Back at work (which for me, as for many, means moving the rejected Quality Street off the kitchen table), I was halted by a Twitter post I spotted while flicking between tabs. “Productivity culture is a scam,” it read. It is a message that has gathered momentum over the past year of enforced inactivity, furlough, kurzarbeit (if you are in Germany) and other expedients, the effects of which have been to shift work from front and centre, giving some of us space to wonder whether it is all it is cracked up to be.
We are a world away from the 15-hour week Keynes predicted, but employers are scrambling to devise new working models, individuals are evaluating their commitment to uncertain and unreasonably demanding career trajectories and the campaign for a safer, saner four-day week is gaining traction. When we are forced into existential questioning, the worth of work is put under the microscope: the old deathbed chestnut feels less abstract.
Recently, Elle Hunt’s lovely article describing the revelation that she used work as a self-soothing coping mechanism set off an eerie chime of recognition. I would never claim to work hard – all my work takes place seated, for a start – but I work long hours for no particularly good reason. My last holiday was in spring 2019: “And it was four days,” I found myself telling people with an unedifying blend of pride and self-pity, wearing my eyestrain as a badge of honour, dabbing the scent of burning martyr behind my ears.
Time to break free. Over Christmas, I vowed, I would rest, read fat books and have proper conversations with my sons. This is how it went.
Day 1: I composed a self-righteous out-of-office message and closed my laptop. After a bracing walk, I lay on the sofa under the electric blanket, ignoring Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light in favour of an oddly compelling Australian cookery show. “Holidays are amazing!” I told my husband gleefully. “I’ve been telling you that for years,” he said. He took two last year on which I refused to join him. “Another episode?” “Absolutely.”
Day 2: Unmoored from routine, I wandered into the basement, where my younger son was playing something. “Hello,” I said. “How are you?” “Fine,” he said, eyes on the screen. “Do you fancy something nice for lunch? I could cook?” “Nah.” Thwarted, I returned to the sofa and Twitter, which I consult one million times daily to monitor my professional nemeses’ superior achievements and the terrible state of everything. Without my illusory sense of professional purpose, both are starkly apparent.
Day 3: Maddened by the absence of self-imposed key performance indicators, I devised a “family geography challenge”, printing off many maps. Everyone, including me, ignored them. I had read three pages of Mantel and watched approximately 67 hours of Australians making gnocchi. My mood was in freefall: we went for a stroll and I worked myself up into a fury at my husband’s habit of walking half a pace ahead of me.
Day 4: I couldn’t be bothered to get up and listlessly doomscroll for hours. There were so many things to be angry and despairing about when I was not distracted by colour-coded spreadsheets that by midday I was slumped by the washing machine (the only place I am sure not to start a fight), near-catatonic with rage-gloom, whispering: “I hate everything.”
At this point, I allowed myself to do some work. The effect was instantaneous: seated at my desk, editing something absolutely unnecessary, I felt a calm sense of purpose for the first time in days.
I am sure this was work cold turkey – a phase I could and should have white-knuckled through before being reborn as a person with a hinterland, self-worth derived from something other than a to-do list and the ability not to become enraged by another person’s sneeze style. I may never be able to confirm this, however, because there is no way I can go through that again. I am starting to fear I am the person who, on their deathbed, will wish they had spent more time in the office. Mmm, the office.