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Don't tell me what to do
Legislation introducing a thirty-hour workweek (five, six-hour workdays) passed in the U.S. Senate with a vote of 53 to 30.
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Later that same year, the bill died in the House of Representatives. 1
I don't know about you, but I was shocked to learn that we were closer to condensing our work weeks in the early 1930s than we seem now.
I can't help but feel a little frustrated, imagining what our country would look like, what the world would look like, if that bill hadn't been derailed in the House and actually ended up on FDR's desk to sign into law.
I was recently getting coffee with a friend. She's a successful video producer, independent filmmaker, and she was giving me some tips for my fledgling video production work.
After we finished coffee, we discussed what else we had going on for the workday. She mentioned she likes to end her days a little bit earlier than what is "conventional."
She said, "Ya know, there's actually research now that shows we're more productive and creative when we work less, give ourselves more time to rest."
While I acknowledged that was probably true, I told her, "I don't even care if that's true. For some reason, hearing or reading about something like that relieves me. I'm down to believe that blindly."
Feel free to tell me I'm wrong, but I believe we all feel some relief or validation when we hear or read a headline that suggests "we actually get more done in less time."
And we don't feel relief or validation because we're all looking for ways to hack our productivity.
It's because we feel out of balance. We "work" too much. Period.
For some reason, it never feels like there's enough time. Days and weeks escape us. Always.
Headlines about the success of 4-Day Work Week trials in the U.K., or research suggesting that dedicated rest and leisure boosts creativity and divergent thinking, or learning about the routines and rituals of some of the most prolific artists, authors, whomever in history only working for 3-4 hours per day, I don't think all that triggers a desire for greater productivity.
Instead, being presented with all that information triggers our hunger for more real flexibility.
Something core to our humanity.
Studies show that more so than ever, people are looking for work with purpose. Yes, that might be true, but we're asking these questions in isolation.
How would survey respondents answer, "Do you want your work to have a purpose? Or do you want more free time to spend with your family, start an exercise routine, or travel?"
Is it necessarily work with purpose we want? Or, more purpose? And does that purpose have to be found through "work," or could it be found through a hobby, time with family and friends, or whatever else.
Is it presumptuous, arrogant even, to suggest that employers have an opportunity now to help you find your purpose? Holy heck, we packaged and sold the American Dream, and now in this age of "purpose-driven business," will we try to package and sell Americans their dreams?
I was first attracted to the idea of entrepreneurship because of two reasons:
1) I couldn't put my finger on some defined career path like some of my peers (doctor, lawyer, etc.)
2) I thought being an entrepreneur would mean I could decide for myself what I did, when, where, and why.
The irony of entrepreneurship, however, is that especially early on, you're seemingly more controlled by a "why" you might not primarily value (e.g., money) than you otherwise would be.
However, in large part, this has been true. I've worked a lot, worked my ass off, and stressed plenty, but at least my expectations weren't too far off. I've been able to do all that on my "own terms."
I believe this is why entrepreneurship has appealed to many others, too. "I want to be my own boss!"
However, the wrong conclusion is that autonomy, flexibility, independence, and freedom must be earned. Or, those are things that some people deserve, and others don't.
I remember noticing this dynamic in the digital marketing agency I worked for after leaving college.
There was a sense that what was acceptable for me in managing my day-to-day routine was not the same as what was acceptable for someone "beneath me" in the business hierarchy. If I was going to the gym in the middle of the day or getting coffee with a friend in the afternoon, it was for the sake of some productivity or networking gain.
If someone "lower" than me on the organizational totem pole was "offline" during conventional business hours, they were slacking off or stealing company time.
This paranoia and double standard had my boss demand everyone in the company (not me!) install time-tracking software on their computer. So, if we really wanted to (I was never going to), we could review the tape of precisely what they were doing all day.
And for some reason, we couldn't figure out why organizational turnover was so damn high…
What's grossly misunderstood in this consideration of workplace flexibility, autonomy, and freedom, is that employees of any kind or level are (most likely) not seeking the freedom of not doing a job, but rather, just latitude in how, how long, maybe where, and exactly when it's done.
They're seeking and desiring more balance. Not hoping to abdicate all responsibility.
None of us think that's a recipe for a meaningful and healthy existence.
My wife, an immigration attorney, wouldn't ask for the freedom to decide whether or not she did her job that week at all…that would put people's lives at risk. Individuals with young families who greatly depend on them might get deported because a deadline was missed, an argument wasn't adequately prepared, or evidence wasn't filed.
And believe it or not, my wife actually gives a shit about that. She cares about what she does and the clients she serves.
She's also a human being.
We have a toddler who she loves watching grow, play, and laugh (and another on the way). She gets tired. She's subject to burnout and overwhelm, just like everyone else. Oh, and, as well as being very serious and passionate about our work, we enjoy spending time together.
She and the millions of other workforce members are not asking to become members of the aristocracy. She and the millions of other workforce members are asking to be treated with a little more humanity.
What seems to be thought but not said is that some people believe that if given a 4-Day Work Week, extra PTO, and shorter workdays, they'd use time "productively" and "restoratively." They'd pursue more diverse interests and hobbies, maybe volunteer in their community, get involved politically, or spend critically valuable quality time with their children, friends, and family.
But other people? If they were given the same, all that extra time would be wasted.
And even if that were true, is that really for us to decide? Is the justification for keeping work weeks longer, limiting PTO, offering no federal paid maternity or paternity leave, saving people from themselves?
I don't know about you, but I don't care. That's not my business, anyways. What you choose to do with your autonomy is what you choose to do. That's the whole point of autonomy.
If I didn't have to make a cent, would I still do what I'm doing? Would I write, research, podcast, and produce videos?
Yeah. Of course.
There may be some things I'd do differently. Perhaps I'd turn Fridays into a half day. Take a few more days off here or there. Maybe my wife and I would have felt comfortable enough to volunteer during the workweek at our son's daycare for his last splash day of the summer.
Regardless of what changes to our national consciousness (and policy) around the workweek, I'd still show up in your email inbox every Monday.
In fact, with some financial pressure relieved, I imagine there would be ways I would take greater creative risk than I do now. What more bold, ambitious, and creative projects might I consider without the pressure of necessary financial payoff?
I'm not asking much, just a little more flexibility.
I'm not asking much, just a little more humanity.
I'm not asking for much, just don't tell me what to do.
This bill was expected to pass in the House and it was publicly supported by the Secretary of Labor. Business groups were terrified and mobilized opposition. FDR, a first-year President, was said to have used that fear to negotiate banning child-labor, setting a minimum wage, and compromising to secure a 40-hour work week. Maybe that's how "progress" goes?