I was entertained and informed by a short article in The Age by Rob Moodie (‘Reconsider the frantic pace of life’) that urges us all to slow down. It is a useful article to think about as many of us go back to ‘work’ over the next few days after a reasonably long Xmas break.
Important accompaniments to a productive life are non-work leisure activities, living and sloth. I want to emphasise the latter here: Don’t have to do, don’t have to think, just be. Look at that sunset, potter in the garden.
Our personal wealth is increasing – a recent estimate put it at $400,000 per Australian – and with increased wealth we can and should put more time into leisure and sloth. Work is partly an end in itself – many of us derive intense satisfaction from our work – and partly a means to an end namely to enjoy that multi-faceted experience called ‘living’. Rat-race ethics of ‘trying to keep up with the Jones’ are negative externalities that limit our potential to efficiently optimise our lives. These can be partially offset by hefty progressive taxes on high incomes, by having more public holidays, by requiring minimum annual vacations and by restricting working hours as in France. All such measures however have obvious costs – the best approach is to act individually and rationally on the basis of a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the different needs in our lives.
Work needs to be put in its place and intelligently optimised with respect to other activities and with respect to doing nothing at all beyond just being. If this sounds like a ‘beautiful people’ line from the 1970s or from Carlos Castaneda I can assure you it isn’t. As I stress work is important as is purposive play (reducing your golf handicap, gardening) and as is sloth (pottering). The key is to get the balance right and to eschew the idea of an ever present ‘to do’ list that keeps every second of your day (and night) fully occupied.
As much as I liked Moodie’s argument I think even he overemphasises purposive non-work activity (investing in family and social relationships) as a means of improving our work efficiency and our emotional health. I am sure he is right to recognise these factors but I don’t want life to be, as Bob Dylan has said, ‘something you invest in’. There is scope for both purposive non-work activities and sloth to provide a more comprehensive deconditioning that has intrinsic value as a renewing agent. It breaks down fixed associations and neuroses, improves our awareness and creativity and helps allow the batteries to recharge.
If you want to use ‘to do’ lists don’t try to control every minute with planned work and purposive leisure – allow time for the sin of sloth.