Saturday, March 16, 2024

The Power of Loafing


I am not a lazy person and don’t consider myself an expert loafer. Nor do I advocate sloth in general. That said, I will argue that being judicious about when to take your foot off the gas can turn loafing into a superpower.

Who, what, where, when, why, and how?

This post is for the modern knowledge worker who nowadays has a lot of flexibility in his or her workday. The what herein is to explain how this freedom can be an issue. It doesn’t overmuch matter where this work is done, but the ability to work from home is part of the equation. When is of course right now and going forward, and the why is because I sense the encroachment of so-called “grind culture” and want to help spare you from it, just as I continually attempt to spare myself. Now, there is plenty of literature out there about the evils of grind culture, but I’m going to illustrate, through what I hope is a potent metaphor, how to convince yourself to passively fight it—that is, to loaf strategically.

Some background

If you haven’t come across the term “grind culture” (aka “hustle culture”), you either lead a blessed work life, or (like me up until recently) you have been missing out on a handy way to describe something you’ve surely noticed, probably pondered, and—I hope—have found yourself questioning. The New York Times, in this article, calls grind culture “performative workaholism” and cites Elon Musk’s pro-grind tweet, “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” It’s worth pointing out that Musk, who advocates working at least 80, is a douchebag.

Grind culture promotes unabashed ambition, supported by long hours and what its proponents like to call “grit” (though “self abasement” would be more accurate in this case). Its adherents don’t seem to realize, or at least don’t tend to acknowledge, that a company’s executives are the main beneficiaries of this culture. Grinders also apparently don’t grasp (or perhaps simply don’t care) that this relative minority of highly ambitious people can set a new productivity standard for a workplace, that spills over onto colleagues who might prefer greater work/life balance.

The Times article I just cited was written before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, I fear things have only gotten worse. These days, a lot more knowledge workers work from home, and the flexibility this gives them to tend to personal matters (e.g., picking up a kid from school, putting in a load of laundry) also gives management a reasonable basis for expecting employees to be available for a much longer period of time each day. As another Times article explains, “Cellphones and laptops have made it impossible for many people to wall off eight hours of the day for paid labor and another eight for everything else, and they threaten to return all of us to an era of nonstop, undercompensated labor.” And as this Forbes article asserts, even as productivity has increased with teleworking, management doesn’t often perceive this; a study by Microsoft found that “49% of managers of hybrid workers struggle to trust their employees to do their best work.” In this climate, perhaps the nervousness we may have about the visibility of our output (since we’re not observed to be in the office at our post) contributes to our temptation to send emails or Slack messages at 10 p.m.

So how do we combat this impulse to work longer and more? How do we fight the trend toward performative workaholism? For me, it’s a matter of differentiating between doing more and doing my best. Since this is a vague notion, I will now proceed to my metaphor.

Life imitates sport

I’m an assistant coach for a high school mountain bike racing team. Unlike a track coach who just stands around on the infield with a clipboard and shouts instructions, we cycling coaches actually ride with the kids, the whole time, every practice. This gets progressively, inevitably more difficult every year. The kids obviously never age because it’s a rotating crop: every year a quarter of them graduate and are replaced by incoming freshmen. I, on the other hand, am not getting any younger, or stronger, and my bike gearing isn’t getting any lower. Needless to say, the hills around here aren’t getting any flatter.

It’s been such a wet winter, there are only a few trails we can reliably ride without getting bogged down in mud. This leaves two main routes we can ride right now: Big Springs Trail and Seaview Trail. The summit of Seaview, at 1,905 feet elevation, is the highest point in the Berkeley hills, and the climb up it is a bitch. In fact, there’s a section I can barely make.

Let me describe how this works for me, with my last trip up it as an example. There’s this long, steep opening bit that is a total grind, but doable, and then we descend for a bit and catch our breath. Then it the trail starts climbing again, and this time of year we’re dodging puddles and so forth, and then, just before the grade gets truly brutal, there’s a very shallow, almost flat bit. I happen to have a photo.

After the slow slog up to this shallow bit, it’s always tempting to pick up the pace, but I never take the bait. For this reason, I frequently get passed at this spot, as happened last time. One of the kids I coach had been nipping at my heels the whole way, and when I laid off the pace here he blew right by me. I cared not a whit. He’s inarguably faster than I am, and after all my job isn’t to beat him, it’s to coach him. Moreover, my job in this moment was just to get up the damn hill.

I continued to loaf, and before long could hear another rider behind me. And now the grade suddenly became almost unbearably steep. I had no choice but to dig deep. I could still hear the kid behind me, gears whirring and panting increasing, and I now faced the hardest part of the climb: a very rocky place with a lot of tree roots, which don’t actually look so bad in this photo but can easily stop a middle-aged rider dead when he’s barely handling the climb to begin with.

Over the years I’ve compared notes with other coaches about the best path through this notoriously difficult section. On this last trip, I managed to thread my way through, just barely, through a combination of the perfect line and an all-out, leg-searing effort that bumped my bike over the inevitable rocks and roots I couldn’t steer around. And now here’s my point: the rider behind me didn’t manage it. I heard the distinctive sound of a cleat clicking out of a pedal (so he wouldn’t tip all the way over after losing all momentum) and the inevitable whuff of frustration. A rock or root had stopped him cold. And this didn’t happen because he’s less strong than I am (after all, in the group I ride with these days, they’re all stronger than I), nor because he’s less skilled. It’s almost certainly because he was closer to being redlined than I was when he reached that section: because he was already drilling it before the steep stuff began. On the shallow section, I wasn’t just loafing to loaf. It was a matter of survival. That steep, rough part is so hard, I have to be rested—physically and psychologically—before giving it my all to get through it. When a 100% effort is required, you (or at least I) cannot already be maxed out before reaching it. That pause to collect myself was as important as the odd, protracted centering routine a high-diver goes through before starting his or her dive.

Alas, the grade doesn’t ease up: this section of climbing demands several more minutes of excruciation. But you know what’s worse? Trying to get rolling again on a rocky, pebbly, loose, root-infested 16% grade with only one foot clipped in. It’s awkward and frustrating and saps your will. There’s a world of difference between making it the whole way in one shot, and getting stymied and starting over. Having to unclip from your pedal is how you lose a mountain bike race.

I trust this metaphor isn’t particularly hard for you to decode. Just as I would advise you, on your first-ever bike ride up Seaview, to ease up and rest your legs before the really steep part, I  want to convey to you how important I think it is to pace yourself elsewhere in life. Alas, the metaphor falls flat pretty quickly, because life does not  always imitate sport. In real life, you’re not heading up a known trail; you can’t plan ahead where you’re going to strategically loaf.

When to loaf in life

My workplace, which I suspect is typical of a modern American corporation in a fast-changing industry, is unpredictable. It’s generally impossible to predict when the hammer will come down. (I sometimes envy tax accountants or line cooks who know in advance when things are going to get crazy.) In my industry we’re conditioned to see change as opportunity, and to embrace the ethos of “disruption,” to figure out new schemes to go take more market share, and blah blah blah. We don’t have the luxury of cooling our jets just ahead of a big effort because we never know when that will be—or, more to the point, we’re supposed to be bringing it about ourselves, constantly. That is the essence of grind culture. (This extends beyond the workplace, of course, unless you’re a childless bachelor(ette) and orphan. Families introduce countless opportunities for entropy to throw us into a tailspin, particularly if we’re trying to run our family like a CEO would run a business.)

So, without guideposts like a really steep, rough section of trail, and with the constant pressure to find more work to do, how are we supposed to know when to loaf? My answer is “whenever we reasonably can.” Of course this will vary from job to job, and from life to life, but the point is, we are all free to pause and question, throughout our workday, what truly needs to be done next, and when, and why. Who is waiting on it? Am I doing this because somebody is counting on me, or am I trying to show somebody up?

In my experience, we’re not always given deadlines, but instead are asked how soon we can have something done. This question can feel like a version of “How good are you?” It can seem to force a reckoning: am I going to do right by my employer no matter what the personal cost, to prove I’m a team player and the kind of baller Elon Musk would praise? Or do I stick up for my right to work a normal day? Actually, I think this is a false dichotomy. Over-committing yourself and failing to deliver doesn’t help anybody. We have to accept—actually, to understand and to some extent define—what is sustainable for us. I define “sustainable” not as “the outer limit of what I am capable of” but “what I can sustain without wearing myself down, making mistakes, and spinning my wheels.” To return to my cycling metaphor, I don’t want to overextend myself, grind to a halt, and have to clip out of my pedal.

Strategic loafing isn’t just about how we run our day, but how long we run our day: when we decide to shut down and what shutting down means. Just as a physical workplace used to help us segregate work and life, the act of powering off our computers became the more modern way to close the door on the workplace, even for telecommuters. Now, as the Times has pointed out, cellphones can tether us for our entire waking life. Strategic loafing means the courage to close down Slack (etc.) at a reasonable hour and resolve not to open our work email until tomorrow. (Ideally we’d resolve also to limit indulgence in our digital “feed,” that fusillade of incoming crap so many invite in for their poor brains to grapple with on personal time. But that’s another post.)

More cycling metaphor

Cycling has taught me more than just how to pace myself in the moment. It has also taught me how to pace myself through the season. There is a time for rest, and a time to hammer. Yes, I can give it my all, that heralded 100%, but only for about two hundred meters until I go anaerobic. And I can dial my effort up until I’m at my anaerobic threshold (e.g., like when going up Seaview), but I can’t keep that up for hours at a time. And not every ride can be a hammer-fest; some days need to be mellow—a conversational pace. Time off is necessary, to let the body recover. The analogy here to resting our minds and psyches throughout our workweeks and careers should be pretty obvious to anyone who doesn’t brag about how long he’s gone without a lunch break or a vacation. What if all that world-beating doesn’t end up enabling a person to make a killing and retire at 45? Then what? Twenty more years of the same? I guess Elon Musk has never heard of base miles.

Call to inaction?

When I entered the corporate workforce, I was terribly afraid of workaholism. What if it ran in families? My dad was a hopeless workaholic. Every morning he was in the office by 8:30, came home promptly at 7:45 for dinner, then left again and wasn’t home until after 10pm … seven days a week. It was the rare week he didn’t put in at least 80 hours. Alas, this didn’t result in a particularly brilliant career; in fact, when he was right about the age I’m at now, he burned out completely and fell out of the workforce. (All three of his marriages had already ended.) That was my example of what not to do.

Such was my paranoia about falling into bad work habits, I made a point not to put in too many hours. I was willing to risk not meeting some vague expectation; I figured if my hours were too low my manager would let me know. Obviously my output had to be on par with my overworked colleagues, which meant working fast. Cycling had given me an obsession with efficiency, and I applied that to my career. Hoping that MO would be enough, I didn’t layer overlong workdays on top of it.

So did this approach work out? Well, here’s a telling anecdote. A few years into my career, I was at a team-building offsite in Palm Springs (back in the days of such things) and management presented a bunch of awards. I don’t remember the categories, etc. but toward the end our branch director presented a big one, and started describing the winner: he’s this, he’s that, and (this is the part that jumped out at me), “He is no stranger to working long nights and weekends.” At this, I started to feel something like sour grapes—as in, “Is that what it takes to get recognized around here?” but then I caught myself and reflected on my principles. I reminded myself, “Hey, I don’t need to be the big winner. There’s more to life than career ambition. I have work/life balance. Let this guy have his glory, he’s made sacrifices for it.” My rumination was suddenly interrupted when the director called out the name of the winner: “Dana Albert!”

I was absolutely stunned. Me? Long nights? Weekends? Huh? It wasn’t until I reflected on this later that I realized the director wouldn’t have been around in the evenings or weekends to see me hard at work, any more than my dad’s bosses had witnessed him. That I put in long hours was just an assumption. My reputation was based more on results than on rudimentary metrics like hours worked. So: if what ultimately matters is our output, who needs the performative workaholism of grind culture?

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating naps throughout the day, or only working eight hours a day as a golden rule. I’ve used the word “loafing” here somewhat flippantly, to get your attention. What I am talking about is more of a return to a work life with guardrails. If the traditional work/life boundaries are no longer available, at least we should have an awareness of the need to set new ones. I want to take care of myself first, and my employer second, because this serves us both better in the long run. Professionally speaking, I want to be the guy who, when a bomb is dropped, isn’t already overwhelmed, isn’t sleep-derived, won’t get frazzled, knows how to work fast, and can quickly put his hands on all the resources he needs. In a nutshell, I want to be the guy who’s not gonna clip out and tip over. To the tired old cliché “I work hard and I play hard,” I would add a crucial third element: “I rest hard.”

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment