To control the time

The front of my orange planner reads “To control the time.” This planner, by far, is the cheapest of the 10 planners that I have bought within the past two years, purchased for $4 at MaiDo, a stationery aficionado’s heaven. Smelling like a fresh beginning, the planner contains 64 blank pages where I can fill in my tasks for each hour of the day. When I filled out three to four months worth of days in school and work, I felt like both James Gatz, charging toward the great American Dream, and Hermione Granger, defying time with her time turner. I made a habit of piling on work, often assigning more to myself than I could reasonably handle. In addition, my computer had supplementary apps for productivity, ranging from Google Calendar to To-Do List. I felt like a god when I was but a mere mortal, mesmerized by a grand illusion replete with underlying anxieties about success and prestige. But my fantasies of productivity often dissipated into scattered creative thoughts as I waited anxiously for inspiration at 3 a.m., bound to my desk by perfectionism when my aching body craved sleep. Something at that hour made me feel as if there was more to my anxiety than my self-entitlement as a lazy, distracted millennial. The words that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America never felt so real: “Fortune awaits them everywhere, but happiness they cannot attain.”

So what should we do about stress and the inhibition of creativity? Mexican telecom billionaire Carlos Slim, also known as the second richest person in the world, suggests a three-day workweek. Slim contends that working three days a week for a longer period of our lives — up to 75 years — would transform the economics and demographics of our world. Charts from the OECD show that worker productivity begins decreasing when you work too many hours a week. Slim argues, “Having four days (off) would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied.”

When I first heard about the three-day workweek, I was both drawn and suspicious — drawn because I was tired from school and work, a future sustainable career nothing more than a hazy dream to me, and suspicious because I was cognizant of my naivete and lack of experience, with the closest I’ve come to an average working schedule is a summer job from years ago.

Likewise, Slim’s model was met with the suspicion of critics. It is a fairly privileged assumption that reduced hours will support the common good. Molly Osberg from the Guardian suggests that given the lack of social services and living wages in America, if a three-day workweek were imposed tomorrow, the rich would stay rich while many would be forced into poverty. She further argues that in appealing to “entertainment activities,” Slim predicts more growth in service and hospitality, which already disproportionately employs minimum wage workers. In the same vein as Osberg, Dr. Kenneth Matos, director of research at Families and Work Institute, says that even 11-hour workdays in a three-day workweek would only amount to 33 hours a week. Workers who are paid by the hour would have to take up a second job to pay rent, buy groceries and afford other necessary expenses. Timewise, Matos points out that people with additional responsibilities, such as parents, would have no free time during the three-day workweek, working 11 to 13 hour days.

An article in the New Yorker illustrates that Slim is not the first executive to criticize the structure of our working lives. Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford proposed a five-day workweek. In 2010, Anna Coote recommended an even more radical idea — a 21-hour workweek, which she argues would help with “overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.” Coote’s claims seem too fantastic for real life, but perhaps they have an inkling of truth to them. Evidence shows that the number of hours worked and productivity do not necessarily have a direct correlation — in Europe, Greeks are the hardest workers with the most full-time hours per week, but Luxembourgians are the most productive. As a result, the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, began experimenting with a six-hour workday in April to foster a happier and healthier work force. On the other hand, having a sense of control, in contrast to enforcing a set output, effectively increases creativity and productivity. For example, a 2010 survey of employees at a large IT company shows that feelings of empowerment impacted intrinsic motivation and creativity.

Perhaps, then, my obsession with planning and efficiency is not so unhealthy — it definitely reflects a desire for agency. But the desire to constantly push myself to work is undoubtedly unhealthy, lending itself to cursory quality of work in addition to poor personal standards of well-being. The problem itself isn’t hard work — it’s how a distorted, self-congratulatory perception of hard work lends itself to cursory work quality, lack of engagement with the self and others and the waning of personal well-being.


Contact Stacey Nguyen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @staceytnguyen.