Doing less work is a lot of work
The structural problems of work are undeniable, but am I just a workaholic?
Last year, I spent two months reporting on the r/antiwork subreddit.
Its aim is to create a world free from work as we know it. If that sounds radical, it’s because it is: r/antiwork is not a work reform campaign, it’s about ending work altogether. And yet this far-left political philosophy has mainstream appeal; r/antiwork was 2021’s fastest-growing subreddit, mushrooming to over 1.5 million members by the end of last year.
What struck me as I spent time interviewing the subreddit’s members and moderators is how hard it is to actually work less. Of the dozen or so people I spoke with for the story, all of them had jobs. One of the longest-standing moderators (who has since left the sub), Doreen Ford, told me how she quit a gruelling retail job to become a part-time dog walker. She said it was the best decision for her mental health, but came at a literal cost: she now struggles to make ends meet on her low wages. That same sentiment that kept coming up in my interviews: by tapping out of the grind of work, you swap an existential anxiety for a financial one; your soul isn’t getting crushed anymore, but your wallet is instead.
One of the experts I spoke with for the story was David Frayne, a sociologist who’s part of a loose network of academics and thinkers known as “postworkists” who are reimagining modern work. He told me that a common critique of both antiwork and postwork is that only the privileged are in a position to not work. The argument goes that you need to have work in order to refuse it. However, while researching his book, The Refusal of Work, he found that argument simply didn’t hold. “In the case of the people I spoke with for my book, people who actively try to get work out of their lives are actually willing to suffer in order to stick up for their principles,” he told me in our interview.
For me, that discomfort is what antiwork is really about. Truly tapping out of a system as sprawling and all-encompassing as our economic one is uncomfortable, to say the least. It's why I find arguments that critique people (usually women) for not doing enough to “address” or “resist” capitalism, a bit awkward. We are all part of the so-called ~system~. All of us are: that includes me, that includes you (and that definitely includes journalists, so double points for me 🙃). Of course, there are the financial consequences of opting out of work in a world built on income, but also the practical: what would it actually look like for an individual to refuse to participate in capitalism? To tear down the system?
Surely, all anyone can do is whatever is within our own limited scope. For some of us, that means collective organising in the form of unions, cooperatives and grassroots action. For others, consuming less is the most powerful act of resistance available to them. Personally, I think gathering in a digital space to discuss even the possibility of what an alternative society might look like, to be just as productive as any polemic.
I believe that the stories writers write aren’t a coincidence. Even the ones that don’t directly involve you (my r/antiwork piece was a reported feature) nonetheless light something up in you. I write best about the things I need to work out for myself. (This isn’t an original idea; just last week I heard James Clear tell Bréne Brown that Atomic Habits was the book he needed to read.) Similarly, my writing mentor has been telling me for the best part of a decade that even us non-fiction writers always have a reason why we’re drawn to certain stories. Whenever I’ve gone to him over the years to workshop a story idea that I’m stuck on, without fail he asks me, “What do you want to know?” What is it about that story that’s got under my skin?
In the case of the antiwork story, I thought it was pretty obvious going into it: I wanted to know how other people didn’t work so that maybe I could, too. But as I got deeper into the story, I realised that I was actually asking myself: do I have what it takes to stop working?
I’m still looking for the answer to this question. In asking it, I’ve managed to unearth a series of contradictions in myself. Chief among them is that I’d very much like to work less than I currently do, and indeed it’s within my power to do so, but I still don’t. For as long as I’ve been freelancing, and well before the pandemic made it fashionable, I’ve wanted to work a four-day workweek. But I’ve never successfully been able to implement it. This first manifested in the fact that I didn’t even give myself permission to try shorter working hours until I reached a certain income threshold; then I’d try to block out days in my diary only to ignore them.
If I, a freelancer who has complete autonomy over her schedule, can’t make a four-day week work, what does that say about our ability to work less? It gives me pause on the wider conversation about the four-day work week. As necessary as I think it is for governments and businesses to mandate a shorter working week, I don’t think that’s the silver bullet to our culture of chronic overwork.
Another complicating factor for me is that I actually enjoy my work and like my job, and nonetheless, it still causes me a lot of frustration, stress and various other unpleasant emotions. The New York Times columnist, Farhad Manjoo, expressed a similar quandary in his essay about r/antiwork when he wrote, “even a dream job is still a job, and in America’s relentless hustle culture, we have turned our jobs into prisons for our minds and souls.”
It’s undeniable that the root cause of the problems with work is structural. I also know that internalised capitalism is so stealth that it readily has us believe we are the problem. And yet, I do want to consider, if only for a thought experiment, whether I’m a workaholic. This week, I interviewed Malissa Clark, associate professor of industrial and organisational psychology at the University of Georgia, who studies workaholics. I’m not sure exactly what I thought workaholism was going into that conversation, but I left realising it was a lot more nuanced than I’d assumed. For starters, it’s got very little to do with long hours. In fact, the research shows that workaholism and hours worked per week are only moderately correlated. Meanwhile, having persistent thoughts about work when not working is one of the key “symptoms” of work addiction. (Hello, it me).
Clark didn’t diagnose me as a workaholic, not that I was brave enough to ask if she thought I was one, but she did say that if one struggles with workaholism, addressing that is no easy feat. She told me that many of the self-identified workaholics she’s interviewed in her research reported that only by quitting their jobs or changing their careers were they able to find real relief.
I’m not ready to go so far as quitting. Instead, I’m determined to just work less this year. The exact parameters of that resolution are still a little fuzzy, but the idea is that by forcing myself to do less, I’ll hopefully reset my unhealthy relationship with productivity and achievement.
In its simplest terms, doing less is hard because it means saying no. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about once you master saying no, it will become your “palace of peace”. But while I find it quite peaceful to say no to stuff I don’t want to do, it’s agonising for me to say no to the things I do want to do. And so, doing less suddenly becomes a piece of work itself. It calls to mind the therapy-y saying of “doing the work,” the idea that bringing about real change or healing involves sitting in a lot of discomfort. And so here I find myself, sitting in the discomfort of working out how to do less. It’s a lot of work.