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You Don't Know Slack

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Working hard or hardly working? In defense of punching out at 4:59.

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"Welcome to the working week. I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you."
-Elvis Costello

Working hard or hardly working? Books like Timothy Ferriss' The 4-Hour Workweek have captured the zeitgeist, and rocketed to the top of best-seller lists. It's plain we're a nation craving fewer hours on the job. But the impetus to laze is nothing new.

The American slacker has already come a long way. During the Industrial Revolution, electric lights made it possible to work long after the sun had set, and factory bosses extracted as much as 80-hour weeks from workers. A great relief came in 1874, when Massachusetts passed the nation's first ten-hour work day law. Then, in 1926, Henry Ford scored one for slackers by adopting a five-day work week. The Great Depression saw a drastic reduction in work, and even led to discussion of a federally mandated thirty-hour work week. Between 1900 and 1950, the number of hours the average American worked fell almost 25%.

Futurist Herman Kahn predicted that, by 1976, Americans would work four-day weeks, and enjoy 13 weeks of vacation. But the futurist would have made a better historian. According to Boston College economist Juliet Schor, Americans are now the "standout workaholic nation," working a full 12% more than they did in 1973. Compared to the untold weeks of vacation that Europeans enjoy, Americans on average get only four. The stars and stripes boasts a formidable Gross Domestic Product as a result, but what about its Gross National Happiness? According to researchers at Britain's University of Leicester, the US comes in at 23, behind countries like Switzerland, Austria and Iceland.

If you're anxious to pin the inverse relationship between wealth and malaise on something, consider making technology the fall guy. Although counterintuitive, history shows how technology that promises less work often creates more. The advent of light bulbs in the Eighteenth Century facilitated those grueling 16-hour shifts in factories, much like Blackberries blur the line between on the clock and off.

According to Basex Inc., a research firm, the time spent responding to the array of emails, IMs and text messages costs the US economy close to $650 billion. What's a slacker to do when toys that promise convenience actually subvert the struggle for time off?

The question explains why The 4-Hour Workweek is so critical of digital behavior. Ferriss knows that high productivity is paramount to successful slacking, and advocates an end to multi-tasking and non-critical interruption (including email). He wisely evokes Parkinsons' Law -- activities expand to fill the allotted time – to illustrate the wonders of tighter deadlines. If you want to be a better slacker, use technology, but only to the extent that it actually helps.

Before the Industrial Revolution, farmers inherently benefited from Parkinson's Law. They worked hard, but sunlight and seasons set natural limitations on their work. And that's exactly the lifestyle to which Ferriss believes the new American slacker aspires. Create your own harvest, and give yourself time to enjoy it.

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