The curse of manic busy-ness: A case for working less

Varad Patankar
4 min readApr 13, 2021

“What is your opinion on work-life balance?” is a ubiquitous interview question where candidates are supposed to philosophize and churn out premeditated poetic answers. In reality, we can’t wait to dash off from the workplace. Getting through the weekdays to fall into the clasps of weekends becomes the supreme motto. Was it always like this?

Sure, if we travel 200 years back in time, it will seem that our life is a cakewalk. During the industrial revolution, the average worker slogged for 14 hours a day. But we have been around for close to 300,000 years. (Seriously? Is this guy comparing our sophisticated generation to savages?) To understand the life of foragers, British Anthropologist James Suzman has been documenting the life of the Ju/’hoansi tribe of the north western Kalahari for three decades. In his words,

“The Ju/’hoansi were revealed to be well-fed, content and longer-lived than people in many agricultural societies, and by rarely having to work more than 15 hours per week had plenty of time and energy to devote to leisure.”

It has been estimated that hunter-gatherers on average hunted for two and a half days. The rest of their time was devoted to leisure, socializing, rituals etc. “This seems like unemployment to me.”, the modern man would quip. But before scoffing, we must realise that these same people pondered over the mysteries of the cosmos & observed nature in their free time, setting up the base for modern civilization.

With the transition from foraging to agriculture, work hours started increasing and peaked during the industrial revolution. Adam Smith the father of Economics praised the “very pretty machines” that would augment labor hours. Bertrand Russell, the British polymath & Nobel Laureate, rhapsodized about an automated world in the future.

“The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world.”

Bertrand Russell

Despite everything, the average Indian today works for 55 hours a week. Leisure is a commodity that is to be consumed on weekends. Mental illnesses torment the population. Contemplating on meaning and purpose of life is an activity performed at workplaces and business schools. LinkedIn is awash with the “Hustler” archetype. The pandemic razed a new onslaught on idleness. Self-help productivity gurus and influencers were busy seducing people with the merits of a “productive” schedule. Ed-tech platforms were quick to capitalize on the new free time that people had on their hands. LinkedIn was inundated with people posting learning certificates.

From a neuroscientific perspective, the fundamental structure of our brains evolved 1,500,000 years ago when the bulk of our time was devoted to doing nothing. Boredom allowed our ancestors to question and understand nature. Had they been hustling around, foraging and hunting animals needlessly, maybe the base for today’s modern civilization wouldn’t have been built. Subjecting our cognition to so much data and stimulation is cognitively inefficient!

“Extreme busyness is a symptom of deficient vitality, and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.”

Robert Louis Stevenson

It is often said that nature is the best teacher. Puny ants have a lot to teach us when it comes to idleness. Ants live in complex social societies with rigid hierarchical structures (much like ours). Research on this industrious species revealed a remarkable result. Ant colonies increase their efficiency by allowing ants to take time off! At any point in time, close to 80 % of the ants are not doing anything!

While all hands on deck would increase the resource acquisition of the colony, it would also lead to massive energy expenditure. How fascinating that such a small insect optimizes its resource acquisition and energy expenditure!

It is time that we pause and rethink work-life balance. Not just because our civilization is collectively depressed and increased leisure would uplift our souls, but because our current approach to work might be decimating the planet. There is a strong correlation between how much work we collectively do and the energy footprint. Energy footprint in turn affects how much resources we consume. It is heartening that certain countries have started experimenting with fringe ideas such as 4 day work week and Universal Basic Income. Hopefully, the entire world catches up and mind-numbing level of busyness no longer stays a glorified ideal.

Originally published at http://meditationsofavoyager.wordpress.com on April 13, 2021.

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Varad Patankar

Chemical Engineer from UDCT Mumbai, presently pursuing an MBA from the Indian School of Business.