‘Working hard at something we don’t care about is called stress,
working hard at something we do care about is called passion’.
When I first read this idea, that working hard at something we don’t care about is called stress, and working hard at something we do care about is called passion, I copied it into the yellow notebook I carry round with me. ‘Yes’, I thought, scribbling down the words, ‘that sounds right’. Sinek’s idea seemed like something that, were I too a marketing consultant, I might have come up with myself. It was oddly familiar, perhaps because it taps into the kind of beliefs I grew up with and now feel surrounded by.
As someone who experiences quite a lot of stress, I found Sinek’s idea unsettling. ‘Surely stress and passion are more complicated than that?’ I asked myself, the next day. I opened my notebook and stared at Sinek’s words. In his pithy definition, he seemed to be promoting single-minded passion over compromised, stressful work. Stress – that feeling of too-muchness, of facing more than we can handle – is bad, he seemed to be saying. While passion – that needle-point focus on one goal – is good.
These days, these mid-life days, a significant amount of my time at home is spent working hard at things that I ultimately don’t care about. I am not a masochist. Nor, touch wood, am I dim. It’s rather a psychological dilemma that I face. And it’s this. I don’t seem to be able to get the conscious and unconscious parts of my mind to come to an agreement on what is worth caring about. I’m unable to stop my unconscious mind from caring about things like clean sheets, compost and soaked legumes, that my socially-conditioned conscious mind thinks might not, in the scheme of things, really matter. Hence the stress I often feel engaged in household tasks.
To get around this, I’ve taken to setting a timer on arriving home late afternoon. It’s the only timer in the kitchen that isn’t broken, I suspect because it knows that I like it the least. After fishing this timer out of the utensil drawer – perfectly placed to catch breadcrumbs from the oven above – I set the minute timer to 60 and clap it to the metal top of the hob. With this satisfying clap, of magnet fastening on to metal, I tie up my denim apron and go for it.
The next hour is broken into household-sized fragments – trips to the bins outside, the laundry downstairs, the bedrooms upstairs and the fridge in the pantry. All the while, the dog sits on the back door step, with an occasional bark to put a neighbouring dog in its place. There he sits, lone sentinel to my bustle next door – the chopping of vegetables, the unpacking of the dishwasher, the hum of the carpet sweeper.
For years, I waged a personal war over the value of the time that I spent housekeeping. Until one day I said ‘enough’, and fished out a kitchen timer from the drawer. I’d read somewhere about the Pomodoro technique, and thought it worth a try. Initially, I set a timer as an experiment. And from day one, it worked. I think it worked because it put a frame around my housekeeping, creating a before and after, a domestic bubble. It helped to overcome my resistance to certain tasks, and to breathe into the hour ahead.
Nowadays, each time I fix the kitchen timer to the stove top, the same thing happens. I relax. This white electronic timer stops me from feeling stressed. It tells my unconscious that there is no need to worry, that only a finite amount of my afternoon will be given over to household tasks. It functions as a green light, allowing me to beetle about the house, doing as much washing, cooking and gardening as possible inside an hour. Importantly, setting a timer helps me over the initial hump of housekeeping (and in my experience, there is always a hump). Its ‘tick, tick, tick’ stalls my thoughts, protecting me from all the other things I could be doing during this time. In accepting my place in the domestic wheel of life, my inner chatter fades and I just get on with it.
This moment of surrender, of the metal timer hitting the stove top, so quick as to be unnoticeable, is when the magic happens. For the next hour, I’m safe from conflicting thoughts, from stress. I’m in the zone, and can enjoy simple household tasks that, while I don’t relish them, leave me feeling good about life as a whole. Inside this hour, I’m able to care about things that I otherwise might not, and in this way gain release.
I don’t love housekeeping. I’ll never be passionate about it. (My psychological life would be simpler if I did.) The pleasure that I get from looking after my home is inverse. What I love is not feeling emotionally complicated about housekeeping – about prepping food, tending plants and cleaning the hob. I love feeling in flow, without resistance, at one with my home. And when the hour is up, I feel proud of being able to stay on top of my home’s running.
Usually, I go over the allotted hour. When the timer goes off – ‘beep-beep, beep-beep!’ – I rarely whip off my apron. Still, as a strategy, setting a timer does seem to work. I think it’s because, by objectifying the time that I spend on domestic tasks that my ego, Simon Sinek and society at large don’t credit, my housekeeping becomes real. Rather than trivial daily tasks, it becomes something almost solid that can be measured by the tick-tick-tick of a white plastic timer. Even though the dog on the back doorstep is often the only other living creature aware of my doing it.
We live in a world which puts a higher value on pursuing our passions than on caring for others, our home and ourselves. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is. Still, what this means is that many of us going around feeling that the work of looking after our family, ourselves and home is at odds with the work of fulfilling our ambitions. Perhaps we are a mother, struggling with home schooling, or an older man nursing a knee replacement. Or perhaps we are doing our best to stay on top of a generally happy but messy household, in the run up before dinner. In all these situations, we’re liable to feel as if we are living back to front. Our day is full of care, yet there is less room for passion than we might like there to be. And it’s this discrepancy, this feeling of being at odds with ourselves, of somehow falling short of our heart’s desires, that accounts for a lot of the stress that we feel at home.
Passions, much like true love, have survived our modern age intact. No matter how confused our society may be, about what matters most in life, our passions are admired, even revered.There seems something pure and inviolable about our efforts to realise our ambitions and passions. Whether this takes the form of a new digital brand, a sustainable start-up or a life-long violin practice, being passionate and ambitious is widely considered a good thing. Rarely do we criticize or subject our passions and ambitions to scrutiny.
As a rule, stress is less well regarded. Stress, psychologists tell us, is an effect of how our mind perceives what happens to us. An event in itself isn’t stressful, only our response to it is. This explanation places the onus on us, as individuals, not to experience as stressful something that a more resilient person might be able to move on from. In this way, feeling stressed is, through a behavioural glitch, our fault. Stress is a personal problem, rather than an effect of the confused beliefs that infuse society as a whole.
There’s a problem here. This explanation of stress – that events aren’t stressful, only our responses to them are – is based on the assumption that our society broadly agrees on what matters most. But clearly it doesn’t. This is where things get sticky for those of us who do a fair amount of caring. Because in the absence of a consensus about matters most in life, the caring work that we do – work that our unconscious mind knows matters and that our conscious mind doubts the value of – gains little credit. And so by an awkward twist, rather than the caring work that we do increasing our sense of self-worth, it generates stress.
When we care for others, ourselves and our home, our ambitions and passions are shelved for a while. Perhaps this is why most of us have a finite amount of energy for caring. The work of caring about things that we both do and don’t care about, for the sake of people and a way of life that we love, just is tiring. All of us need breaks from caring in order to refresh ourselves. We need time off from trying to square the circle – from getting the unconscious and conscious parts of ourselves to agree on what matters most.
The solution to spending too much time in caring work is simpler to describe than to do. Instead of pouring all our time and energy into things that, on our death bed, we’re unlikely to consider important, we need to be able to lose ourselves in activities that we do care about, that we are passionate about, and that don’t generate stress. Not least because when we’re free to do those things that we like doing most, the split within us, which arises when we care too much and for too long, and that we experience as stress, gets to heal.
Which brings me back to my kitchen timer, and to the way it helps to frame my domestic role. For the brief second in which I fix it to the stove top, I feel in good company with all the efforts that I feel sure that other people are making, in homes around the globe, to keep their domestic life afloat. They may not, as I do, turn on a kitchen timer or tie up an apron. Still, like me, they feel the tug of everything else that they could be doing with the time and energy that they give to housekeeping. Yet they still go about preparing dinner and bringing in the washing. Perhaps because, like me, they feel, in a deep part of themselves, that it’s worthwhile to do so.
It seems odd to be thankful for a plastic kitchen timer. But I am.