In search of La Dolce Vita: Breaking with the nine-to-five

Fornetella in Tuscany

I celebrated the end of this year’s summer in Italy. This last-minute and fairly spontaneous holiday trip provided a much needed break after several weeks of hard work and disappointing weather. Deprived of work tools and all sorts of big city-type of stimuli, I turned to the simple pleasures: food, swimming, sunbathing, reading. And I devoured them all.

My head, unpolluted by social media-induced information that lingers on one’s brain like smog, was free to think and observe. I watched people in small towns and big cities, and read with great interest about Italian history and modern life in Maciej Brzozowski’s book, Włosi. Życie to teatr (English: The Italians. Life is a theatre). After this 10-day internet detox, I returned to London with a wonderful feeling of tranquillity, and a desire to investigate the idea of la dolce vita. At the same time, I approached the topic with trepidation, worrying about defaulting to clichés, and I found it difficult to start writing.

A few days after my return, as I was fighting for oxygen on the tube, standing next to about-to-fall-over guys in suits, it dawned on me: it isn’t the weather, the incredible landscapes, the possibly best coffee in Europe, or exquisite clothes. Between the pizzas and the piazzas, the main component of la dolce vita is being able to rest. In their more relaxed attitude towards working hours, Italians are one step closer to what the New Rich advocate in their self-help books: stop being a slave, get a life and live it well.

The truth is, here in Western Europe, we live in a culture of neurosis, with a perpetual sense of inadequacy and uncertainty, which we chase away by burning ourselves out. The cultural model on one hand tells us to enjoy our youth because once it’s over, the door to fun, adventures and possibilities shuts for good. On the other hand, it says: work as hard as you can, so that in 40 years time, if you’re lucky, you can have some rest. Slave, save, retire.

And while we, Britons, pour hectolitres of coffee down our throats in the battle with mid-afternoon sleepiness, Italians don’t fight. Just like Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor, who used to, after his midday meal, “eat some fruit and take another drink; (…) remove his shoes and undress completely, just as he did at night, and rest for two or three hours,” they close their shops, and offices and go home to rest.  A siesta, in Italy referred to as riposo, is an afternoon break that usually lasts between two and three hours. Therefore a shop will close at 1pm and reopen at 4pm (or even later—from what I’ve seen, places often decide on the length of their break.) Even a parking meter, though inanimate, seems to be napping—in Portoguaro it counted the hours up to and after the break, which resulted in a much smaller sum to pay. In our nine-to-five regime, a three-hour rest seems massively extravagant. But not only does it make perfect sense, especially in the summer heat, but it is beneficial to our health—according to medical studies, the siesta habit is associated with a 37 percent reduction in coronary mortality.

Why do we not have a siesta in the UK? That’s a good question. (The fact that the temperature doesn’t go over 30 degrees for most part of the year is not a sufficient reason.) Another question that follows is: why do we not have more control of our time in general, especially in the digital age of instant information access? Why do people sit glued to their office chairs for at least 8 hours? (Or 12, if they’re corporate lawyers.) Perhaps, as Eve Hankins says in an article written for The Stylist, it is because “the notion of working nine to five, Monday to Friday is so entrenched in our national psyche that we rarely question it.” In fact, the origins of the 8-hour work day stems from 19th century norm for running factories. Why this model applies now, is puzzling.

Leo Widrich analyses the stale nine-to-five concept in his article The Origin of the 8-Hour Work Day and Why We Should Rethink It. The fact is, people are not able to work efficiently for 8 hours. And what we need isn’t a siesta—it is four or five siestas. “The basic understanding is that our human minds can focus on any given task for 90-120 minutes,” Leo says, “Afterwards, a 20-30 minute break is required for us to get the renewal to achieve high performance for our next task again.” So a more efficient working day would consist of, let’s say, four or five 90-minute working sessions with half an hour breaks between them.

That’s already an improvement but if all of this happens at an office, then those in-between breaks, while they might improve our well-being and focus, don’t enable us to get any more out of our life (spend time with family, learn a language, work-out at a gym). Thirty minutes is fine for reading a book but not for getting out of an office to achieve something, unless it’s grabbing a sandwich from a nearby shop.

Also, the Mediterranean siesta isn’t just about sleeping and solitary rest. It’s a chance for a nice meal at the table with friends for family. Southern Europeans are appalled seeing British businessmen shoving down Tesco sandwiches whilst walking from one meeting to another. Food is taken seriously in the south—it’s one of the greatest life pleasures, and should be enjoyed properly. But in the corporate world there really is very little space for enjoyment, and people continue being glued to their chairs for hours, not quite working, not resting, and waiting for the day to end.

Caorle in Veneto

This is pretty bad but thankfully more and more people recognize the problem. And some go further than Widrich’s idea of chopping work into 90min chunks—Tim Ferriss, for example, cuts the 40 hour week to… 4 hours. His reasoning is based on the Parkinson’s Law: “a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion.(…) The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.”

A 4-hour work week—now, that’s radical. But Tim Ferriss, the famous American writer and entrepreneur, author of three bestsellers, is radical. In fact, his advice on lifestyle, work, body-building, health and cooking takes the term “radical” to a new level. Tim is like Marmite—you either instantly fall in love with his hyper-optimistic, can-do-anything approach, or develop a deep hatred for the guy (“Tim Ferris is a SCAM!”) because he’s shown you that life can be designed according to one’s own vision. Ferriss went from working 80 hours a week for $40,000 a year to working 4 hours a week for $40,000 a month, thanks to coming up with a profitable and efficient model of prioritizing, outsourcing and delegating. Many take his success as an insult to the omnipresent belief they never questioned—that the more money you want, the harder you need to work for it. But Ferriss ignores the haters, following the rule that says “It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matters is how many people do” (I recommend his talk on the subject), sticks his middle finger at those who call him the Antichrist and goes on enjoying his life, learning new things, and breaking new world records.

Of course, Ferriss’s model can’t be applied to every workspace. But there is no reason why employees shouldn’t be given a lot more flexibility. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, has just offered his staff unlimited holiday which they can take whenever they want, as long as “their absence will not in any way damage the business.” The number of negative comments this has raised, both from hysterical sceptics (“this will be a catastrophe!”) and cynics (“yeah alright, this is just a cheap ploy to exploit the workers!”) is astounding. But Netflix, the largest provider of commercial streaming video programming in the US which has market cap of nearly $7bn (£4.5bn), has used the same policy for a while now and hasn’t experienced any negative results. At Evernote, they’ve gone a step further and are actually offering employees $1,000 of spending money as an incentive to take the holiday—to prove that they really do want people to take time off and not get scared of getting sacked for overstepping some invisible line.

In June this year, a new law was introduced that grants all UK employees the right to request flexible working, which includes part-time working, flexitime, job sharing, shift working and home working. I really hope the law won’t remain a solely theoretical possibility and that employers won’t be clinging onto their right to decline the holiday.

Caorle in Veneto

“In much white-collar work today,” says Daniel H Pink from The Telegraph, “where one good idea can be orders of magnitude more valuable than a dozen mediocre ones, the link between the time you spend and the results you produce is murkier.” Flexible working time and unlimited holiday inspire productivity and focus and, since they demonstrate the employer’s trust in his employees, can really help build strong relationships. A paranoid employer micro-managing every action of his workers creates hostility and resentment.

Whenever I travel on the tube around 6pm, squashed between people whose only desire is to crush on the sofa and eat a ready-meal from a supermarket, I want to go right back to the Tuscan valleys. But la dolce vita is not restricted to geography or nationality. Effective work and good organization can mean that you don’t have to give all your time away, and after a couple of hours of super focused work from home, you might be able to enjoy a relaxed lunch. Hopefully, once people realize that life is not something that will happen when you’ve retired or accumulated enough funds to stop working, they will fight for their siestas.