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The absurd trade-offs of modern work

From a recent entrepreneur/business magazine:

“There are five things we need — work, family, friends, sleep, fitness — and it’s not possible to do them all every day, or maybe even every week. If you try to do them all, you’ll fail at them all. Instead, pick three at a time. Maybe one day is for work, family and sleep. Another day is for work, friends and fitness. And maybe (imagine this!) there’s a day without work at all, and it’s for sleep, family and friends. Whatever your mix is, be satisfied with the three you picked, and reshuffle them as needed tomorrow. We have to focus on what’s manageable, not what’s impossible.“

Unfortunately, for many people, this seems like very practical and reasonable advice, but it’s actually a good example of how blind our thinking has become when it comes to work and life. These are, in fact, absurd trade-offs. Taking such advice seriously and seeing those purveying it as “experts” is foolish. It is a perfect example of how the modern lifestyle doesn’t actually work in real life (not when it comes to the most important things).

It is not at all “impossible” to fit work, family, friends, sleep, and fitness (living a physically healthy life) into each day. What folks mean when they say achieving such things is “impossible” is that it’s impossible to do all those things while still also fitting in all your TV shows and social media use, pursuing all personal ambitions, keeping up with the Joneses, and doing it all “my way,” all while surrendering to a careerism that demands long hours, long commutes, and the requirement to rearrange your life (even which city you live in) around your work, etc.

This is all, of course, a false choice. Once we put priorities in place, and are willing to make the appropriate sacrifices, fitting those five things (as well as prayer, silence, and leisure—which are also essential) into each day/week in a healthy way becomes quite reasonable, though still challenging.

Furthermore, we can do better still.

From the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden, humans accomplished all of these important things. In fact, most people throughout all of human history managed it all quite naturally.

Their trick? They did multiple things at the same time. And not by “multi-tasking,” but by making some of them the same thing. For example, work was not separate from fitness and family. Their work and lifestyle also kept them fit (i.e. it was healthy for them), and their coworkers (and co-leisurists) happened to also be their family and neighbors. How’s that for efficiency!? In other words, these are not supposed to be totally compartmentalized parts of one’s life. Ideally, there is significant overlap and harmony among them. When we insist on separating everything so that we can do each one in exactly the way I prefer to do each one, or because it’s the way modernity has determined I must do them, then yes, we find it very challenging to fit it all in.

When you chose a career path, did you choose it by how well it would also fit family, friends, prayer, leisure, fitness, silence, and sleep into your life? Most people don’t, at least not as a primary determining factor. At most it may be a secondary consideration or a nice-to-have (or a hope!), if it’s considered at all. Yet, these are essential to a healthy life. This is one of the many serious failures of the modern education system. Because education today almost solely focuses on “work skills” and becoming a gainfully employed worker, to the exclusion of other essentials, it naturally creates work environments which inevitably conflict with the other essentials of life. And creates people who don’t know how to prioritize the most important things in their life, people who say things like “you have to just pick three” and be okay with that. People who choose to work in a way that simply doesn’t work.

What if we figured out how to better combine these essential parts of life into something more harmonious? What if we chose work and lifestyle which was healthy for us and that we got to do alongside our family and neighbors? What if we taught our children to do the same? It would take thinking very differently about work (and education), and letting go of some wants, but life would probably be better all around.

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