Everyone deserves a day off, right? The prospect of some much-needed weekend R&R is usually what keeps us going on those rainy Tuesdays. However, when those precious days finally arrive, do we not still find ourselves catching up on email, rounding off that last assignment or worrying about that next project? We live in a culture that always needs to be doing things and making progress. In fact, it often seems that our cherished concept of “R&R” has become less of a time for relaxing and more of a time to finally catch up on our other to-do lists. Before we know it, we’re hitting the snooze for a sixth time on Monday morning without the least sense of rest–or recovery.
Some say we need to work less, sleep more or take more vacations to escape this fog that threatens our motivation. Those things might help. But I have a different solution. If you’re exhausted from the monotony of your week, it’s time to start landscaping.
Well, no, not necessarily landscaping. It could be building, painting, ice sculpting–anything involving dirt, sweat and a challenge. “But I’m an accountant (or professor, broker, executive–fill in the blank). I spend my days doing more important work than mowing the lawn.” Perhaps. But author Matthew Crawford would say that you would do your “important work” better if you mowed the lawn more often. Crawford authored the book The Case For Working With Your Hands: Or Why Office Work Is Bad For Us And Fixing Things Feels Good, in which he argues that our white collar society has made us forget how to do fulfilling work. But why does yard work “feel good”? What is it about working with our hands that leaves us feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and fulfilled?
We Can Touch What We Make
As a society, we are always finding ways to make the tangible intangible. Buying a computer at Apple isn’t shopping these days–it’s “an experience.” Marketing agencies don’t want to sell me an ad anymore–they want to “tell my story.” Though not necessarily bad things, the world is becoming less and less dependent on the concrete and more and more obsessed with the abstract.
In the workplace, this leaves us with more work to do and less to show for it. Today, you can work for fifty years, make a few million dollars and have zero physical proof that it ever happened other than a six-bedroom house and a swimming pool. The absence of visible work product from many careers today can create a mundane, demoralizing work day for even the most successful people.
This is where yard work (or building/fixing things) is so crucially different. When we work with our hands, we immediately have a visible, tangible product to show for our labor. It might not be worth as much as a paycheck, but it does give us the opportunity to say, “Hey–I made that.”
We Can’t Win
Office life can too often be a game of following instructions. There is a right way and a wrong way, a perfect and an imperfect. Though these boundaries are perhaps comforting for some, they run the risk of restricting the autonomy that is essential for any level of emotional investment in a project.
This is not the case with most manual labor. In landscaping, for example, there is no 100%. You might be satisfied, but there will never be a way to perfectly plant a garden or perfectly design a back yard. Mother Nature doesn’t give instructions. In fact, she has a wonderful way of dealing us a humbling dose of reality–reminding us (with rocky soil, hurricanes and stubborn materials) that she cannot be “beaten” like a spreadsheet. Though this does mean that we cannot “win” with manual labor, Crawford says that the “unambiguous failure” that often comes from working with our hands can be a welcoming challenge next to life in a cubicle. In the end, I honestly don’t even think that winning is what really excites us about working with our hands–I think it’s the game.
“But I Don’t Do Yardwork”
You should. I don’t care if you have a yard or not. Grab a rake, a lawn mower or a truckload of mulch and go help someone across the street who needs it (service is also a great source of fulfillment). But here’s the thing–don’t do this on your weekend. Leave Saturday and Sunday alone. If you really want to revitalize yourself for the daily grind, take a vacation day during the week and get your hands dirty. You just might find it more restful than Netflix.
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Check out this article by The Guardian about Crawford’s book.