Why Overwork is Really a Kind of Laziness
What ancient thinkers can teach us about work
Today we treat overwork as a badge of honor. This was driven home to me over the last several months, when I was on the road giving talks about my book Rest. Whether I was in England, Japan, Europe, or the US, I was struck by how often people answered the question “How are you doing” with “I’m so busy!” It showed me that the belief that overwork should be our default setting, and that if every minute of the day isn’t packed with activity we’re not living life to the fullest, has gone global.
Ideas are at their most powerful when they seem natural, or inevitable, or perfectly logical. The assumption that overwork is both a necessity for success and a sign of success is powerful precisely because it now feels self-evident and inescapable.
But it’s not.
I’ve been reminded of this by two very different sources: ancient philosophers who believed that overwork is actually a kind of laziness, and entrepreneurs who’ve moved their businesses to six-hour days or four-day weeks.
They challenge the virtue of overwork from two completely different directions. And even if we don’t accept their conclusions, their examples can inspire us to question our own assumptions about how busy we should be.
I’ll talk about the companies in a companion piece. Here, I’ll talk about the philosophy.
As the great German theologian Josef Pieper argued, for most of history philosophers and theologians treated overwork as a moral failing. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, made a distinction between leisure and idleness; and importantly, people who were “out of breath for no purpose, always busy about nothing” were, in Seneca’s view, guilty of the worst kind of idleness.
Because it occupies our time and feels like accomplishment, but actually produces very little and gives us little opportunity to learn about ourselves, this kind of busyness was to be avoided. As Pieper put it, in this vision leisure “is not a Sunday afternoon idyll, but the preserve of freedom, of education and culture, and of that undiminished humanity which views the world as a whole.”
This is not to say that work was something to be avoided. Stoics like Seneca saw work as essential, as one of the things that made life meaningful. But in order to become our best selves, they argued, it was also necessary to take the time to reflect on our lives and choices — and that required both time and an “inward calm” that let us see ourselves and the world clearly.
(Another striking feature of this vision of leisure is that it’s active, not passive. The vita contemplativa (the contemplative life), as the ancients called it, didn’t feature a lot of sitting around; silence and reflection had their place, but you became a better person through doing: acting morally, through being a good friend, making hard choices, standing up for what’s right.)
Philosophers maintained that distinction between leisure and idleness for a very long time. The nineteenth century author John Lubbock, for example, argued that “Hours of leisure should not be hours of idleness; leisure is one of the grandest blessings, idleness one of the greatest curses — one is the source of happiness, the other of misery.”
So while we often regard leisure as a kind of idleness, but that’s actually a very new idea. For most of history, overwork didn’t demonstrate that you were doing important things; it signaled that you were ignoring unimportant ones.
That may sound abstract, but today there are entrepreneurs who are founding companies that put this insight into practice. They flip the popular understanding of overwork on its head: they treat it as a sign of inefficiency, and something to be eliminated. Even though they work in some very competitive industries, they‘re finding ways to reduce the length of the working day, and in the process are becoming more creative, more productive, and better places to work.