Burnout is just one symptom of a larger phenomenon I call Total Work, the 500-year-plus-old process by which human beings were slowly transformed into Workers and nothing else as more and more aspects of life were transformed into work.
Today Total Work manifests itself in all of the following forms:
- “time famine,” the belief that there’s never enough time;
- painful restlessness (acedia), the inability to concentrate and keep what we care about in focus;
- “taskification,” the belief that life just consists of a sea of tasks to be completed;
- “slogginess,” the feeling that life is an endless grind defined by one sprint after another;
- naive and fruitless productivity hacking, the attempt to use hacks to get more done;
- and, at the end of the line, burnout.
Today I elaborate upon “slogginess,” a neologism I coined, the root word, of course, being “slog.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb, to slog, means “[t]o hit or strike hard; to drive with blows. Also figurative, to assail violently.” Observe also: “To walk heavily or doggedly.” And finally: “To deal heavy blows, to work hard (at something), to labour away, etc.” See how slog migrates from raw physical force exerted on someone to the application of physical force to something. (No etymology is available, but one hunch could be that the word is related to slug, as in “to slug someone.”) See also how slogging, as it comes to us today, connotes an activity that is forceful, hard, heavy, dogged, almost ruthless–and, in the case of labor, unceasing, consistent, and persistent.
For some conversation partners I speak with, life itself, owing to Total Work, is a slog. Thus, slogginess refers to the condition of persistently laboring away such that life itself, in the metaphysical sense, seems as if it’s nothing more than this.
The vocabulary of certain conversation partners, as well as ours, reveals the curse of Total Work. “Grind,” “blur,” “whir,” “sprint after sprint,” “inundation,” “being buried alive,” “keeping all the plates spinning,” and so on all suggest that (a) life is an endless task and that (b) life’s endless tasks have (c) exceeded their capacities to be readily fulfilled partially but not exclusively because of (d) the sense of time famine for (e) the one who takes himself to be a Worker, that is, who takes himself to be charged Sisyphusianly with working on the world.
At the root of the matter is the thought: “I am a Worker, and the reason I am here is to get things done.”
But then the question could arise: “Who, ultimately, is the one beyond the thought, ‘I am a Worker, and I am here to get things done,’ the thought that comes and goes? Who is that one, the one continually observing both the Worker and the Worker’s agency?”
I’d like to know him.