By John Chandler
Other than sleep, humans spend more time on work than any other activity. In the United States, a Protestant work ethic land where work is something akin to religion, we are even willing to get less sleep in order to do more work. Give us 4G, broadband, an iPhone and Red Bull, and maybe we can just do without sleep altogether and work 24/7!
Craig Lambert, however, says that much of that work isn’t in service to the job that pays us for it. His recent book is called Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. It serves to give shape to the nagging sense of why you feel so busy all the time: because your life is filled with labor you once paid others to do.
Pump your own gas. Book your own travel. Self-checkout in the grocery line. WebMD (Lord, have mercy!) your own diagnoses. Coordinate your kids’ play-dates. North Americans experience a lack of leisure because we DIY on an unprecedented level. With widespread Internet access and the resultant democratization of expertise, we are now capable of doing all sorts of things we used to pay other people to do for us.
Much of this seems, to me, like not-bad news. I used to resent that I had to pay others to do things I now can do for myself, like book a flight.
But Lambert does a good job at highlighting the dark side of shadow work. In his view, shadow work focuses our time and value more onto screens and less onto other people. When we are interacting with computers at all hours of day and night and less with people at reasonable hours, there are more pernicious social costs. In the words of MIT professor Sherry Turkle, it makes us “alone together,” and we “expect more of technology and less of each other.” Could it be that shadow work is the great disrupter of our hopes for deep community, meaningful relationships, human connection?
Some, like Timothy Ferriss’ immensely popular “4-Hour Workweek” devotees, simply suggest eliminating shadow work by hiring a digital personal assistant to handle it for you. At pennies on the dollar, Ferriss counsels contracting with someone in Indonesia to wait on the phone with your cable company. But doesn’t this simply offshore First-World problems?
A self-service ethos can be empowering and efficient. It can also consume your waking hours and choke out life in the weeds of minutia. If time always seems to be slipping away, you may want to consider reducing the amount of shadow work you do. Hire someone, for heaven’s sake, and enjoy time with the people you care about.