The Physics of Work

“I can’t wait to retire,” he said, “I’m tired of working.”

“I need to establish better work-life balance,” she said.

What is this thing we call “work”, and why does it seem so onerous? It seems that in a world of increased well-being and leisure, work has been defined a a necessary evil, something done primarily for extrinsic rewards for a period of time until we can justify its elimination. Work is described as something distinct from (and therefore balanced against) the fundamental concept of “life”.

Before we condemn work as something that we hope humanity evolves from in some future state, let’s take a look at the term from a scientific perspective.

Enter Physics

I am not a physicist, but I understand that work is the product of two factors: force and displacement

Force is fairly easy to grasp. In fact, when many people talk about “work”, I believe they are really talking about force. We know that we have the capacity to exert force on the world, and we are always embodied with a sense that the amount of force we can create is finite and extinguishable. We get tired. We get distracted. We know that we can only work so hard for so long before our ability to generate force diminishes. Force is purposeful  and effortful. It requires intention. Though we don’t like to think about it, eventually we die and cannot produce any more force.

Displacement is more foreign to colloquial ways of thinking. In simple, scientific terms, displacement is movement in the direction of the force. It is the movement of a soccer ball away from the kick. It is the air rushing from my mouth when I exhale. Displacement is change. It is impact. It is the result or outcome of our efforts — and it happens outside of us, in the world we inhabit.

Herein we see a key point: Work is not just effort, but the marriage of effort and impact — force and displacemnet. Work is not just the exertion of energy, the exhaustion of our bodies — it is progress. We don’t just work to do stuff. We work to accomplish something. This may be why we hate so deeply tasks that we perceive as meaningless. We are built for purpose and have an innate desire to see our finite ability to produce force create displacement in the world around us.  

Sometimes displacement is difficult to ascertain in the short term, but there are no immovable objects, there is just force over time. As a product, the amount of force that is brought to a problem interacts with the subsequent displacement to produce the total work. This is another argument for the benefits of human collaboration. To create change on wicked problems, we almost always need more force than one individual can generate. 

Drawing from this physics perspective, work does not mean “what I do between 9 and 5”. Work is any and all actions that I bring to the world. It is the investment I make in my relationships, It is the effort I put into maintaining a healthy body. It is time spend volunteering or learning or being a citizen. All of these are work. All require our exertion of force. All create displacement in the environment. 

Work is not distinct from life. In fact, work is an essential component of life. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that you skip your vacation, abandon your retirement plans, or abandon rest and leisure. Rather, I think we should re-think the way we talk about work– expanding our focus beyond the force to the displacement — and beyond these false boundaries. I don’t ever “go” to work. I do work all day, every day, until I am dead.

What force as you using to create displacement in your world today?

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