The elephant in the room: our jobs
Our world is schizophrenic. Most people dislike their jobs yet fear losing them. But when people trust you enough to tell the truth, most will admit they would really rather not work — at least not at the jobs available — but do so anyway because they have little choice in today’s world.
On the other hand, when people are doing something they like, they aren’t lazy. They are enthused and put significant energy into it, though in such situations they tend not to overwork, instead finding an unforced rhythm of uptime and downtime. This is what natural activity looks like, not the scheduled-to-death lives so many of us live these days.
Best of all worlds: self-employment, flextime, or working from home
In the best of all worlds, this more natural rhythm of uptime and downtime would apply to our working hours as well. However, it’s usually only possible if you’re either self-employed or are employed by a company that allows you to work from home with compensation based on work performed rather than hours clocked. Carving out a niche for yourself in the business world as a self-employed individual, or landing a job with a work-from-home arrangement, though, is beyond the scope of this series of postings. But I highly recommend it if you have the personality, discipline, and motivation for it, and there are a few things I want to point out here.
Self-employment does potentially carry the trade-off of “feast or famine” periods where you alternately work more than you would like, but get unplanned periods of extended time off too. This pattern is well-known by many who make their living working for themselves. It all depends on the type of business you’re in.
Some industries are seasonal by nature. Other fields of work may involve working for standing clients, and sometimes jobs from a number of them all hit at the same time, while at other times you might get work from no one for a good while. If you learn to roll with these rhythms, however, you make hay while the sun is shining, so to speak, and by the same token really enjoy the downtimes.
I can also relate from personal experience that another “perk” of self-employment is that if you’re the type who would prefer to cut your living expenses with the option of working less to support yourself, you can do so. Alternatively, you might find ways to work more efficiently so you can charge more per hour, but work fewer of those hours.
Don’t try this at the office, folks
Try the approach of working more efficiently so you can work less in the usual world of salaried work, though, and you’ll typically hit a brick wall. In the wonderful backward-thinking world of America, there’s rarely the option of working less than 40 hours per week except if you want to opt for getting your hours cut drastically all the way down to a part-time, 20-hours-per-week (or less) job. Actually, for some, this could conceivably be doable budget-wise if the hourly pay remained the same and they were to consider some serious belt-tightening. But typically, part-time jobs pay considerably less per hour.
Or, if you work harder or more efficiently to get more done in less time at the average company these days, you probably don’t have to guess what your reward for doing so will be… yep, a big fat nothing.
And what do you usually reap instead? Added work dumped in your lap with the expectation you continue putting in the same number of hours as before.
As we saw in Part 2, the basic idea that drives the USA (as in “driven”) is that we’re supposed to live to work and be a rah-rah company acolyte no matter how soulless, stodgy, phony, hokey, unethical, deceptive, corner-cutting, miserly, exploitative, slave-driving, or rapacious the company may be. And without your work you’re nothing, so you’d better enjoy working 40 hours, often even more, and bust your butt while doing it, buster. In other words, like so much else, our labor is subject to the usual black-or-white, all-or-nothing mentality this country likes to foist upon itself to great detriment.
To escape this kind of daily-grind chain-gang mentality, you have to make a break for it in the world of self-employment or find one of the relatively few work-from-home or uber-flextime jobs available with a more enlightened company.
Life strategies and daily-activity tactics
Only you can deal with the way you make a living and change that where you can. And let’s face it. Depending on the occupation, it may not be possible. Outside working hours, though, you have much more control.
So if a less-scheduled life less ruled by the clock during that time is what you’re interested in, here are some strategies. Some of them are primarily timesavers, others involve changing your attitudes and reorienting your relationship in life to activity itself. In no particular order:
- Batch errands together. It should go without saying, but too often people jump in the car for just one thing. Unless it’s critical that it be done now, put it off until you can batch it with something else. And of course, if you have a job that requires commuting, doing errands on the way to or from work can save time — at least if on-road or in-store traffic at that time doesn’t slow you down unduly. Similarly…
- Chunk up your activities in general into batches as well, as appropriate.
- Cut down on shopping, locally and online both. Consumption does not lead to happiness. Curiously, less consumption is more conducive to happiness, assuming your basic needs are met plus whatever key well-chosen purchases enable you to engage with your deepest sources of fulfillment in life. (For example, in my life, aside from the daily necessities such as food, shelter, and basic clothing, just give me great books and blogs to read; good writing and graphic design tools; proper shoes, gear, and clothing to run and work out in, and I’m a happy camper.)
- Notice I’m not suggesting eliminating shopping — I’m saying less shopping. (Remember, balance!) It’s up to you to find that balance in your own life. But remember: the less shopping you do, the less tied you are to the temptation of attempting to satisfy intangible needs for such things as space and time in your life by spending money on material things or socially approved activities that just fill it right back up, counterproductively making you more unhappy.
- Make avoiding interruptions an organizational principle in your life to whatever degree is possible. Not only does this lead to chunking activity into things that can be batch-processed for more efficiency, it has other salutary effects: It teaches and elicits focus, patience, and delayed gratification, enables a more natural rhythm of ebb and flow among activities, and promotes a more relaxed attitude along with recognition of the need for relaxed downtime itself.
- The consequent increase in these capabilities, in turn, gives you more control, mastery, and flexibility in how you tackle getting things done in general, plus increased enjoyment in life because of the accompanying changes in your attitudes.
- Become healthier and fitter — there’ll be fewer doctor visits that way, of course. But more importantly, it reshapes your life in other ways as well, giving you more energy and stamina to enjoy the extra time you should be reaping in your life via the other strategies outlined here.
- Get serious about a consistent sleep/wake schedule. This contributes not only to physical health, but emotional health too, and you’ll be sharper and more efficient during the day. If you have followed “night owl” habits, try an earlier sleep/wake schedule for a month that’s more in tune with the earth’s natural rhythms. (Studies show that gradually moving your bedtime and wake-up time up by 15 to 20 minutes per day works best.) You might be surprised to find you feel better and get more done.
- Can you put something off? Get used to delayed gratification where appropriate, and you often will reap the reward of extra time, if the need or want can be batched with something else. But beyond that, you might find with patience the need or desire may disappear, or change.
- Putting things off, in this sense, is not the same as procrastinating. It’s asking if the rate at which you do things — or more accurately, the rate at which society would have you do things — is too obsessive-compulsive. Or, if it’s a one-time purchase or event or need/want, an expression of patience to slow things down, relax, and ask: Do you really need it after all? Here, you are encouraging and implementing an attitude of inquiry and questioning as a way of life.
- What can you not do? Do you really have to or want to do something as much as you think you might? Is it truly worth it? There is a balance to be struck, of course, between doing and not doing (relaxation), but most of us simply attempt too much. Yet we never even realize it until we actively begin considering what activities drummed into us by society as necessary might possibly be cut out of our lives as needless forms of “busyness” — a reduction of excess that would be to our ultimate benefit, not detriment. Likewise…
- Can you do without something you used to think you needed? If you aren’t sure, try doing without it for awhile as a kind of fun game just to see. The idea here is not penny-pinching privation. It’s to get time back that would otherwise have gone to researching, finding, buying, and maintaining something. Similarly…
- Do you really need the “latest and greatest” whatever-it-is? (Cars especially, which are huge money pits.) What things that are promoted as necessary are actually just time drains? Especially things that take maintenance. The more things you buy that require frequent tending (overly finicky or invasive software is a good example) or maintenance (power tools or kitchen appliances that offer only marginal benefit, for example), the more of an albatross around your neck your possessions become.
- Stay ahead of the curve on maintenance of things. It saves time in the long run. Here is one area where you shouldn’t put things off, i.e., “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In the same vein…
- Make things last as long as you can instead of throwing them out at the first sign of trouble and buying something new. This is not just a money-saving strategy. It reduces “churn” in your life in terms of having to continually research and buy new things. (Or not researching something you buy that turns out to be a dud that wastes money.) It also reduces resource use, and is one of the most practical, low-key ways to help “save the planet”: “Be the change you wish to see.”
- Reduce, reuse, recycle. Not just with items that might otherwise be headed for the trash — with everything in your life that you use to get things done. The more you can do so, the less money you’ll spend, though at the cost of some time spent doing maintenance. But very often, the maintenance involved in reusing things more than pays for itself in time researching and shopping for something new to replace the old.
- Don’t be at everyone’s beck and call. Set boundaries and reserve plenty of time for yourself. In business, if you are in a customer service-oriented trade or profession, you may well need to make yourself available to people and respond promptly. But in your personal life, you don’t need to necessarily do this, only for critical interactions.
- Cut the “always available” work tether if possible. If you have a job where the boss makes it mandatory that you be available for calls and texts after hours, I feel for you. If it’s a significant bother, start looking for another job.
- You have to establish limits — something that our culture, more and more, likes to pretend don’t exist. But of course they do, and are necessary for both health and sanity. When our 24/7/365 “always on” culture tries to break down the barriers between your work and personal lives, you have to push back, politely but firmly wherever possible. If that’s truly not possible (you would lose your job), the only solution is to eventually find another situation.
- If you spend much time taking notes or writing by hand, learn NoteScript or some similarly easy method of shorthand for the masses. You can learn the basics of NoteScript within an hour or two, and the rest of it later as you have time or inclination. (No need to kill yourself trying to become a Gregg or Pitman shorthand maestro.)
- Find and use a keyboard-shortcuts (macros) application instead of doing so many things with a mouse or other pointing device. This can save untold amounts of time. I’ve been using a keyboard-shortcuts application for 25 years now, and could not imagine working on the computer without it. Once you work out a logical system for assigning shortcuts to certain keys, and get the hang of creating them, you can cut right to the chase and get so much more done on the computer in the time available, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them.
- On those occasions when I’m at someone else’s work or home office observing while they do something at the computer, most of the time it’s just terribly painful watching how much extra work and time they’re putting themselves through — needlessly — doing everything through an application’s menu system by moving the pointer around all over the monitor, and how painfully slow it all is for them. Just painful, painful, painful to watch. It’s hard to overemphasize how much time you can save with keyboard shortcuts, not to mention wear and tear on the tendons in your hands and arms.
- Use as few applications as possible (which still may be quite a few), but know them well so you can bend them to different uses, and not have to get more, or more specialized, applications. The idea here is to avoid more stuff to pay for, update, and troubleshoot. Because stuff always goes wrong with applications eventually. Or the way features work is changed by the developers. Or something is added or eliminated that screws up how you were utilizing the app. And these days with “innovation” now every tech company’s holy watchword, things like this occur on an ongoing basis, not just once in a while.
- Don’t fight the war of trying to achieve perfection with computing devices and the applications you use. Troubleshooting can eat up lots of time. Good enough is good enough. This goes along with the previous point about minimizing the number of apps you use, so learn the ones you do use and their quirks more thoroughly, and how to live with those quirks. Because nothing is perfect, most especially computers. The idea they can be is just an illusion that techno-geeks who have drunk the Kool-Aid feel compelled to promote.
- Get control of your email. It can be a huge time-waster. Other than the brief capsule suggestions given in Part 3, it’s too big a topic to get into in this series. But surely you must know when you’re spending too much time on it. Ignore that at your peril or get dragged down by it.
- Don’t be an early adopter of new or updated software. Exercise patience. Bugs often infest new releases, and you pay a troubleshooting penalty for that “privilege,” serving as an unpaid tester or quality-control person.
- Auto-renewal preferences for online services or apps: Set things to manual renewal or opt-in, not automatic renewal. There used to be a law against services (like the mail-order book or music clubs of old) that automatically sent you chargeable items every month if you didn’t specifically opt out. Now, somehow, either the law has been overturned or the practice is making a sneaky comeback. These days when I sign up for some online subscription, most of them default to auto-renewal.
- The answer here is: No! Go into the preferences, and set them so the company has to send you a renewal request. Why? It may seem as if you’re causing yourself more work, but often you’ll find you don’t want to renew something once you’ve had a chance to experience it for a while. If it auto-renews, you’re stuck with the extra expense. And more expenses lead to the need for more work. Don’t forget that part of the ethic of “doing less” is to pay less for things so you can work less too if possible.
Larger issues: the “jujitsu” of “less is more”
- Slow down. Don’t rush so much. Just the change in attitude helps.
- Exercise patience. This is similar to slowing down but different. For example, as mentioned a little further above, don’t be an early adopter when it comes to new software or software updates, which can backfire before having been well-vetted by other users. If the current version of software you use is doing the job well enough for you, let others get the arrows in their backs first. (Don’t worry, there will always be an abundance of other eager, willing victims falling all over themselves to sacrifice their time and sanity.)
- Patience is also a virtue in and of itself. It leads to paying attention more to the present moment and developing the ability to see into it more deeply and enjoy it more. After all, when you start reaping the reward of more time, one of the things that helps most in enjoying it is the enjoyment of time — the present — itself.
- Learn to relax and not be too obsessive-compulsive about things. Here are a few examples:
- How often do you really need to mow the lawn? Letting grass grow somewhat taller, as well as mowing it higher, is healthier for yards. Most especially so if you don’t water the lawn — and you shouldn’t, if you’re concerned about our future water supply.
- Where we live, the city ordinance only requires keeping yards 12 inches or less in height or length, which is probably not too dissimilar from most municipalities. I typically let the yard get up to about six inches before mowing, and I mow no lower than 3 inches, rather than the 2 or 2½ that most people seem to. Late in the season or during hot, dry months, when the growth rate has slowed, I’ll cut the grass at the mower’s top setting of 3½ inches. (Don’t worry, your neighbors will live.)
- Can you reduce your trips to the grocery store by exercising more patience?
- Can you clean house less often? Obviously you don’t want to let things go so far they are offensive, or to the point surfaces or materials have been let go so long that the time you spend deep-cleaning to get them back to normal exceeds the cumulative time spent on regular cleanings. But this is an area where people often become obsessive-compulsive, particularly due to irrational fear of germs, which easily becomes counterproductive, leading to overreactive immune systems in those who have been raised in such homes.
- Can you do laundry less often? Tip: Buy a whole bunch of socks and underwear so you only have to wash them once every few weeks in large batches rather than smaller loads weekly.
- For other clothing that you don’t need to change daily — pants, jeans, etc. — wear things more than once before washing. Obviously one criterion for gauging this is how much body odor accumulates, but otherwise, if they don’t get dirty quickly, why wash something just because you “think” it needs washed. Who told you so? Why?
- Women: Consider ditching or reducing hair-coloring and makeup. Jettisoning the gobs of makeup and hair-color products will save you corresponding gobs of both time and money. Doing so can admittedly be a difficult decision given age discrimination in the workplace.
- Otherwise, though, if it’s mostly an issue of self-confidence or insecurity in your own looks, any repercussions from others will likely be minimal. And many men actually prefer a more natural look. (I am one of them.)
- And remember, it doesn’t necessarily have to be all or nothing when it comes to hair-coloring or makeup, particularly the latter. You can cut back in judicious ways as a partial time- or cost-saving measure, either on an ongoing basis or just to test the waters and see what the experience is like.
- Men: Consider shaving only every other other day, or grow a beard. If you don’t have a heavy or dark beard, you may well be able to get away with shaving just every other day instead of daily, and few may notice, or care if they do take note. In some quarters it’s even considered stylish to appear a bit rakish.
- Alternatively, of course, grow your beard out if you prefer, and if you need/want, shave the outer margins above and below it if desired every two or three days. Periodic trimming can be done a couple of times a month or whenever suits you.
- Don’t be too much of a purist about methods of doing things, i.e., by hand as opposed to employing technology. Use hybrid approaches when it makes sense. For example, when it comes to planning and record-keeping, sometimes paper and pen/pencil is easier, faster, or better than doing something on the computer, other times vice versa. Don’t think you have to go completely paperless or electronic, or conversely be a complete Luddite about technology. You don’t. Remember: balance in all things.
- Use the simplest technology that will get the job done effectively. It’s less costly and more reliable with fewer snafus. Use fewer specialist tools except for those essential to your work. Take joy in doing things by hand.
- If you can, work part-time or at least less than full-time in some way, rather than full-time, as already mentioned in this post’s introduction. American business tends to have an either/or attitude toward work hours, which is hard to get around. If you’re self-employed, you can often set your own hours, or at least your overall workload. (A trade-off is that self-employment is sometimes “feast or famine” in terms of your time schedule, and you have to learn to “roll with things”: intense periods of a lot of work that may be followed by extended downtime. So it’s kind of like hunter-gatherers in a way.)
- If you have a good job and make plenty of money (admittedly an ever-diminishing cohort of the workforce in these times): hire out things like lawn-mowing and housekeeping. Or, for others, perhaps cut expenses so you can afford to hire them out, if you really detest these chores.
- If you’re self-employed: cut expenses so you can work less.
If you say you can’t do very many of the things we’ve covered here in Part 5, you are really saying you don’t actually value the luxury of time as much as you assert. Hint: serious self-inquiry may be in order.
What tips do you have?
In Part 6’s conclusion we’ll look at the psychological and spiritual ramifications — or more directly, truth be told, prerequisites — required for real follow-through and a true embrace of “doing less.”