The (subtle) art of not caring at work

Sep 22, 2021

7 mins

The (subtle) art of not caring at work
Gabrielle de Loynes

Rédacteur & Photographe

“So what do you do?” While most people might define themselves by their job, some swim against that tide. Distancing themselves from the tangled mass of people who drown in their work, overwhelmed by intense hours and stress, a small minority managed to stay afloat. Lucien, Anaïs, and Vincent are three of these. For them, work isn’t a priority – or it isn’t anymore. There’s no way they will throw themselves into it heart and soul, or break a sweat doing it. They move at their own pace, buoyed up by their own detachment. Nowadays, their actions are referred to as “quit quitting”. Colleagues may um and ah and feel overwhelmed, yet nothing fazes them. How do they do it? And does it jeopardize their professional development? Let’s meet them.

Should nonchalance become a way of life?

Giving your all to get a promotion, working overtime to achieve fuzzy objectives, stressing at busy times… It’s important to recognize that detachment and perspective at work have real benefits for our physical and mental health. With the repeated lockdowns of the past 18 months, many people have realized that working isn’t necessarily the most essential thing in their life. And though being able to take a step back is something not everyone has been able to master, some have managed to find a balance that suits them. “I’m not a stressed-out person,” says Lucien, an assistant editor with a start-up. “I have a nice work-life balance, I work out, and I have time to see my loved ones. My head isn’t in the sand. I have an open mind, which helps me to see things more clearly at work and approach things more calmly.” Vincent, a web developer, makes the same claim: “I’m a calm person. Generally taking things lightly means there’s no chance of being overwhelmed by too many negative emotions.” For Anaïs, a journalist, there’s no doubt that detaching herself from work has been freeing: “The more I let go,” she says, “the more I want to work, and the more quality work I do – it’s a virtuous circle!”

Before these three, we had the humans in Wall-e, the Big Lebowski (aka “the Dude”), and Homer Simpson, who all embodied nonchalance. They lived peaceful lives, without stress or worry – the art of not caring in its purest form. However, that’s not how Anaïs, Lucien, and Vincent see themselves. While their approach may be perceived by some to be nonchalant, that’s not actually the case. “I have a professional conscience,” says Lucien. “I’m invested in my work and I don’t just leave everything hanging as soon as it’s 6 pm, but I do set boundaries. And when I leave work, I am no longer available.” For Vincent, if he likes what he’s doing, it doesn’t count as work. “It does happen that I talk about work with my developers or work with them at the weekend in order to learn new things,” he says. “But I don’t see it as work if I’m enjoying myself.” Anaïs is no less invested in her work, but she has a bit of distance on it, which has been beneficial for her. “If you’re comfortable in yourself, you can see it in your work. And the proof is in the results,” she says.

Detachment, not lack of ambition

By being detached, though, don’t you run the risk of not moving up within the company and getting left behind when it’s time for promotion? Could this way of thinking make it harder to get a pay rise? And could your manager and colleagues see you as a lone wolf, or as someone who’s just along for the ride? Is detachment incompatible with ambition? “No!” the three interviewees say in unison. “Quite the opposite!”

“I’ve noticed that by setting boundaries and responding with a firm ‘No’, I get more respect,” says Lucien. “Taking a step back is not about a lack of ambition, but the ability to be free and be respected. Now if my boss calls me after 6 pm, he’s quick to apologize, while others are regularly disturbed, without any acknowledgment. I sincerely believe that this work-life balance, and the respect it affords me, will help me move up within the company. If I become a manager one day, I’ll instill these values in my team.”

Vincent has also seen that his approach makes him more available for training and helps with his personal development. His work is better quality, too. Anaïs agrees. “It was precisely when I stopped putting pressure on myself, when I gave in, that I started to get lots of requests from exciting clients,” she says. “And ironically, I’ve never made so much money. Yes, I could work five times harder and make five times more, but why bother? That’s not my ambition. As long as I’m happy in my work, I’m good at what I do and I have a certain level of financial comfort, then everything is good.”

The art of not giving a damn: four tips

How do you manage when things get rough? Lucien, Vincent, and Anaïs have figured it out. It’s about putting your foot down.

Put pleasure first

Vincent has created a rule for himself: “My work has to be a blast. I have fun when I work, I enjoy it, and when it’s not fun anymore, I stop.” He knows he’s not going to be made to do anything he doesn’t enjoy. “It’s been this way since I was a kid,” he says. “I can’t help it, that’s how I am.” It’s the same for Lucien. “It’s not just natural nonchalance,” he says. “It’s a conscious approach. I own it and I’m proud of it. I’ve developed a strong desire to enjoy life, to assert myself, and to set a framework for my career.” He left law school midway through when he saw the amount of work that lay ahead of him. “I saw the lawyers putting in long hours,” he says. “It wasn’t right for me. There was no way I was putting my life on hold like that.”

Don’t make work a priority

Lucien grew up with a mother who was stressed out by her job. “I quickly decided that I wasn’t going to have the same attitude,” he says. “Whether it be at school, university or work, I refuse to panic. Whenever there’s a so-called ‘emergency’, I weigh up the pros and cons. I generally come to the conclusion that it’s not really an emergency, there’s nothing crucial at stake and the project can wait until the next day. It’s not the end of the world.”

It’s a story that mirrors Vincent’s. His father, who is also his “best friend”, runs his own business. “He’s old-school,” says Vincent. “He’s a hard worker, with long hours and lots of stress. I refuse to do that.” Vincent has his priorities in life. One day, when his cat fell ill, he had to take him to the vet. “I didn’t even hesitate,” he says. “There are priorities at work, and there are more important things in life. It’s non-negotiable. I can find another job. I’ve only got one cat.”

Set boundaries

When he started his current job, Lucien set the tone. “In the first few days I was there, I left the office space first, at around 6 pm. After that, I turned off my emails, alerts, and work calls. When I got a call from my boss at 10 pm, I told him I wasn’t available but that I would be the following day. That’s how the boundaries were set.” It’s easier said than done, of course. It requires courage and self-confidence, both of which Lucien has always had. “I simply tell myself that we only have one life, and what I’ve seen is that by doing it this way, you get more respect,” he says.

When it comes to detachment, Vincent is on a whole other level. As a salaried employee on a fixed contract, he sees no problem in doing exactly as he pleases. “I am passionate about my work, I meet my targets and my deadlines,” he says. “But that doesn’t keep me from leaving at 5.30 pm” – an attitude that has earned disparaging remarks from his colleagues. “My manager passed on rumors along the lines that I was ‘leaving early’ or ‘taking the afternoon off’,” he says, amused. “I immediately replied that I do my job well, that I wouldn’t change anything and they can take it or leave it. They got the message. This is how I am. When I negotiate a salary, that’s how it is: I propose a number and if it doesn’t work for them, I leave.”

Don’t feel guilty

Anaïs is, by nature, committed, hyperactive, and highly motivated. So naturally, when she landed a freelance project especially close to her heart, she invested “body and soul in that adventure”. She stayed the course for a few months, in spite of differences with the management. Work gradually started to take up too much space, both in her head and in her life. “I was drained and exhausted trying to make the relationship work,” she says. “So, out of necessity, I took a break. It’s not my style at all, but I stopped working with the client and I distanced myself from almost any kind of work.”

She disconnected, turned off the alerts on her phone, stopped responding immediately to everything – and felt no guilt at all over it. “I freed myself from a lot of constraints,” she says. “I no longer accept projects I don’t like, I no longer feel guilty about sending an order at 10 pm if I want to, or working hours that are nothing like a normal office timetable. I work when I feel like it. If I’m not in a good mood or I’m not feeling creative on a particular day, I stop!” And, against all expectations, clients didn’t complain. “It was the opposite, actually,” she says. “They noticed a change, but a positive one. The more I work like this, the more satisfied they are with my work. It’s smoother now, creatively speaking.”

So, should you take the plunge? What if you learned to let go a little bit? It could help to stop you from drowning in work, burning out, and allowing your priorities to fall by the wayside. Life is short. Work is important, it’s true. But sometimes you have to take a step back. And, who knows, it might be that in doing so, you’ll discover creative powers you never knew you had.

Translated by: Kalin Linsberg

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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