I had a lot on my plate. I knew it every 9 a.m., already facing three different screens for three different jobs. I knew it when I was always finishing drafts or editing DP blast photos during in-person classes. I knew it when both colleagues and close friends prefaced every text with, “No pressure, I know you’re busy!!” Of course, I never felt like I was doing enough, let alone too much.
During my most formative years, I watched my feminist idols shatter glass ceilings and top 30 under 30s; I believed that the disillusionment and frustration I was feeling as a young woman in a capitalist-patriarchal society could be solved by having a job I liked, by thriving in the workplace.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t gain a sense of reward when I feel overworked. Sometimes I think it’s not even my professional successes that make me feel good. It’s busyness.
But this chronic impulse to equate productivity with self-worth is in no way exclusive to women. An entire industry now exists to serve people hungry for self-optimization; learning how to be more appealing to employers, either through books or TED Talks or online courses, is deemed an admirable undertaking.
The 9-5 was pushed into obsolescence, rightfully dismissed as soul-sucking. Young workers wanted more than wasting away in a cubicle —reporter Anne Helen Petersen noted in Buzzfeed News that millennials (and now Gen Z) feel pressed to find employment that reflects well on their parents, on a cool company their peers find impressive, doing work they feel passionate about.
Because it’s very rare to find a job that ticks off all three (along with other important criteria, like pay), many are driven to pursue multiple projects simultaneously: something we can’t do in the confines of a stringent eight-hour workday. Flexitime — which snaked its way into our offices with the promise of finally owning our time — seemed like the answer to the broken work culture.
And yet, I hesitate to call flexitime any better. Jenny Odell argued in her book How to Do Nothing that when we live in a world that keeps us financially insecure and determines our value from our productivity, every minute becomes potentially monetizable. Flexitime does allow us more space for other things, but we are incentivized, in some cases even required, to spend it on more work. Being able to own our time is, frankly, an illusion.
It’s also absolutely possible to find meaning in work. But I’ve also found so much meaning, contribution and growth in things outside my career, and I would hate to forget that in the perpetual busyness of my everyday life.
In fact, as Jia Tolentino observed in Trick Mirror, it seems the worse things get, the more compelled we are to self-optimize. When I feel a level of exhaustion more spectacular than usual, instead of interrogating the systems that led me here, I often think there must be something wrong with the way I write to-do lists or streamline my tasks. And so in moments when I’m not working, I’m learning how to work better, so I can work more.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t gain a sense of reward when I feel overworked. Sometimes I think it’s not even my professional successes that make me feel good, although they are a big part. It’s busyness. If I’m busy then that means I’m moving forward. It means I’m passionate about what I do. It means I’m being useful, and when I live in a world that continues to fall apart, I feel like it’s the least I could do.
This feeling bleeds into my supposed periods of rest as well. Hobbies I couldn’t quantify by way of Goodreads or Letterboxd or Instagram likes had no place in my days off. Rest is a new playing field where more activities are permitted so long as they’re still in service of this myth of busyness and productivity. In short, rest rarely entails rest; actual rest, for many of us, will never feel guilt-free or rewarding.
Perhaps this persists because it’s so easy to feel worthless when I’m not working. Capitalist rhetoric presents us with no other way to survive — you must work hard to succeed, et cetera — and very few other methods to seek meaning and purpose. I have to achieve, to leave some kind of indelible impact, so I can justify why I’m alive.
I realize now, however, that the moments that do make me feel alive are very often small, and very often outside the office. I look back more fondly at pre-pandemic coffee dates with friends, at late-night Uno matches when we all decide to ignore our papers, just for a bit.
Of course I’m proud of the work I’ve done. I’m extremely fortunate to even have jobs — one of which is writing, which I have always loved and will continue to love. It’s also absolutely possible to find meaning in work — humans, after all, are predisposed to crave contribution and growth. But I’ve also found so much meaning, contribution and growth in things outside my career, and I would hate to forget that in the perpetual busyness of my everyday life.
I recall an anecdote from Odell’s How to Do Nothing: “My dad said that leaving the confined context of a job made him understand himself not in relation to that world, but just to the world, and forever after that, things that happened at work only seemed like one small part of something larger.”
I’ve been trying to do the same, and part of it is knowing the difference between goals I want to accomplish and goals I think would make me feel accomplished.
For years the only depiction of feminism I was exposed to was women empowerment; by which I mean women achieving capitalist success. I believed this was what feminism was for: being literal girlbosses, winning the system rather than liberating ourselves from it. But as philosopher Simone de Beauvoir pointed out in The Second Sex, work in a capitalist system will never be liberating.
Sometimes the itch is still there: when people ask me about my job and I have to extensively introduce the company, I wince at the perceived smallness of what I do. After all, having the privilege to work less and opt out of an inherently exploitative system doesn’t mean that the system itself no longer exists. But at the end of the day, it is never in my — or anyone’s — best interest to dedicate my life to something that only cares about profit. The fact that we’re beginning to realize this feels monumental.