Understanding Leisure

In Essays, Productivity, Self Improvement

Everyone agrees that there is a need for balance between work and play. That’s universally recognised as a requirement for what is traditionally referred to as a good life.

However, there are several things that are then not so easy to agree on:

  • What constitutes work and leisure?
  • What is the correct balance?
  • Is there even a correct universal balance, or should each individual tailor the recommendations based on their unique circumstances?

The main issue I want to highlight is that in today’s society we work too much. The Dream of the last century they robots and automation would end the requirement for humans to work 40+ hour weeks didn’t materialise.

The real question then is : why?

As productivity has shot up, why don’t we work 10 hour weeks? Why does unemployment exist?

The main answer to this might be that we live in a global system that optimises for wealth, not for happiness or wisdom.

At my own company, I try and optimise for the following four things:

  1. Happiness
  2. Productivity
  3. Quality
  4. Growth

I see these four objectives as interlinked. People who are happy, engaged, free, will lead better lives as human beings and will naturally be more productive than their peers.

At Mäd, we only work four days a week for this very reason.

Productive people also tend to have more time to think about the quality of their work, and this leads us to be able to achieve higher quality results than other companies.

Growth, that tends to take care of itself. We don’t have sales and marketing people because we don’t need then. Our customers and our previous work are all the marketing and sales we need.

What I have noticed while comparing work distribution from the present day to around one hundred years ago is that before most jobs were highly productive, while now most of the workforce works in what are somewhat made up jobs.

In a sense, perhaps we are all working only ten or fifteen hours per week if we take the time to cut out all the bullshit of the modern work life. Meetings and reports, motivational seminars, and dreary staff appraisals.

So going back to our original question, what distinguishes between work and leisure?

If you’re sitting by the pool thinking or writing, like I am doing right now, is that work?

Well, that depends who you ask. If you had asked a Greek or Roman philosopher a couple of thousand years ago, they would have answered with a definitive ‘no’.

Philosophy was not thought of as work, and neither was self improvement. Work was relegated to manual labor or managing estates.

So perhaps we should think of a way to separate work and leisure in the 21st century.

Ricardo Semler makes a great point that the opposite of work is not leisure, but nothing.

That’s because leisure can take some effort, you need to plan and prepare, co-ordinate and attend and also make sure that you enjoy it.

Truly doing nothing but thinking about life and the world is something that few people stop to do in their lives.

Sitting in front of television shows does not count as doing nothing. It’s at best an amusement and at worst gross misuse of your time.

The balance between work, leisure, and nothing.

We should not use our weekends to rest just so we can work again at full pace on Monday.

My guess is that the best scenario is one where work is so enjoyable that it doesn’t feel like work in the traditional sense of the word. Something that doesn’t feel like a chore, but something that you actively want to do.

John Maxwell refers to this in his brilliant discussion regarding the five levels of leadership. Level two is where people follow you because they want to, not because they must (that’s level one).

So perhaps if we can achieve this attitude at work then the whole discussion regarding balance becomes pointless, because there is little to no distinction between work and leisure, only between doing and not doing.

Intuitively, this sounds like a very attractive proposition, however I’m not sure if it is actually feasible. Even jobs that are traditionally seen as ‘Dream Jobs’ have certain level of monotony and they won’t be engaging and interesting one hundred percent of the time.

I personally prefer to spread my work throughout the day and also the weekends, and work less on each individual day. Now starting a new business completely destroyed that idea for the first two months, and now things are becoming sane again, and in fact this is the first long dorm essay that I’ve written for over two months, which is quite uncharacteristic of me, because I’ve always held writing to be one of my priorities.

So if this ideal is partially reachable, then we should concentrate on doing nothing, at least some of the time. I consider doing nothing activities such as reading, thinking, recreational sports and exercise, sex, hanging out with friends, and so on. These are situations where there is (hopefully!) no pressure for a given result, but where you simply exist.

Regarding the balance between this nothing and something, well, that is very much a personal discovery, and you will find that it will vary from month to month and year to year.

A litmus test might be this:

If you wake up in the morning and you don’t want to do ‘something’, then you have probably been working too hard.

Yes, there are going to be idiots. Even Marcus Aurelius had to remind himself that each day he would have to deal with them, but that is part of being human, and you are not going to run away from that. In fact, you should probably be thankful that these people exist.

Taking the Other Side (temporarily)

But what about work? Surely that’s important!
If you’ve got big hairy goals that you want to achieve, then you will probably have shit that just needs to get done, regardless of what the price is to your work-life balance.
This cavalier attitude is great, and if things work out well, then you may look back one day and think it was worth it, or you may look back and still think it wasn’t worth it.
The issue is that you only live in the present moment, that difficult concept to grasp, the now, which was just disappeared, and is never within grasp.
So the probably with sacrificing your life balance now for a future goal is that you may never get round to finding that balance, because guess what, there will always be a big hairy goal that you are striving for.
That is exactly many people’s lives are about, achieving awesome stuff. Once you hit your goal, don’t worry, you’ll find something even bigger to tackle.
Whether this is generally a healthy attitude or not, I’ve discussed elsewhere in my essays at length, and my conclusion was that it’s not a particularly great way to live, but also not the worse possible way.
So, if we accept that we are going to want to be above average, and we won’t accept my given wisdom that achieving big goals is what will give us a good life, then we must surrender to the fact that achieving big stuff will always be a part of our life.
So… make sure that you can do it while living a balance life!
Or…choose to live a life where the things you really want are the things that you already have, or that are easy to obtain.
Easier said than done.
Thanks for reading,
Emanuele.