Friday, November 30, 2007

Benjamin Franklin Was Right

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

–Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack

Turns out that Benjamin Franklin was right, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer arm of the World Health Organization who are about to add “overnight shift work as a probable carcinogen” to their list of cancer-causing activities. You can read about this yourself at

There was a book published in the early 1900s about how wonderful industrial automation would be because it would revolutionize work and allow us all to work only twenty hours a week, thus allowing us to enjoy recreation and leisure the remaining twenty hours of the week (plus the weekend, which had already been long established for workers). I have been wracking my brain trying to remember the name of this book and its author—if you know the one I’m talking about, please click on the COMMENTS link (below) and tell me so I can get some sleep tonight.

Then there was another book published in 1957 called “Parkinson’s Law,” by C. Northcote Parkinson in which the author coins the phrase, “work expands to fill the available time.” Parkinson made this observation, if not in response to the author of the book I can’t remember, in response to his own observation of the way things were going concerning the work week and the real relationship between automation and human work: even automated systems must be watched over by human beings, since the systems cannot make decisions about what to do when something unexpected happens.

What does this have to do with overnight shift work now being identified as a probably cause of cancer? Only this: the human drive to work, work, work, is killing us. I readily admit that there are many overnight shift work jobs that have nothing to do with automation; my own husband was a custodian at a university, and before that a grocery store, for years. Custodians in those places generally must work at night because the other people using the building during the day (teachers, students, administrators, customers) find working around the custodian’s chores inconvenient. Perhaps if they knew it was “probably” causing cancer in the custodian they would change their minds? Hard to say. We humans have an alarming track record of choosing our own preferences and conveniences over the needs of others more often than not.

There is a book called “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed,” by Carl Honore, in which he challenges this incessant human push to do more and more faster and faster. I have jumped on that bandwagon. Nearly all of us appreciate (and frequently quote) the adage that “no one ever got to his deathbed and wished s/he had spent more time at the office,” but so few of us actually follow that advice ourselves. Honore takes that idea even further and suggests that we slow down in every endeavor and only do one thing at a time. Driving might be a good place to start, since most traffic accidents are caused by either or both driving too fast and/or trying to negotiate another activity, such as putting on makeup, shaving, reading a book—crazy but true, I’ve seen it happen many times—at the same time.

But there are other things that we could engage in singularly, too. What would happen if we all stopped lying to ourselves about multi-tasking? What would happen if we just focused all of our attention on one thing at a time?

Here’s what would happen: corporations wouldn’t make as much money driving us to buy things we don’t need with the extra money we’re making working more than we should. It’s that simple: we don’t need all the stuff we find essential in modern American life.

In the final analysis, all we really need at any given point in our lives is food, shelter, love and companionship, outlets for our creative energy, and that’s IT. All of the rest is just grasping.

Too much automation, too much overnight shift work, is just about grasping more time; borrowing from the night what we don’t really need anyway. Perhaps if we just turned off all of the factories and power plants and automated systems that keep a steady flow of greenhouse gasses pumping into the atmosphere we’d end global warming sooner. That would be one sure way to give all of the people that are “probably” going to develop cancer doing overnight shift work a break. Perhaps if we stopped driving at night (which could be considered overnight shift work, and causes accidents when people fall asleep at the wheel) we could cut down the greenhouse gasses even more. If we actually did these things we’d get to the end of the tube that has no cheese in it even slower, but we might find that if we try this slowing down activity someone might have had some time to put some cheese at the end of the tube—you never know what might happen when you do something good for yourself.

I’m spending my energy these days on figuring out where I’m grasping and where I can slow down and take better care of myself, my loved ones, and the world around me. I’m finding that it becomes easier and easier to say “no,” and with practice it becomes easier and easier to not feel guilty about saying “no.” It’s a process, and results do not occur overnight. But there’s no time like the present to start—care to join me?

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