Workaholism, Hedonism, and balance

The things we do should be of some benefit, or else why do them? We can classify the benefits as things that pay off later, or things that pay off at the present moment.

scales photo: Imbalanced Scales imbalanced-scales.jpgThings we ought to do lead to some benefits later, even though we don’t necessarily have to do them. For instance, we ought to save money for retirement but many people live happy, productive lives without doing so. Eventually, this may come back to bite them but that certainly doesn’t have to be the case. For most of us, these things are essentially forms of work that are not so enjoyable or pleasurable. Taken to the extreme, engaging solely in things we ought or have to do leads to workaholism.

Things we like to do are usually those things that we do for our own pleasure and happiness right now. In a perfect world, we like to do the same things we ought to do (like the person that actually enjoys eating sensible meals and running 60 minutes a day). In an imperfectly selfish world, we practice extreme hedonism, engaging in actions we enjoy at every given moment to the detriment of anything that we ought or have to do to enjoy life later. Quoting from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica (online here):

The earliest and the most extreme type of hedonism is that of the Cyrenaic School as stated by Aristippus, who argued that the only good for man is the sentient pleasure of the moment. Since (following Protagoras) knowledge is solely of momentary sensations, it is useless to try, as Socrates recommended, to make calculations as to future pleasures, and to balance present enjoyment with disagreeable consequences. The true art of life is to crowd as much enjoyment as possible into every moment.

Both workaholism and hedonism can be characterized as over-indulgences at one pole or the other. In both cases, one chooses to do things that satisfy one part of our life while ignoring the other part, whether that is all work and no play or all play and no work. For most of us, this clearly does not lead to lifelong feelings of satisfaction and contentment, nor does it typically lead to enjoyable and responsible lives for friends and family, particularly those that depend on us.

Presumably, one’s life should reflect a certain degree of balance between the pursuit of momentary pleasure and the pursuit of future gains. Such is the balance of life. Sometimes, responsibilities and discipline dictate that we must spend time doing things that we have or ought to do, but sometimes we should do things that we want to do. The trick is not spending too much time with one over the other.

What we want to accomplish here is a roadmap to guide our pursuit of both short- and long-term benefits, with an eye toward finding a way to make at least part of our ought to do list as enjoyable as possible.

What are “Things to do”?

We all have things that we need to do in our lives, both in the very short term (“What things do I need to do right now?) and the very long term (“What things do we need to do before we die?”) .The idea behind this blog is to answer the question: What are these things to do and how do they shape our lives? More practically, how can I change my relationship between my things to do and my life so that this life can be more productive (whatever that is), enjoyable, and fulfilling. Along the way, I will seek to address these and over 40 other questions regarding the way we affect and are affected by our things to do.

We can start with the first question: What are “Things to do”?

“Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do (2) Things we’ve got to do (3) Things we like doing. I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of the three reasons, things like reading books they don’t like because other people read them. Things you ought to do are things like doing one’s school work or being nice to people. Things one has got to do are things like dressing and undressing, or household shopping. Things one likes doing — but of course I don’t know what you like. Perhaps you’ll write and tell me one day.” (C. S. Lewis, in a letter to a young girl names “Sarah”, April 3, 1949)

Truth be told, I had written something very similar to this before Googling “Things I ‘ought to Do’ ” today and finding that Lewis expressed it very clearly nearly 3/4 of a century ago. Regardless, this is the first thing that needs to be addressed. Conceptually, a thing can be thought of as “that which can be touched, reached, or seen” (Heidegger, “What is a Thing?”) or, in a wider sense, as “every affair or transaction, something that is in this or that condition”, or occurrences and events (ibid). It is in this latter sense that we can discuss “things to do” as events or actions that we need to “do”. Each of us

But what does it mean to “do” a thing? To “do” something (according to Merriam Webster online) means to cause it to happen or to perform or execute it. Combining the two definitions, we can define a thing to do as “an event or action that one needs to perform or cause to happen“. Beyond our definition, the first factors to consider are the specific examination of each thing on our list: When should this thing be done? Even further, where did this thing come from? How important is this thing? Can we actually perform this thing? (I.E., do we have the knowledge, expertise, and resources? Is it legal, ethical, and moral? Is it possible for anyone to perform?) An examination of each thing independently leads to a better understanding of the events we are expected to perform and that we expect to perform in our lives.

But that is only the start of our exploration. As C. S. Lewis discusses above, we can further distinguish those events or actions that we ought to do from those that we have to do and from those that we want to do. It is this distinction that forms the second major factor in our relationship with our things to do. How do we balance our things to do between the three categories (ought, have, and want to do)? How should we balance these things? We can theorize that a productive and happy life is one in which we are able to perform everything that we want to do (assuming, of course, that it is doable), while not ignoring the things we must do and ought to do.

All of this assumes that we are able to identify the things on our list. Life is not always so clear and predictable that we can predict all of the things we will be called upon to do for the rest of our lives, or even the rest of this week. But a good start would be to list and enumerate all of our things to do, along with an assessment of their importance and timeliness. Don’t forget the routine things (cutting the grass, paying bills, etc.) along with the big, “one day I want to” type of things (save for retirement, go to Rome, finish my novel,  learn Swahili, etc.).

Over time, we will use this list to examine our relationship to our things to do and to seek ways to bring these things more in line with a happier, more fulfilling lifestyle. This includes filtering our relationships with other people and organizations in an attempt to manage their  impact on our things to do, finding time to finish those things that we believe to matter (including delegating as many of the things as possible to minimize the amount of time and attention we have to spend on them), and aligning the things we have to do because of our career with things that we want to do. In other words, making our careers match our interests to the greatest extent possible.

Needless to say, there is a lot of ground for someone to cover in trying to bring their things to do under control. So let’s get started!