Sharpening the Saw: consider Sabbath
An essay questioning the fruits of optimisation.
Adrian Petrice (PhD), Benjamin Sager (MA), Samuel Johns (MA)
The perplexing benefits of de-optimisation
As a practical aside, let us consider some notable examples of the countries and corporations questioning the fruits of optimisation, and embracing a new (or slightly different) agenda, praising de-optimisation.
Iceland is a country with a small yet industrious population. A study of workers conducted before Covid-19, on a small sample in a small country, has nonetheless resonated worldwide. Given the trends of WFH (work from home) and the perils of Zoom fatigue, but also due to a widening gap between productivity and real wages, Iceland tested a 4-day working week with great success. Numerous companies noted higher productivity and better satisfaction amongst workers, leading to better wellbeing overall. (*1)
Similarly, the IT giant Microsoft reported a similar case in a Japanese pilot project in 2020. Productivity was said to increase 40 percent, more than making up for the 20 percent fewer hours worked in a four-day week. Target Publishing, a UK firm, had to cut pay and hours by 20 percent because of Covid last year but was able to reinstate full pay and keep the four-day week when business picked back up. Equally, Unilever is running a year-long four-day week trial in New Zealand with head office staff to understand impacts on productivity. Morrison’s in the UK (a large grocer and supermarket) has said it is moving to a four-day working week at its Bradford HQ this summer. Spain’s prime minister has agreed to a proposal by the left-wing party Más País for a government-backed trial, and Andrew Yang, the former US presidential candidate and entrepreneur, has said the first big company to offer a four-day week in the States will be rewarded with “the best people in the industry”.
Living in an efficient society
Where then do we go from here? The proposed answer from a biblical narrative is as follows: “resist the temptation to base your identity on performance. Never work for your identity but let God love you into an identity that is not based on performance but on grace and relationship.” Practically my (Benjamin) experience is that this big, bad problem of performance-based identity formation is not solved with an easy quick fix. Rather it calls for a multilevel appreciation and approach.
One practical area that certainly resonates is the Judeo-Christian idea of Sabbath rest. Sabbath rest is a direct counterpoint to materialism.
The idea of putting away 1/7 or 14% of your lifetime to not be productive is an economic crime.
But this outrageous measure can give a critical distance from the system we are living in. The late British philosopher and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about the Sabbath, saying that "one goes from relentlessly creating, to feeling oneself as a creation”.
How then can we get started? In the biblical narrative of the Christian tradition, Christ says the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. A strict list of things to do and not to do was not on his agenda. We find that a good set of questions to get started with Sabbath plans and activities are: Is this worshipful? And is this restful? How can I resist the temptation to optimise my restful time? For us, the answer is to make room for relationships with our Creator God and with others.
Perhaps we can define our problem this way. We see the world as a series of trade-offs, "one, at the expense of another". Now, we’re not militating for endless possibility, we should indeed carefully make choices and decisions, knowing that we are limited creatures with limited resources. We can only achieve things by moving from possibility to commitment. But what if our commitments are multi-layered and we should be careful to order them properly and integrate them? How can we better see our lives as journeys of meaning and value, rather than a lifelong problem to be solved?
Further thoughts: a short survey on optimisation
We asked others for a variety of views and definitions on optimisation. Specifically, the question asked was: “what do you think of when you hear optimisation?”. For your general interest, here are a selection of responses we received:
- To make things more effective, usually related to time or cost
- Flexing inputs to maximise one possible output at the expense of others
- An iterative process of trial and evaluation to make the best or most efficient use of a resource
- The set of actions that modifies the state of a given system so as to maximise (or minimise) one of the system properties (the one being targeted by the optimisation)
- Choosing to focus on positive elements of processes and outcomes
- Increased efficiency. Where efficiency is defined as useful output / total input
- Computer programming has a common use of this word; trying to make a process as quick as possible
- Efficiency and frictionless living
- Optimisation is one side of the coin. Don't optimise what works. Optimise the weird stuff.
- A motorcycle riding 'on the limiter' is fully optimised when it is at full threshold (around 11,000 rpm), or just below the red zone
- Different kinds of optimisation: self, organisation. It is a good thing, but it is not the only thing. A focus on optimisation alone threatens to eradicate the human element, which is the centre.
- No regard for human rhythms
- Focussed nutrition
Note: (*1) See this report on the Icelandic test: https://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/ICELAND_4DW.pdf
Written in the summer of 2021, during long, non-optimised days of work and study
Adrian Petrice (PhD) holds a doctorate in Political Science. Adi is the European Co-ordinator for Cross-Current, a network of young Christian professionals integrating their faith and work, to benefit all.
Benjamin Sager (MA) holds a master’s in Psychology from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Ben works with young professionals within the VBG network of IFES.
Samuel Johns (MA) studied Human Geography and Philosophy at UBC, Vancouver. Samuel writes on identity and immediacy in the (post)modern world, and works with the Cross-Current network.