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Is it for work or for pleasure?
Perhaps it's both.
To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization
John Adams once predicted that his grandchildren would live lives of art and leisure. “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy,” he said. “My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
If my last three essays imagine a plausible future where we work less, I wonder what we would do with more leisure? Would we study painting, poetry, or music as Adams once proposed? I suppose I can only speak for myself here and, well, I work as a writer. Writing is my ideal—it used to be my hobby. Even when writing became my work, I continued to write novels on the side. But now I wonder, if writing is my work, what is my leisure?
This close parallel between my work and my hobby has sometimes made it difficult to discern whether I am working. I am writing this sentence at 6:07am which used to be my personal writing time, but because this is turning out to be a work essay I’m actually working. After work, sometimes I don’t know if I’m reading a book for work or for pleasure until I start shuffling quotes into one of my Google Docs and realize it’s becoming a work essay.
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This blurring of work and pleasure has certainly become more pervasive as our jobs have become more leisure filled. We once spent the day engaged in hard labor, then came home to sit down and rest. Now we sit down to work and need to engage in hard labor after work. Working out, going outside for a hike or mountain bike ride, or, in the case of Crossfit, even carrying stones and tires for fun. What once was labor, now is leisure.
What once was leisure might also become labor—a hobby turned into a “passion project” or “side hustle.” Even if we do not sell what we do after work, we at least track it—a social event shared on Instagram or Facebook, a run or mountain bike ride quantified on Strava, a yoga session timed using Insight timer. Perhaps the whole day is tracked via Apple Watch or Oura Ring, our devices perfectly poised to let us know when we didn’t get enough sleep, when we didn’t move our bodies enough, when we didn’t breathe. Even meditation apps track how often we meditate. We are now well aware when we’re not “working hard enough”—not just at work, but in life too.
In a recent post by , she wondered when we actually stop working. Even Duolingo seemed to note when she wasn’t practicing Spanish enough. Even Netflix seemed to show her all the things she hadn’t yet watched. “The question is no longer whether we should resist the endless drive towards long hours, because that much is obvious,” she said. “Instead—and urgently now—we adults need to learn what to do with space that opens up when we’ve worked enough. And when we’ve fathomed that, we need to find a way to pass it on.”
That is the very question the economist John Maynard Keynes once pondered in his 1930 lecture “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Looking forward to a time when we would be so economically prosperous we wouldn’t need to work, he wondered whether we would completely lose our purpose in that world. “Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread,” he said. “For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”
Have we been trained too long to strive? Do we know, truly, how to enjoy?
In books and movies like Eat Pray Love, Under The Tuscan Sun, Faraway, there is the trope of the person who leaves everything behind and finally learns how to enjoy. Perhaps she was stuck in a bad marriage, a stifling job, an endless quest to keep up with the Joneses, but now she has reached some breaking point and throws it all away. Finally, she allows herself to travel, experience adventure, eat pastries, and kiss someone at midnight. By ceasing to quantify her life, she improves the quality of it.
I think we can touch that experience briefly on vacation when there is no diet to adhere to, no gym to attend, no bedtime to make. It doesn’t matter if we eat pastries for breakfast or stay out late to take in a play. There is a kind of leisure that can only be achieved when that commodification of our time is left behind. When we allow ourselves to break all the rules, to be spontaneous, when we are free to eat a scoop of gelato at 2pm on a Thursday.
When we get back from vacation we can try to keep those rules at bay, but slowly we put them on again. We couldn’t eat an almond croissant every day, that would be unhealthy. We couldn’t stay out until midnight every night, we have to work in the morning. We can’t go out to eat all the time, we have to adhere to a budget. Over time, we start accumulating rules for ourselves, and perhaps they are for our betterment. But then I wonder if we continue doing so to our detriment.
Over time, everything starts to feel like work. We must also cook dinner, mow the lawn, fix the leak. These small tendings of our lives are essential, and yet they eat into our leisure time and so feel like work. Because we work, we don’t want to spend the evening cooking, mowing the lawn, fixing the leak—that would steal from the time we have for play, for our hobbies. And so they become work too. We automate them away by getting takeout, hiring a gardener, and hiring a plumber. Leisure must be leisure.
But if we didn’t work as much, I wonder if that home “work” might seem more pleasurable? If you had the time, would you take up baking? Would you plant a garden? Would you engage in home projects? During the pandemic we saw just such a craving. Sourdough starters were sold out and there was a rush for bonsai trees and everything at Home Depot. With added time, things that used to feel like work become leisure again, and this is why Buddhist monasteries build meditation into tasks like cleaning the floors and handwashing the dishes. The work is the leisure.
But only if we have the time to enjoy it. And I think something about the 40-hour workweek makes us feel like we don’t have the time. Or at least, it puts a container around our time and tells us that we shouldn’t get out our scissors and start trimming our bonsai trees at 2pm because we are expected to be at our desks from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday there is a dividing line between our work life at 4:59pm and our personal life at 5:01pm. That we continue to call it “work-life balance” only exacerbates the effect that the former time should be fully work and the latter time should be fully leisure. One of my friends recently told me she feels like she has to get all of her work done by 5pm—that includes grocery shopping and the dishes.
When the pandemic happened those barriers began to erode. Could I bake a loaf of bread at 2pm? Could I send a Slack message at 7pm? Could I go for a walk at lunch? Could I write this essay at 6am? At first, I was worried that eliminating those barriers meant that I was no longer achieving “work-life balance.” If I was going for a walk at lunch, was I working hard enough at my job? If I was working at 7pm, was I not enjoying my life? When I stopped thinking of my time in terms of my work time (9am to 5pm) and personal time (all the other times), and instead considered my life as a whole, I realized that I actually felt like I was doing a good job at my work, and that my life felt very full of leisure.
Perhaps the blur between work and leisure is ok then. Perhaps it's even the point. That we have made some things work and some things leisure only means that we are failing to see that perhaps it’s all both. Perhaps our days should not be divided into work time and leisure time, but should remain one thing, one day, in which all of it might be considered work or leisure, depending on how you look at it.
If John Adams wanted his grandchildren to be able to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain, I wonder if he thought they would do so for work? Or if he thought they would do so for pleasure? Perhaps, in the end, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps, in the end, it's both.
As always, thank you so much for reading,
P.S. When I read this essay to my husband he asked me if I wrote this for my work newsletter or my personal newsletter. “If you can’t tell, that’s my point!” I said.