Contemplating quiet quitting

I have been seeing more and more headlines recently about people “quiet quitting” at their work. Much of this discussion is driven by – or refers back to – social media videos (such as a popular one by Zaiad Khan). Simply from the phrase – quiet quitting – my first impression was people were talking about making a move to disengage from their job, without actually quitting.

@zaidleppelin On quiet quitting #workreform ♬ original sound – ruby

Over the past year, during what has been called the “Great Resignation,” we have seen millions of people leaving their jobs during the pandemic. In some cases, people decided to retire, or found new opportunities during the volatility of the pandemic. Or, they wanted to keep working, but were unwilling to return back to the pre-COVID routines (preferring to continue working remotely, for instance).

Not everyone who has felt overwhelmed or unhappy has quit or changed jobs. In my own profession (higher education), I have seen more conversation about concerns that people are less fully engaged in the work of our colleges and universities. In January, The Chronicle of Higher Education did a story about The Great Faculty Disengagement that captured some of the concerns. While there has been some turnover for faculty, as people are able to pursue new opportunities, there are others who remain at their institutions, but are approaching their work in a more detached way:

… most faculty members aren’t making big job moves. For them, the Great Resignation looks different. We would describe it as disengagement. They are withdrawing from certain aspects of the job or, on a more emotional level, from the institution itself. Faculty members are not walking away in droves, but they are waving goodbye to norms and systems that prevailed in the past. They are still teaching their courses, supporting students, and trying to keep up with basic tasks. But connections to the institution have been frayed. The work is getting done, but there isn’t much spark to it.

Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar, The Great Faculty Disengagement

So, with this in mind, I felt that I already recognized quiet quitting as another example of this kind of disengagement: keeping one’s job while putting in the bare minimum required. And, this does seem to fit some examples of quiet quitting. For instance, in a BBC news article, Emma O’Brien described her own experience of quiet quitting when was turned down for a raise (even after taking on significant new responsibilities): “That was why I literally ended up doing what I was supposed to do to get the job done and nothing more. I felt empowered and motivated because I had mentally checked out of that job a few weeks before.”

However, as the discussion around quiet quitting has spread, a number of voices have argued that the term is not primarily about disengagement, but about finding balance in one’s life:

Despite what the misleading name may suggest, quiet quitting, as many have pointed out, has nothing to do with quitting, doing the bare minimum or slacking off at work. It is more a way to set boundaries at work and not do extra work outside one’s scope without fair compensation. Shutting down one’s laptop at 5 p.m. or saying “no” to doing someone else’s job may be how one chooses to quit quietly, but these examples are by no means prescriptive.

Kuan-lin F. Liu, What happened when I sprinkled a bit of ‘quiet quitting’ in my workday

This feels like a more positive approach, to me, by framing quiet quitting as a kind of mindfulness to our work/life balance. Many people who are building this positive frame for quiet quitting position it in opposition to “hustle culture” or grind culture – much of which has glorified taking on as much work as possible. Zaiad Khan points to this kind of quiet quitting in his video: “You are still performing your duties, but you are no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentally that work has to be our life.

In the struggle over how to define quiet quitting (and perhaps the rush to pass judgment on it?), I see several threads. One seems to be about how we respond to burnout and fatigue (which have been elevated for many in recent years), especially if we are not prepared or able to leave our current job. This feels like the main reason we might feel attracted to the “quitting” part of the phrase.

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Other people seem to looking more closely at the roots of our feelings of burnout and exhaustion. And what they see is a culture that has glorified work (hustle, grind culture). Or, where one is asked to do more and more, without any real discussion or appropriate compensation. Both cases can feel like an empty, futile use of our time. This part of quiet quitting, taking a moment to be mindful and aware of how our habits and attitudes around work can be harmful is very important. It can help us identify what we want to change: in how we approach our work, and in how our workplace functions.  

But, while this second sense of quiet quitting – the one focused on work/life balance and setting appropriate boundaries – has a strong appeal, I am concerned that the conversation is always going to be limited by the term, “quitting.” Today, here and now, to quit is to give up some pursuit, or some effort. The associations we have with a word, like quitting, have a weight, a gravity. Because of that, our efforts to frame quiet quitting in terms of boundaries or health hve merit, but they struggle against our deep, automatic associations with the term “quitting.” Those associations, the meanings of the word, can certainly shift over time. But, it is a slow process.

So, I cannot really find much personal enthusiasm for quiet quitting (as something I would recommend to people who are unhappy with their jobs, but unable to leave). However, I am quite fond of the quiet part of the phrase.

Instead of quitting, I might suggest that we find how to take a moment of quiet for a contemplative pause. This was a phrase that I had heard recently at a workshop by Dr. Karolyn Kinane, who was speaking to our faculty in the context of teaching. While faculty often focus on what (the stuff) we plan to do in a course, Dr. Kinane noted that we may habitually ignore how we want be in the classroom (the dispositions that we believe are critical to seeking and using knowledge). From a related blog post she asks, “What might happen if you shifted your attention from what you should do to how you want to be?” Dr. Kinane proposed that a contemplative pause could be a way to help us look carefully at that point, of how we wanted to be, in any part of our lives:

One way to think about contemplation is as a pause or gap between a stimulus and a response. For example, when I get stressed, I tend to work on autopilot: I react swiftly to stimuli (such as emails, texts, or a biting comment from a relative) and unleash some reactions I am not proud of…

A contemplative pause—a moment to breathe, a quick walk around the block—helps me more objectively notice what is happening externally (this person is making a request) and internally (I’m feeling resentful) and consider how or whether I want to respond.

Karoyln Kinane, Contemplative Pause: Tool for Engagement

I found the idea very refreshing, and timely. And, it is one that certainly can be valuable in any part of our life (not just teaching!). And, if we feel drawn to quiet quitting, then this probably is the perfect time for a contemplative pause. This pause can take many forms, but involves some intentional reflection, that opens up some space for us to choose new ways of responding. At work, a contemplative pause could help us be more aware of what parts of our job are associated with any stress, or frustration. It could help us identify when we may be overwhelmed in other parts of our life, and may need to pull back from some duties. It can also help us notice when other people around us are struggling, and help us find ways to ease their burdens as well.

How do we want to show up and be in our work? Personally, I hope that those who are employed find work to be something of value in their lives. A place where we find community, and make some contribution to the lives of the people around us. I hope we are engaged in our work, just as I hope my students and I are engaged in our classes. I hope we are in this together – after all, our communities – in our work and every part of our life – are only as humane as the people who make them up. We need everyone to show up as they can and are able.


We cannot “like” our way to wisdom

Can we “like” our way to greater wisdom and peace?  Or even to just to some deeper measure of happiness? These questions came to me as I was scrolling through Instagram posts the other day. On my Neural Buddhist account, I mainly follow people who focus on Zen and meditation, and science-related accounts that I find interesting from a Buddhist perspective. On any given day, I come across many meaningful, heartfelt posts by teachers and by other practitioners who I respect.

Image credit: Rawpixel Ltd.

For example, the short poem below, by punkrocksadhana, struck me as a beautiful image of the very concrete ways that all things in this world are deeply interconnected:

In my own posts on Instagram and Facebook, I have tried to share teachings that I have found personally meaningful, and which I think might be helpful to others. And, I’ve also shared posts that distill some of my essays on my own Zen practice (like the post below). I am left wondering, though, what the benefit of this kind of engagement on social media is for our practice, much less for our mental health in general.

Over the past few months, my interactions with others on Instagram and Facebook have mainly been “liking” or “loving” posts, or sharing a post as a story. In total, these interactions have been fleeting, delicate moments. Like a bubble hanging in the air, they may be beautiful, but most disappeared without leaving a lasting trace.

I wrote recently about the connections between rituals and habits, and the importance of engaging fully in our daily habitual behaviors, rather than falling into autopilot. But, when I turned my attention back to my own use of social media, I found that I was often not acting mindfully, but had fallen more into a mindless habit. And, I was not really surprised at this fact – like many, I usually expect that high levels of use of social media could be unhealthy (or at least, is not likely to make people happier, on average!). So, how then should we approach social media? And, is social media fundamentally unwholesome (in the sense of supporting our practice)?

It does seem that the core mechanics that draw us in to engage with social media are not ones that naturally support our practice. As we look around Facebook, Instagram and similar platforms, we are most likely to find those voices that appeal broadly, and that appeal to those who we already agree with. And, our attention, and our very sense of value, can be drawn in toward posts that receive a strong response. This can certainly be unhealthy, as it can skew our sense of what messages are meaningful, or one may become distraught to find that their own heartfelt expressions receive little or no response. And, as I found in my own life, the type of engagement we see may also be superficial, fleeting.

What then are our options?  We could certainly pull back from these social spaces, and work to invest our energy into healthier, more humane forms of interaction. That may be the right answer for many people, but I have remained on Facebook and Instagram simply because they are places where many people spend some of their time. But, if we stay in these spaces, how can we become habitually mindful of the ways that we can be trapped by social media, and work to promote more wholesome engagement?

In my own practice, I have made a few changes to how I use social media (and, I am focusing here especially on my neuralbuddhist accounts – for my personal accounts, I appreciate this advice from a post on Tiny Buddha).

First, in all of my accounts, I have hidden the number of “likes” that posts receive (if you are interested, here are some tips for how to turn off likes for Instagram and Facebook posts). These options are not perfect, but it can be very helpful to not immediately see the number of people who have “liked” a post.

Second, when I scroll through social media, I try to hold the intention to engage deeply with at least one post. I may “like” several posts on Instagram, but I also to make a comment that responds to one post that resonates with me. And, I consider how I can take that teaching with me into the rest of my day. Instead of repeating the habit of superficial engagement, I am working to build a new habit of seeing these posts as a call to mindfulness. This helps connect my time on social media to the whole of my practice.

Third, for the posts I make on social media, I am working to focus my attention to my goals. Instead of focusing on the reactions (the number of likes and such) on Facebook or Instagram, I am focusing on the number of people who engage more deeply – commenting (thoughtfully!) and those who actually engage further. It doesn’t matter, really, how many people reacted to a post.

The key question for me is how many people interacted more deeply – commenting on the post, and finding the longer essays (such as this one) that the post attempts to summarize. That proportion, the number who engage more deeply, will always be much smaller than the number who like a post, but it is the most important point for me.

All-in-all, the total number of people who read an of my essays may be small, but I am always encouraged to find that a few people found my essays (like this one). And, I hope that even one person may take what I wrote to heart, and that it might encourage them in their own practice, in the same way that I have been encouraged by others.  If so, then social media can be of some benefit, within the larger context of the whole of our practice.