Why do you work? Such a simple question borders on annoying, and yet so many people struggle to answer it completely for themselves. Many of my clients feel pushed to the brink. They can’t fit in a phone call to a friend, let alone a job hunt. They’re working too hard.
Craig Lambert, in his book Shadow Work, writes about the million ways we undertake work not only as employees but as consumers. When gas stations started making you pump your own gas, they created shadow work. When Ikea decided you should put together the table instead of them, again, shadow work. Lambert argues that it’s filling our day, but we don’t realize it.
In the workplace, we’re encountering a different kind of shadow work. One that caught my eye, that I believe is creeping into the corners of every workplace, is what Lambert calls emotional work. Bosses reward workers who can “fabricate states of feeling that put customers and coworkers in a positive mood,” he writes. So not only are you responsible for doing your job, you’re now on the hook for making others feel a certain way.
It’s enough to get you angry. But what do we do with this information?
We can’t control our workplace, but we can choose what and how we consume. Lambert points out that consumption takes time and energy. It takes time to buy and put together an Ikea table, probably all Saturday if you’re fighting crowds. Even the most pleasant experience, such as an upscale dinner, takes time. Ask the people waiting for their table at the restaurant that no longer takes reservations. If we buy less, we spare ourselves from the hidden work, and free ourselves up for more meaningful tasks, or for simply resting.
Here’s an exercise: Identify all the shadow work in your day. Keep a log, and jot down everything you do that’s shadowy, and see if you can reduce it in your life. It may just take you from overwhelmed to (just a tiny bit more) in control.