To Work Better, Work Less

In his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness,” the British philosopher Bertrand Russell corrects this idea, writing, “A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work.” Rather, “the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”

That is to say happiness is ultimately not found in late nights spent at work, but in finding a way to work less, even if that means buying fewer things or recalibrating your perspective such that having free time no longer suggests moral shortcomings.

Economists have, for quite a long time, been writing about how simple it would be for us to scale back our workdays as our technologies become more efficient. Adam Smith’s “pin theory” says that if it usually takes workers eight hours a day to make a set number of pins, then an invention that doubles or triples the speed of pin production should proportionally decrease the amount of time workers spend on the job. By that theory, we should, as the great British economist John Maynard Keynes hypothesized in his "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren," be working less. Maybe we can't achieve the the 15-hour workweeks that he proposed, but fewer hours would be welcome nonetheless. 

In certain trades, such as law, it makes sense to work more than necessary, because fees are assessed hourly rather than as lump sums. This, of course, hurts the client, who ends up paying for non-productive work, but in the short-term it is a coup for the law firm. Also, although overwork leads to sharply decreased work efficiency (which costs American companies between $450 and $550 billion annually in lost productivity) and heightened stress and sickness, it is still cheaper to hire one employee to work 80 hours per week than it is to hire two employees to work 40 hours per week.

Some companies have begun to diverge from this thinking, though, taking after the “work less, work better” philosophy. The Michigan-based software company Menlo Innovations looks down on employees who clock in more than 40 hours per week, seeing overwork not as a sign of dedication but as a marker of inefficiency. Working overtime has even led to a few layoffs at the company, according to Brigid Schulte, the author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.Finally, there is also the simple reason for perpetuating overwork: cultural inertia. Americans have worked long hours in the past, so regardless of new technologies or jumps in efficiencies, we continue working the same number of hours, even if doing so has no discernible effect, or even a negative effect, on productivity. On top of that, everyone else is already stuck in their ways: being the first person in the office who starts cutting back on work time "for the sake of productivity" without fearing repercussion would require courage and a bit of naiveté.

Many people are still stuck on the fundamental importance of work compared to free time: the structure it gives, the purpose it affords, the morality it signifies. But what if we viewed leisure time not as goofing off, but as necessary time for reflecting, for inspiring creativity, and for saving up brainpower and energy for future work?

Although it has its share of economic problems, France has less than nine percent of its employees working “very long hours.” (By contrast, 11 percent of Americans work “very long hours,” and Turkey has the largest proportion: 43 percent of its workers do so.) France also has one of the world’s best work-life balances. Working too much is at best, pointless, and at worst, actively harmful. Overwork dictates our physical health, psychological health, and our time with family, and often it is rooted in our own desire to ennoble the act of working, to feel productive (even if we’re not being productive), and to be able to tell other people, “I’m busy,” as a means of social prestige.

It took serious work for modern Paris to be created. Baron Haussmann was hated by a great number of Parisians for his vision of a more efficient Paris, and there was serious backlash throughout his 17-year project, as recounted in Patrice de Moncan’s Le Paris d’Haussmann. He did not, however, take any extended breaks during the whole project, as Napoleon III continued to push him to finish as quickly as possible. In early 1870, he finished the Place de l’Opéra and was in the process of starting construction on the national opera building itself.

But after Napoleon III appointed Émile Ollivier, a fierce critic of Haussmann, as prime minister, the emperor became swayed by Haussmann’s opponents and relieved him of his duties. Haussmann floundered about, spending time abroad and staying out of the public spotlight until the late 1870s, when he came back to Paris to re-enter politics. A year before his return, the opera had been finished.

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Cody C. Delistraty is a writer and historian based in Paris. He has worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, UNESCO, and NBC News.

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