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Are we prisoners of our tedious working habits?

Last updated on: May 14, 2013 12:17 IST

Are we prisoners of our tedious working habits?

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Mitali Saran

Work lends purpose to life, and contributes to an economic machine that we benefit from-but only up to a point, says Mitali Saran.

What we think of as "normal" is constantly evolving. Somewhere along the line, it became normal for people to prioritise work at the expense of everything else.

It became normal to suffer a chronic shortage of sleep because of long work hours and conference calls scheduled in other time zones.

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Image: A share trader reacts at the German DAX stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany.
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At some point, people accepted that it is normal to sit in an office chair for eight hours a day.

We decided that careers are more important than relationships. We don't think there's anything odd about paying with our health for money, and then using the money to tend to our health.

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"It's work," is a non-negotiable reason to spend dinner texting under the table, skip family events, and, most of all, to avoid the difficult work of asking uncomfortable questions in the general vicinity of "Who am I, what am I doing here, and what does it all mean?".

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Work lends purpose to life, and contributes to an economic machine that we benefit from-but only up to a point.

At the end of the day here we are, marking time until we turn to dust.

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What the hell to do with all the long hours that are in fact so short? Evolving a system of goal posts and rewards helps to enthuse people to do things.

Except that somewhere along the way, we've lost sight of the point. The point is to make life more, not less, enjoyable.

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Those of us who don't ask questions will join the rat race and stay there.

The rest of us will be known as "losers", and spend our lives being made to feel bad for not matching the parameters defined as "success".

If we continue not to feel bad about it, we will simply be ignored.

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Someone I know joined a company known for creativity, innovation and fantastic products.

It was a plum job with immense prestige and great pay.

Three years later he put in his papers; he never got more than four hours of sleep, spent vast amounts of time on airplanes, and had a boss from hell.

He absolutely hated his plum job.

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I have another friend who seems to have found a nice balance between a satisfying work life and a creative, social, love-filled personal life.

He fits in overseeing nine offices of a company he founded, spread over several countries, with being a fantastic father to his children, a wonderful husband to his wife, and a rock solid friend to his friends.

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He finds pleasure in both work and his personal life, and has the energy and the preternatural cheeriness to handle the stresses and pitfalls. He's happy.

But this man is unusual. Most of us have limited energy, limited emotional bandwidth, and limited capacity for doing something difficult over a long period of time.

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The majority of average people push themselves beyond what is reasonable for them, in an attempt to emulate the outliers.

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For women, this means the extra demands of bearing children and, despite a few exceptions where men pitch in, also raising them.

In most countries women also expect themselves to have spotless houses, abundant tables, and maintain ties with extended families.

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This doesn't sound like accomplishment or achievement to me - it sounds like a nightmare, or a form of oppression.

It sounds like the surrender of calm and contentment, the surrender of a form of time that is vastly underrated: free time.

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This doesn't apply to people who find hyperactivity to be genuinely pleasurable.

I'm talking about those who experience their full and busy lives as a constant pressure to perform in ways that may not have anything to do with what they would have enjoyed doing.

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Those who find that their bodies are breaking down under the stress of sedentary or overactive lives, but cannot give up the carrots of social approval for the benefit of good health.

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Those who can't remember what sex or love is like. Those who wake up at the end of their lives thinking: I would have liked to do something else.

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Technology has physically liberated us from the office but at the same time put us on a longer, more insistent leash of ringtones and beeps.

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A palliative nurse named Bronnie Ware wrote a book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, based on her conversations with people at the end of their lives.

The two most common regrets were: 1) I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me; and 2) I wish I hadn't worked so hard.

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Almost everyone has to work. Everyone has to die. Ask the questions, answer them honestly, and make your choices. Maybe, at some point, happiness will be normal.

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Stress-related illnesses, such as heart diseases, diabetes and accelerated ageing, are now some of the biggest health issues in workplaces.

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People are facing increasing stress not only in office, but also while commuting.

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Passengers wait at a check-in counter at Vienna airport in Austria.

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A traveller checks in at a Lufthansa automated machine at Frankfurt's Airport in Germany.

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Commuters struggle through heavy rain and strong winds across London Bridge to the city of London in United Kingdom.

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Passengers walk at the Fiumicino International airport in Rome, Italy.

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Brokers react while trading at a stock brokerage firm in Mumbai.

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Commuters stand on a Metro Rail bus in North Hollywood, California, United States.

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Hundreds of commuters climb the stairs of a train station in Manila, the Philippines.

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Commuters crowd into the Metro at Chatelet station in Paris, France.

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Commuters leave the city financial district as they cross London Bridge in central London.

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