Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Don’t have to think

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.


Spiros said...

"allow time for the sin of sloth"

Harry, since you are an academic, I'm sure you have ample time for that.

hc said...

Spiros, Actually no I don't. The opportunity to really even think about things is restricted by the imperatives of a modern bureaucratic university. Increasingly it is becoming a poorly-paid 9-5 job that requires some work most evenings and normally some work over weekends.

I think in the attempt by bureaucrats to implement efficiencies in the universities academics have become less creative. Producing papers has become a production line activity rather than an attempt to research the unknown using creative, original thinking. On the other hand teaching standards have probably improved.

Sloth doesn't come into the equation at all although, in my case, I find a lot of undirected time goes in 'doing chores' for family, rather than being obseesed all the time with work.

Spiros said...

Does your department head know or care where you are?

Do you have to account for your time in any way?

If you stopped writing papers what would be the consequences?

hc said...

Spiros, I don't like answering these but I will.

Three questions:

1. In terms of my statutory duties (teaching, student consultation, thesis supervision yes.

2. Partly answered in (1) but in terms of research all I need to do is deliver.

3. I would be askede to teach more, do more administrative work and, if I really was weak, asked to leave.

Almost all academics I know work very hard. The perception that they don't - fostered by the ignorant - damages education in Australia.

Spiros said...

I'm sure you work like the proverbial trojan.

How can you be asked to leave if you tenure, which I assume you do?

hc said...


I don't know what 'working like a Trojan' means. But I work hard.

Tenure ceased to exist in Australian universities years ago.

Many academics - including whole departments - have been abolished.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that delightful description of life on the other side of the social frontier in Australia .... often wondered, myself, what it was like there .... it was worthy of a "National Geographic" article but where are the colour photos? :-)

Just relaxing and allowing the mind to wander is one of the things that took the human race from precarious subsistance and daily peril to a scientific and economic situation where we can reach for the skies - and beyond.

conrad said...

"On the other hand teaching standards have probably improved. "

Actually, whilst I agree with the rest of what you say, I wouldn't agree with that. I think what it really boils down to is that everyone trys to make courses as easy as possible, which correlates well with student satisfaction. Until they try and get a job with their undergraduate degrees of course.

Its funny how you hard-left commentator is the first to say we all slack off. I'm sure they'll be the first to complain when more and more idiots (who are going to be the only employees universities can find if the trend continues -- just like high schools) are wasting people's time for three years by teaching nothing. That's great. It will be six years of wasted high school and three years of wasted university. I thank the wonders of the good old Aussie anti-intellectualism, which oddly enough, seems to have come from someone of Greek background. Think about that next time before opening your mouth Spiros.

Spiros said...

Conrad, I dunno what you're talking about. Try to be coherent.

And stop wasting time on blogs.

conrad said...

Spiros, I accept that you don't know what I'm talking about nor think what I am saying is coherent. Whether other people do is of course another story.