What I Talk About When I Talk About Otium, Part 1

I’m still figuring out what living my best life means. That said, I feel like I know enough to know that I’m not currently living it. That’s because tomorrow, like today, I will go to work and spend most of my day thinking or doing things only because someone pays me to.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot that I like and appreciate about my job, and I’m not always actively looking to quit. But, I’m pursuing otium, which is more than just a “tolerable” existence. To help, I’m writing down some thoughts about what living my best life and otium might look like in practice, so I can actually live it.

More, Less and None

When I think about what living my best life means, one helpful way to structure those thoughts is in terms of what I would like more, less and none of in my life (inspired by Jacoby Young and Seth Godin). The list below isn’t exhaustive, but is intended to cover the broad categories of things that I want.

Low Hanging Fruit

The first category of things that I want more, less or none of in my life are generally more easily described, measured or implemented (e.g., more free time to cook, exercise and see friends and family).

I might be able to satisfy some of these desires within the current structure and constraints of my life (and job), at least partially (e.g., by changing my schedule, changing my commute, or by using my existing free time differently). But, I haven’t been able to completely or consistently satisfy these things to date.

More: Free Time

I want more hours of free time each week (and year).

Like most people in the world, I currently work during the weekdays, 5 out of 7 days each week. All told, including my commute and work during the evenings (and occasional weekend), I spend an average of 55-65 hours working and commuting each week. That, plus about 60 hours for sleep, leaves about 40-50 waking hours each week to do more or less as I wish, primarily during weekends.

That free time gets filled quite easily, with cooking, eating, exercising, thinking, reading, pursuing hobbies and spending time with friends and family. And, if I’m being honest, some time — particularly during weekday evenings after I’ve returned home from work — is spent zoning out or mindlessly surfing the internet.

If I had more free time, I would want to fill my days doing many of the same things I do now (with only intentional internet usage), but spend more time and care doing them. Currently, I often feel like I have to rush in life and don’t have enough time. That manifests itself as not spending as much time with friends and family as I want because I have work the next day, or spending less time traveling than I’d like because I have limited vacation time.

Similarly, I’d like to have free time beyond just weekday evenings and weekends. If inspiration should strike during the weekdays, I’d like to be able to pursue that train of thought, even if it’s mid-day. And, if I want to spend an extended period of time traveling, or learning about a new topic, or working on a new or existing hobby, I’d love to have the time to do that.

There’s certainly room to use my limited time in a more fulfilling or optimized way. But, that would only address the effect or symptom of my current job, and wouldn’t generate more free hours in a day. I’m reminded of an Onion article, “Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life,” which speaks to the limits of trying to do it all.

Instead, I think it would be more effective for me to address the root cause: a job that demands a lot of my time and energy and doesn’t leave enough for everything else. Whether I try to change aspects of my job (if possible) or quit (more likely), the status quo is incompatible with what I ultimately want. While quitting may involve giving up other things, those are considerations for another time.

More: Control Over My Time and Thoughts

On a related note, I’d like to have more control over how I spend my time and thoughts, and on what. Ideally, the proportion between free vs. mandatory (i.e., at a job) time is heavily (or exclusively) weighted to the former.

The sort of life I envision would be one of freedom and abundance, where I have the time and (mental) energy to do and think about the things I want, for as long as I want. I would like the freedom to simply rest or enjoy a moment of peaceful contemplation when I want to, and not feel anxious to optimize every second or look at the clock or to be subject to the demands of someone else.

While I have more control and predictability as an in-house attorney (vs. being a law firm associate at the mercy of constant client demands), it’s far from total control. My job still requires me to responsive to inbound emails and requests, and to work toward project requirements and deadlines, often unexpectedly. Frequently, I need to interrupt a train of thought to turn to something else.

Also, the things that I have to do and think about are often not the things that I would choose to do or think about if I weren’t working at my job. Currently, I have to think about meeting (artificial) deadlines and follow the general exhortation to do more, faster. But, does it really matter if I answer this email on a Saturday, versus next week? It’s often stressful and oppressive to be subject to someone else’s expectations (especially unreasonable ones), or to have to care about something just because someone else does. But, that’s part of my job.

Even if I’d rather be doing something else, it’s my nature and training to do excellent work, so I do what I can to live up to expectations, whether that means meeting a time-sensitive deadline or focusing my attention and energy to achieve someone’s desired outcome. That leaves me spent at the end of each day, both mentally and physically.

Since my company is a competitive industry and is in a high-growth phase, and my role is often at the center of the action, the demands that are inherent to my job won’t be changing any time soon. So, if my ideal would be to not have to know what time it is or not need to check my email frequently, it seems like that can’t happen until I leave my job.

More: Stillness and Being Present

Modern education ignores the need for solitude: hence a decline in religion, in poetry, in all the deeper affectations of the spirit: a disease to be doing something always, as if one could never sit quietly and let the puppet show unroll itself before one: an inability to lose oneself in mystery and wonder while, like a wave lifting us into new seas, the history of the world develops around us.

Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches

I’d like to more time to be still and to simply be present.

These days, particularly during weekdays, my thoughts are centered around a limited set of things, often related to my job or money. I’m generally thinking about things that happened during the day, or the things that I need to do. Or, I’m thinking about things may or may not happen in the future, making plans, analyzing things in my mind.

It’s hard to sit still.

But, I feel a need to get out of my own head, to quiet my chattering brain, to simply be. I’ve found meditation or mindfulness to be helpful the few times I’ve tried it. I haven’t made that part of my routine to date, but I think that would be helpful going forward, whether or not I’m at my current job.

More: Healthy Habits

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

I would like to incorporate more healthy habits into my daily life.

Currently, I generally eat at work during the weekdays and am pretty sedentary when I’m at my desk, even if I use my standing desk or take breaks. I primarily cook and exercise during weekends, but I want more.

Ideally, I’d incorporate healthy habits every day — cooking more, eating heathily (a la Michael Pollan’s advice), getting a good night’s sleep, exercising more (and doing a greater variety of exercises), maintaining good posture, spending less time in front of a screen (more on that below).

There’s not too much magic to this, except that I need to find the time and energy to do it and turn it into a habit.

Less: Looking at a Screen

I want to spend less time looking at a screen, whether it’s for work or otherwise.

Like other knowledge workers, as a lawyer, a lot of my time is spent reading and sending emails and reviewing and drafting documents, primarily on a computer or smartphone. Meetings and presentations are often done over video conference or on a screen as well. When I take a break, because I’m already in front of a screen, I’ll often unthinkingly browse the internet and read the news. In short, my eyes are pretty much glued to a screen for most of the day.

I wouldn’t be surprised if spending all this time in front of a screen or working on a computer has adverse health impacts, both physically (e.g., the strain on eyes or impact on body posture) and mentally (e.g., feeding the addictive inclination to endlessly search for news and information).

When I can step away, I usually feel better when I look at something other than glowing screens for a while. Fortunately, I can do something about this now, even though a lot of my work is done online. It’s worth trying a different way of working, such as printing out documents to review or using pen and paper for the initial draft of correspondence. This also means resisting the habit of browsing the internet during the interstices of life, and being intentional about using my computer and phone.

I also want to spend less time in front of screens, because it adds to the feeling of the artificiality of modern existence. When my daily attention and thoughts are directed toward text on a screen and abstract matters like legal rights or contract terms or something happening on the other side of the world, I feel disconnected from my self and from the world. Instead, I’d like to spend more time interacting directly with people or the physical world.

Subjective or Abstract Goals (to be continued)

The other things that I want are more subjective or abstract (e.g., meaning, freedom, the joy of creating, community, a non-linear life). This gets to the heart of what I’d like to explore on this blog and pursue in life.

These are generally ideas, concepts or goals that I’m drawn to or sense intuitively that I need. But, they are also things that don’t lend themselves to an easy description or pursuit. It’s worth trying to pin down what these things mean to me, so I’m planning to organize and flesh out my thoughts on these topics in the next part of this post.

(Continued in part 2)

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