For many industries, this is the busiest time of year. Workers in retail, ecommerce, warehousing and distribution, and customer service are at the frontline of the busy season. The hospitality sector prepares for holiday parties and travel. Health care workers see more patients than ever as those who have met their deductible clamber for appointments. Those in education face massive piles of papers and exams to grade. And many businesses scramble to meet fiscal year end goals.
On top of our busy jobs, another type of unseen and unpaid work also reaches its peak about this time of year: Shadow work. Craig Lambert writes, “Shadow work includes all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations. It has slipped into our routines stealthily; most of us do not realize how much of it we are already doing, even as we pump our own gas, scan and bag our own groceries, execute our own stock trades, and build our own unassembled furniture. But its presence is unmistakable, and its effects far-reaching.”
Shadow work seems to be a permanent feature of contemporary life. We have more choice than ever. In so many ways, this is fantastic. Choice is empowering, but it is also exhausting. Take travel for example. We need to book a flight and a hotel to visit with family over the holiday season. We don’t have to worry about a travel agent messing up our booking or in-flight meal preferences. But how much time and energy have we spent checking prices, weighing up options to find the ideal flight that both minimizes travel time and layovers while maximizing airline miles and credit card rewards.
So how do we navigate shadow work? I most certainly don’t have all the answers and would love to hear some ideas you have. Some things to consider:
1. Awareness is always a good first start. What things are you doing that are not necessary or even beneficial? What types of activities exhaust you the most? And even deeper than that, what is your view about being busy. Is it a point of pride? When you complain to others about how stretched you are, is it really a humble-brag? It’s so easy to get caught up in this.
2. Considering what you identified above, can you rid yourself of any activities that aren’t necessary or beneficial? Can you outsource any especially-depleting tasks? Even if you can’t afford to hire someone to do tasks for you, can you ask someone who enjoys it more? Swap some tasks with family or friends? I’ll bake your cookies if you wrap my gifts.
3. Sometimes you need to satisfice, rather than maximize. Sometimes good enough is simply that - good enough. You might never find that “perfect gift” for your child’s teacher. And honestly, who doesn’t appreciate a gift card?
4. After you’ve made a choice, don’t waste time, attention, and energy reconsidering or justifying those choices. The time spent checking the flight prices after you’ve made your booking simply can’t be earned back. The feelings of pride in saving money from booking early doesn’t make up for the lost time doing other more productive or relaxing things. Realize it’s normal to feel a bit of post-decision dissonance, and let it go.
5. Create some boundaries and stick to them. Develop times to clock out from our devices. Put a limit to time searching for gifts. Carve out some quality time in the midst of it all. And for those of you who know me personally, please hold me accountable to this! Working on increasing my screen-free time will be a new year’s resolution for me I should start practicing now.
In many ways, it’s so unfortunate that this is such a busy time. For many of us, this season is about something so much deeper – about hope, faith, family, and light. Let us not forget!
What are your thoughts and ideas about how to navigate shadow work, especially this time of year?