school from home, for those in complete isolation, for those terrified of being around other people. It is fucking hard, in so many intersecting and unfair ways.

All that hard, seemingly never-ending work has been worth doing so that others—especially the most vulnerable in our lives—might be safer. Even in your most lonely, overwhelmed, or terrified moments, you can still grasp at that purpose. But many knowledge workers long ago arrived at a breaking point—if we’re being honest, this happened well before the pandemic for a lot of people. We worked far beyond the 40 hours of the prescribed workweek, but the goal of all that work became opaque. It was seldom to create work that was meaningful or innovative, even if we could mumble something to that effect when asked what we like about our job. It wasn’t so that we could someday work less overall. We worked hard to prove that we were alert and available for more work.

Societally, we are taught to revere and strive for hard work, even as we internalize that we’re never quite doing it. You might be working excessive hours, or you might feel as if you are suffocating under the weight of demands on your time and body, but that labor will always fall short of the venerated hard work of someone else. Many of our preconceptions of hard work are still rooted in an agrarian or industrial mindset, and they strengthen as the percentage of the American workforce laboring in those fields has declined. To labor outdoors, or in a factory, or in any way that taxes the body, is considered good, noble, even patriotic work. If you work indoors, at a computer—even if it affects the body in ways that don’t leave calluses—it is distinctly less venerable.

So what work is actually valuable? It’s incredibly unclear. Many knowledge workers, ourselves included, find themselves insecure in some capacity about the work they’re doing: how much they do, whom they do it for, its value, their value, how their work is rewarded and by whom. We respond to this confusion in pretty confusing ways. Some become deeply disillusioned or radicalized against the extractive, capitalist system that makes all of this so muddled. And others throw themselves into work, centering it as the defining element of their self-worth. In response to the existential crisis of personal value, they jump on the productivity treadmill, praying that in the process of constant work they might eventually stumble across purpose, dignity, and security.

The treadmill rarely provides the kind of value and meaning that we hope it will. People are growing more certain in the notion that the status quo of American working life is untenable. But the pandemic has created an opportunity to reconsider and reimagine the structure of our lives and, perhaps, remove the vestigial, extractive elements. We believe that flexible work—not flexible work during a pandemic, not flexible work under duress—can change your life. It can remove you from the wheel of constant productivity. It can make you happier and healthier, but it can also make your community happier and healthier. It can make the labor in your home more equitable and it can help you be a better friend, parent, and partner. It can, somewhat ironically, increase worker solidarity. It can allow you to actually live the sort of life you pretend to live in your Instagram posts, liberating you to explore the nonwork corners of your life, including hobbies and civic involvement. We are trying to get off the damn treadmill so that we can remember the purpose and dignity that can come from the whole of our life.

So ask yourself this: Who would you be if work was no longer the axis of your life? How would your relationship with your close friends and family change, and what role would you serve within your community at large? Whom would you support, how would you interact with the world, and what would you fight for?

We are so overextended, so anxious, and so conditioned to approach our life as something to squeeze in around work that just asking these questions can feel indulgent. If you really try to answer them, what you’re left with will likely feel silly or far-fetched: like a Hallmark movie of your life, if you got to cast people to play you and the rest of your family who were well rested, filled with energy and intentionality and follow-through. Your mind will try to tell you it’s a fantasy. But it’s supposed to sound amazing, because you need to want it, really yearn for it, to a degree that will motivate you to shift your life in ways that will make the fantasy a reality.

Think back on a time in your life before you regularly worked for pay. Recall, if you can, an expanse of unscheduled time that was, in whatever manner, yours. What did you actually like to do? Not what your parents said you should do, not what you felt as if you should do to fit in, not what you knew would look good on your application for college or a job.

The answer might be spectacularly simple: You liked riding your bike with no destination in mind, making wild experiments in the kitchen, playing around with eyeshadow, writing fan fiction, playing cards with your grandfather, lying on your bed and listening to music, trying on all your clothes and making ridiculous outfits, thrifting, playing Sims for hours, obsessively sorting baseball cards, playing pickup basketball, taking photos of your feet with black-and-white film, going on long drives, learning to sew, catching bugs, skiing, playing in a band, making forts, harmonizing with other people, putting on mini-plays—whatever it was, you did it because you wanted to. Not because it would look interesting if you posted it on social media, or because it somehow optimized your body, or because it would give you better things to talk about at drinks, but because you took pleasure in it.

Once you figure out what that thing is, see if you can recall its contours. Were you in charge? Were there achievable goals or no goals at all? Did you do it alone or with others? Was it something that really felt as if it was yours, not your siblings’? Did it mean regular time spent with someone you liked? Did it involve organizing, creating, practicing, following patterns, or collaborating? See if you can describe, out loud or in writing, what you did and why you loved it. Now see if there’s anything at all that resembles that experience in your life today.

If your answer is your job, that makes sense. A lot of us find something that we’re good at and like, and then try to make a career out of it in some way. Those who have followed the pernicious advice to “do what you love” know this endgame: It’s a burnout trap, and a fantastic way to evacuate all pleasure and passion from an activity. Do what you love, and you’ll work every day for the rest of your life.

A lot of us have only the faintest traces of those childhood and early-adulthood activities in our life—what we might dare call “hobbies.” They largely exist as conversational markers and rhetorical placeholders for who we once were. We have so many reasons for neglecting them: We don’t have the means, financial or otherwise, to pursue them; we don’t have the time; we’ve neglected them so long that our previous skills have atrophied; we simply don’t have the wherewithal to even begin thinking about how to start doing them again.

All of those are excuses, most of them valid, that we cling to out of overwork. It just seems so much easier to not do something, to not have plans, to not try something new or find time to do something you used to love. But that’s your exhaustion speaking. When work devours your waking hours, it also devours your will to do things that truly nourish you. The reality is that we don’t prioritize these activities because—other than seeking ways to optimize ourselves as workers or desirable bodies—we don’t actually prioritize ourselves.

A real hobby isn’t a way to adorn your personality, or perform to masquerade your class status. It’s just something you like to do, full stop.

Be patient with yourself as you figure that out. When you first start trying to put the guardrails on a flexible, post-pandemic schedule, you still might want to spend your newly protected time napping or ambiently watching sports. That’s totally normal and expected: You will essentially be in recovery, not just from years of overwork, but from the accumulated, consolidated stress of the pandemic. But just because you’ve lost sight of who you are, and what you like—outside child care and Netflix—doesn’t mean those things have disappeared altogether. Again, be patient and gentle with yourself. This isn’t “self-care.” It’s recuperation.

When the haze of burnout begins to clear, fight the urge to feel productive and channel that into beginning to explore your own pleasures. When we did this in our household, pre-pandemic, it led us down two routes. We started skiing, something that Anne had absolutely loved as a kid but had been reluctant to restart because, well, everything: Her skis were too old. She didn’t have anyone to go with. Who would take care of the dogs? She didn’t have goggles. It would eat up an entire weekend she could spend working. What if she wasn’t as good as she used to be?

The story she told herself about why she shouldn’t go had so many twists and turns, with a ready, well-rehearsed rebuttal for every argument against why she should just go. But then we just did it. Charlie got lessons; we rented some gear. It felt spectacular. For Anne, it was like visiting a memory of her younger self and getting to restart it in real time.

Charlie had wanted to relearn how to play the guitar but was reluctant to make the investment in a new one: What if it became yet another hobby he invested in and then neglected? He bought a middle-of-the-line model—just good enough to make the experience feel special—and proceeded to suck. It felt uncomfortable at first. We all have so much pressure on us to excel in everything that mediocrity feels wrong. But soon, all the lessons from his youth came streaming back. He began noodling around on new and old chord progressions, learning theory, playing until his fingers regrew calluses. It turns out that embracing mediocrity means opening yourself up to the wonder of constant little improvements. And, crucially, those improvements are in service only to the joy of learning something new for yourself. The guitar became a lifeline: a means to concentrate fully on something that had absolutely nothing to do with work, or anything else, really.

Whatever your thing might be—and maybe there are many things—the most important component should be aiming to make it as unlike work as possible. This means resisting the very contemporary capitalist urge to commodify it in some way, even when people say to you, “Oh, you’re so good at [this thing]; you should sell it!” But it also means resisting the urge to master it, or display it in a way that transforms it into some mode of performance. You can want to improve, or make something for others, but that’s different from trying to be the best, and beating yourself up (or quitting entirely) because of your inadequacies.

One day last winter, a subscriber to Anne’s newsletter told her that she’d recently taken up drawing. She’d never drawn before in her life, had no natural skill, and didn’t really aspire to cultivate it. She just liked making what she called “shit-tier” renderings of scenes in her life—such as her dog, say—and then sending them to her friends as amusement. Her pleasure isn’t in the product itself, or trying to perfect it. It is in the transportative process, the radical delight of doing something that has no purpose or value other than you like it, because it grabs something indescribable in you and refuses to let go.

In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell conceives of these sorts of activities as a means of wresting back control of your own attention. You’re harnessing a desire and acting on it, instead of ceding your time and effort to others’ ideas of what’s important. Which is why it’s crucial to try to remove yourself from ideas of hobbies that are cool or popular in some capacity, and deflect the voice that says you should try to find an activity that you can “share” with your partner or your kid. They can come along later, if they want, but focus at first on excavating what you like. In the beginning, that’ll mean avoiding pursuits that require significant investment, time or financial, which will just place outsize pressure on the activity itself.

Find the path of least resistance to whatever will create this feeling for you, clear time for it, and then make a promise to yourself for when you’ll find that time again. It might feel weird, as if you are forming a habit out of selfishness, or scheduling yourself as you would a child. But shut that voice up. If you live alone, it’s probably just your work addiction talking; hanging out with your own hobbies is not selfish. If you have partner or parenting obligations, carving out this time is possible, even if it means being intentional and collaborative about clearing that space for each other. Sublimating your desire for activities that don’t involve your children does not make you a more impressive parent; it just makes you a more exhausted and resentful one.

This maxim holds true for other areas of your life as well. When you get a good night’s sleep, you’re better at basically everything. When you take rest days, you’re a better athlete. The restoration we find in hobbies can make us better partners, better friends, better listeners and collaborators—just overall better people to be around. Hobbies help cultivate essential parts of us that have been suffocated by productivity obsessions and proliferating obligations. The hobby itself ultimately matters far less than what its existence provides: a means of tilting your identity away from “person who is good at doing a lot of work.”

We love to talk about kids’ personalities, how unique and weird and joyful they are. We don’t grow out of those characteristics so much as subsume them with duties. But they remain the building blocks of our humanness, the enduring difference between us and robots. We must preserve those inclinations toward delight and whimsy, toward the ineffable and the unimpressive, the feelings you can’t re-create with a machine or optimize for peak productivity. They are worth rediscovering not because they will allow us to rest and, as such, make us better workers—but because they anchor us to who, at heart, we’ve always been.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for its newsletter.

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