Time on and time off

Nearly all the words I know about work presuppose there is a task to be done and a place to do it. Whatever else there is—the person who is supposed to do the work, for instance,—gets pushed to the margins and the focus on him or her gets blurry.

So “Time on” is addressing the work to be done because it needs to be done. “Time off” isn’t the same thing as doing the job, but the phrase still takes its meaning by reference to the job. When the job is central, “off” and “on” both refer to the relationship between the “worker’” and the job.

I’m not working anymore. How do I get time off?

work 1Of course, the fact that I am not “working” anymore doesn’t mean that there aren’t things I want to do. In fact, there are things I commit myself to accomplish and they highlight that task-focused center and they push my focus on myself to the blurry periphery. It’s a very familiar feeling and most of the time, I like it.


But part of the reason I like it is that I choose it. [1]

Next problem. This time, I, the worker, am in the center and the “job to be done” is at the periphery. I said, above, that I am “not working anymore.” That is true, but part of the reason for that is not all the parts of me work anymore. To save you a medical overview, let me just say that I can’t always be confident that I am going to be able to get up and move around, nor that I will remember how to run the video and soundboard in the auditorium, nor that I am going to remember everything I once knew about American foreign policy.

Those particular problems aren’t all that big for the Great Decisions course because those are programs and I can manage to get myself in gear for them. I collect myself and then there is the mild and familiar stress of presenting material and responding to questions. Most of my days aren’t like that and some days I get up with real deficits to consider. And that’s where my new plan comes in.

I start with me and choose the “jobs” that fit me best. [2] This involves a fundamental reorientation, so I’m not saying it is easy. I’m saying it is simple. Here’s the basic principle: every condition of mind or body matches really with some tasks and not with others. Choose the one it matches best.

All my working life took the opposite principle for granted. The work is there and needs Stressto be done—sometimes there is a deadline—and you need to do to yourself whatever you need to do to get it done. Solitude, alcohol, stimulants, brainstorming…whatever. So starting from the other end, “What job best fits what I have to give right now?” is a whole new thing. Sometimes I am frazzled and can’t focus on anything. That is the basic fact. But there is a collection of errands or chores to do that require virtually no focused thought. I can do them just as well when I am scattered as I can when I am cogent. So I choose those.

I’m lightheaded. My doctor prefers that I say that instead of saying that I have vertigo because he isn’s sure I do have vertigo. She and I do agree that there are some times that I can’t count on being able to stand up. I’m not sleepy; it’s just that my vertical orientation is being challenged. Is that a problem for me?  Nope. There’s a bunch of sitting down things that need to be done. I can manage to get myself carefully downstairs to the circle of chairs and sofas around the coffee pot, for instance, and talk to whoever else sits down there.

If I am depressed, I can do the things that have, in the past, pulled me out of the hole. If I on the upswing, being optimistic and full of energy, I can try to use it to help someone rather than for self-aggrandizement. If I’m feeling unusually pacific, I can do the things I have put off because they will lead to conflict. If I am understimulated and feel like a little tussle might be activating, I can pick an activity which takes “ready to rumble” as an entrance requirement. Those activities are the ones I routinely keep away from, but maybe on this particular day, it will be just the right thing.

The examples could go on and on and my examples will be different from yours. The point is this: if you start with what you are  able to do and match the job to yourself (rather than vice versa), you can arrive at a really satisfying match. It would be like arriving for work every day brimming with energy for just the things that day’s work will require of you. How likely is that? But if you start at the other end—not with the job, but with the self—it’s pretty likely.
So Why Work?

So why does there have to be any “work” at all?  Let me make the case for and against work 4tranquility by showing you this picture.  The case for: wouldn’t it be great to be able to be like this some part of every day?  The case against: wouldn’t it be awful to be like this all day every day?

I’m going to skip over the broadest answer to the question about work, which is a response to the question of what human beings are like in the most fundamental sense. [3] As a way of bypassing that, let me make a comment or two about why I need “work.”

I need to be doing the things that feed me and keep me healthy. I need, for example, to know who I am and I need to know that being who I am is OK. [4] I need to do the things that send back confirmatory signals. I need to do the things and be with the people who will confirm my identity and my acceptability. [5] So every day, I choose things to do that I approve of and that seem to me to reflect the kind of person I am.

That is my work. It is why I need to be doing something. Sitting around and letting my mind and my body get flabby and useless doesn’t meet the fundamental standards of what I need, so I don’t do them. Eating or reading too much “junk food” doesn’t meet the standards. Looking out for my own welfare only and not also for the welfare of those around me doesn’t meet the standards.

Now, of course, I myself don’t always meet the standards, but falling short of a clearly defined goal does give the kind of feedback that can help me on the next try. And the great value of choosing the best work you are capable of that day—a day defined to take account of whatever debilities you have that day—is that there is no day when you can not do your best.

And, with a little practice, you can learn to be proud of the smallest achievements if they are all you were capable of at the time.  Well…OK….with a lot of practice.

[1] In a sense. So I “choose” to be in charge the Foreign Policy Associations’s Great Decisions discussions. I like that. But then, one week I have to hassle a double scheduling of my room and the projector blows a fuse another week, and a few dissidents dominate the discussion on a third week. I don’t like any of those and I didn’t choose those particular experiences—except that, in a sense, I “chose” them when I “chose” to organize the program.
[2] So somebody is going to say, “So…why pick any jobs at all?” That’s a really good question and I have a really good answer—for me. I don’t have a good answer for anyone else, although I have suspicions that could be elaborated into a theory that applied to everyone equally.
[3] If I went that way, I would have to say that humans are inherently goal-oriented and then I would have to say what would count as a goal and then I’d have to write a lot of things I don’t know anything about.
[4] That’s the plainest version I have ever come up with of Putney and Putney’s formulation (in The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in Self and Society) that we seek “an accurate and acceptable self-image” and that we seek to expand them through our actions and our associations.  There are theological implications that could be drawn from the language I am using here, but I think they are superficial.
[5] That does include, by the way, people who think I did something wrong and that I have the strength to be told that and the energy to starting doing it right.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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