in: Career, Career & Wealth, Featured

• Last updated: June 25, 2023

Shadow Work and the Rise of Middle-Class Serfdom

Shadow work illustration man wearing many hats.

With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in August 2015.

Meet Mike, an average American.

The first thing Mike does when he rolls out of bed in the morning is look at his phone. He checks for new texts and emails, peruses his social media feeds, and then surfs around to various news sites.

Then he grabs a quick breakfast and it’s out the door for a 20-minute commute to work. But first he stops at a convenience store to fill up on gas.

Once at the office, Mike makes himself some coffee and settles into his desk. His computer prompts him, as it does every 90 days, to change his password. He then spends an hour going through his work email, before doing some copy making and filing.

At lunch, Mike eats at a “fast casual” establishment where he orders at the counter, brings his food to a table, and then cleans it off when he leaves.

Back at the office, there’s more email to answer and tasks to take care of.

After work Mike stops by a grocery store, and swipes and bags his items in the self-checkout line.

Once he arrives home, Mike makes himself dinner, and then cleans up the kitchen. Next he sits down at his computer to figure out which flights would be best for an upcoming trip he’s planning, and to book a hotel and rental car as well. Two hours later, Mike makes those purchases, and then shops for a new bag he’ll need for the trip, looking at numerous sites and reviews, and then putting in his credit card and shipping information once again to complete the transaction.

Next, Mike logs into the online portal for his bank and transfers money from one account to another. Then it’s a little more web surfing and one last check of his social media feeds. Right before he turns in, Mike gets a text from a friend: “Hey man! Want to go mountain biking this Saturday?” “Sorry,” Mike replies, “I’m too busy. Maybe another time.”

While Mike hasn’t done anything physically strenuous during the day, he crawls into bed feeling exhausted. And with good reason — for in addition to performing his “real” job at the office, he also worked a wide variety of other positions: driver, news editor, gas station attendant, banker, waiter, bus boy, secretary, cashier, grocery bagger, cook, housekeeper, travel agent, and salesman.

Though Mike nominally only works a 9-5, he has in fact been toiling around the clock.

Are We Really Busier Than We Used to Be?

In the modern age, we have the same 24 hours a day that every human has enjoyed for thousands of years. But when you look around, you might be forgiven for thinking that time has somehow sped up and that our days have grown shorter. People seem harried and worn out. If you ask them how they’re doing, “Busy, busy, busy!” is often the answer.

40% of Americans say they’re overworked, half feel there are too many tasks to complete each week, two-thirds feel they don’t have enough time for themselves or their spouses, and three-fourths say they don’t get to spend as much time with their kids as they’d like. And as far as the other parts of life, well, they can’t be bothered with them at all.

Making small talk? Too tiresome.

Going out and socializing, even with old friends? Ditto.

Throwing a party? Too much work.

Going to church or doing service? Too busy.

Following basic manners and acting civil? Too tired to make the effort.

Cooking homemade food? Too time-consuming.

Putting on pants without an elastic waistband? Why bother?

Having hobbies? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

To explain what’s behind this apparent time crunch, the instinctive hypothesis is that we’re all simply working more — that jobs these days require us to toil for more hours than they used to.

Yet perception is not reality. Since the 1960s, work hours have actually decreased by almost eight hours a week, while leisure time has gone up by almost seven hours. Many will likely find this hard to believe, and that’s partly due to the fact that people routinely overestimate how much they really work by 5-10%. We also greatly underestimate our available leisure time; Americans think they have, at the most, about 16.5 hours of it a week. In actuality, nearly all of us have anywhere from 30-40 hours of leisure time at our disposal. And this includes both men and women, singles and marrieds, those with children and those without, and the rich and poor alike; in fact, lower income Americans have more leisure time than higher earners.

So what exactly is going on? What accounts for the gap between how our lives feel and how they’re actually structured?

How is it possible that we ostensibly have 40 hours of leisure time each week, and yet most of us feel we can’t even spare 20 minutes a day to read a book or meditate?

Stupefied by Shadow Work

Working women have long complained of having to hold down “the second shift” — i.e., having to do the bulk of childcare and housework after putting in time at a paid job. While it’s true and often reported that women continue to do more of these second shift chores than men, total working time for men and women these days is actually close to equal. That is, while working women do more housework, working men put in more hours at the office, so that the total working hours for each is close to the same.

Amidst the debate over which sex does more, few have noticed the fact that all of us — men and women alike — are working not only unpaid second shifts, but third, fourth, and fifth ones as well. Think about Mike’s day again: even though he had one official job, he wore many different hats.

As author and professor Dr. Craig Lambert explains, we all increasingly “find ourselves doing a stack of jobs we never volunteered for, chores that showed up in our lives below the scan of awareness.” Lambert calls these tasks “shadow work” and in his book of the same name, he describes this labor as “all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations.”

You perform shadow work whenever you do jobs that used to be done by a paid employee, but have now been outsourced to the consumer: pumping gas, booking a travel itinerary, bussing a table, and so on. We likewise do shadow work whenever we bank online instead using a teller, check in to flights or a hotel using a kiosk rather than a human, and wait on hold for an hour to talk to a scarce customer service representative. When we can’t find a knowledgeable salesman to talk to and get a recommendation from at a big box store, and instead must take over his job and shop online, spending hours comparing model features and reading reviews, we’re doing shadow work then too. When we follow through on these online transactions, entering in our credit card number and address for the umpteenth thousandth time, we do yet more shadow work — this time as DIY cashiers.

We’ve all taken over a wide variety of jobs that used to be done by others, not only in the wider marketplace, but even just a few desks over; many paid positions have been subject to “job creep” in which a worker must perform the tasks that used to be done by three other people, and are not included in his official job description. Support staff — secretaries, assistants, and the like who used to make your coffee and copies, answer your mail, and keep track of your schedule, have largely been resigned to the dust bin of a bygone era. And yet the requirement of becoming a jack-of-all-trades has not been accompanied by an increase in wages.

Shadow work also includes tasks that have resulted from new practices and expectations, and which you must perform if you wish to use a particular service or simply keep your job. Think of kowtowing to the shoe-removing rituals required by airport security, filling out endless paperwork when you visit a new doctor, and of course doing your taxes, a chore which takes the average 1040-filer 23 hours of shadow work a year. Suppressing any normal, negative feelings, and putting on a consistently upbeat, friendly face — which more and more employers require of workers who interact with the public — constitutes tiresome shadow work too.

Finally, the realm of shadow work includes tasks that aren’t strictly necessary, but that we perform because of their perceived benefits. At least 2/3 of us surf the web for medical information, often coming up with our own diagnoses instead of or before seeing a doctor; after our visit, we do more shadow work to decide between the various treatment plans the good doc described. Many folks who are looking for love report that online dating becomes like a second job, as they must spend hours perusing profiles, responding to messages, and setting up dates. And not only do we have to clean and organize our physical home these days, but we have to regularly tidy up, back up, and arrange the songs, emails, files, photos, and videos that line our virtual “shelves.” Plus, we must not only manage our real world selves and protect our physical privacy, but also monitor our online reputations and safekeep the data we put in the cloud.

But perhaps the most taxing shadow work of all is managing our information intake. In times past, magazine, book, and television editors controlled the flow of information to the public. This restricted the media being put out, but also filtered it for quality and importance. The web has radically democratized this process, so that anyone with a computer can create their own videos, books, articles, films, and so on. This has left the consumer with the enormous and never-ending job of wading into the torrent of media online and sifting the wheat from the chaff.

This ever-increasing mountain of shadow work tasks has placed a unique burden on the modern citizen. Lambert argues that while shadow work has hardly put us in the position of medieval peasants, it has in fact created a new kind of middle-class serfdom. We are all Mike, logging hours for corporations we don’t realize we’re employed by, and working around the clock without pay.

Life as a Middle-Class Serf

Lambert calls shadow work such, because it takes “place in the wings of the theater while we are absorbed in the onstage drama of our lives.” Had it dropped into our routines all at once, we would have noticed, and may have howled in protest, but instead it has arrived slowly in dribs and drabs. It’s become our new normal and we’ve gotten so used to it that the phenomenon has largely gone unnoticed and unrecognized.

Taken alone, the tasks of shadow work seem laughably trivial. But it’s serfdom by a thousand cuts; together, our shadow work chores have shredded our days into what the author of Overwhelmed calls “confetti time.” Rather than experiencing long, unbroken stretches of time in which we concentrate on completing tasks for a single role in our lives, we are constantly changing the hats we wear — toggling from husband to cashier, office worker to news editor, father to travel agent.

And while we were formerly forced to largely work during regular work hours and shop during regular business hours, technology allows us to produce and consume 24/7. We never fully clock out from our “real” jobs, nor do we ever fully take a break from the marketplace. Even when we’re not actively engaging in shadow work, in the back of our mind there’s that ever present niggling: Is there something I need to buy? Is there something going on I should know about? Should I check my phone? We’re always “on” and constantly mentally switching between roles.

The Hidden Thieves Stealing Your Willpower

It isn’t the time that shadow work tasks require that ends up being so draining (they may even save you time over the traditional route), but their effect on the psyche. Willpower is a finite resource. You only get so much of the fuel that allows you to focus and gives you the mental energy to tackle the world each day. And what saps this fuel is making decisions, weighing options, and exercising self-control.

Shadow work requires all three behaviors, and is thus a huge willpower drainer.

I have long felt that this is one of the single most overlooked facts in modern life; even Lambert largely misses it. I think it gets to the heart of why people feel overworked, worn out, and harried — why they just can’t be bothered to be civil or to socialize or to have hobbies, even though on paper they don’t seem to have that much going on. The stuff that’s eating away at their willpower aren’t the things you’d put in a planner, but the overlooked shadow work in the wings.

Shadow work does frequently give the average consumer more autonomy; you can do things when and how you’d like. But 100% autonomy is actually not a desirable state. “Submission” is a word with negative connotations, but times of psychic submission are in fact a mental necessity. Our minds need periods of rest where we can say to someone else, “You take care of all the details on this. I just want to enjoy the result!” It’s true that the rich have always enjoyed this kind of delegated caretaking the most, with their coterie of maids and servants standing by to fulfill their every need. But as recently as 50 years ago, everybody, from the overwhelmed housewife to the working class bloke, got to regularly enjoy at least a few brief moments of respite at stores, gas stations, and the like; nearly everyone had times both of serving and being served. Now we’re always waiting, and never being waited upon. We’re constantly tasked with shouldering all the responsibility, weighing all the options (of which there are more available than ever!), and making all the decisions. It’s exhausting.

Most wearying of all, is that one of the things which is supposed to act as our servant — the web — often becomes our master instead.

Take just the example of working in an office today compared to half a century ago. Imagine in your mind’s eye your 1960s desk. It’s got some paperwork on it, a picture of your kids, and nothing else. No computer. As you go about your work, there’s nothing to distract you; you can look at the files on your desk, or at a plant in the corner, and then back to your files. Now imagine your desk at work today. Right in the center is your computer where you do all your work. Every minute you have to resist the urge to check Instagram or look something up on google to focus on the task at hand. Each time you feel the urge to surf and resist it, you use up a bit of your willpower reserve. You’re thus actually working two jobs at once: one as Outgoing Accounts Manager, and the other as Chief Urge-Resister. Your job thus feels twice as taxing as it did a few decades ago, and you go home feeling like you just worked a double-shift. Because you pretty much did.

Once our willpower reserve runs low, “decision fatigue” sets in and we shy away from doing anything that’ll require mental energy or making choices, act less patient and civil than we’d like to, and just generally default to the path of least resistance.

It’s no surprise then, that the time we spend watching television — the ultimate in vegging out for the modern willpower-depleted serf — keeps increasing and currently stands at almost 3 hours a day, or half our total leisure time. That same leisure time everyone swears they don’t have.

Becoming the Lord of Shadow Work

Corporations love creating shadow work because outsourcing formerly paid jobs to the consumer increases their profits. But they also often claim it’s a win for everyone, as the consumer will ultimately save money and time as well. Of course the rhetoric doesn’t usually match reality; oftentimes the cost savings never trickle down, and the new robotic customer service rep is less convenient than the flesh and blood variety. For example, airline ticket prices haven’t fallen now that we buy them online and check in via kiosk. Similarly, self-check-out at the grocery store might sometimes be faster if you only have a few items — but not if you run into an error, and not if you have a whole basketful of groceries.

But shadow work does undeniably have its benefits. It lets you shop on your own time, manage your own information stream, and dine out more often than you might have otherwise (you may have to bus your own table, but you don’t have to tip).

Thus, Lambert goes out of his way to argue that shadow work in and of itself is not a problem, and is in fact an opportunity; it “can both add new tasks and open up possibilities.” But we can only take advantage of it if we’re fully aware of the phenomenon and the various ways it’s insinuated its reach into our lives. For most, the shadow work they perform goes unrecognized, though its effects are still felt; it’s as if someone sleepwalks through nightly workouts, and can’t figure out why they’re so fatigued during the day.

Hopefully this post has brought something that typically operates outside of consciousness to the forefront of your mind.

Now the task is to manage and direct your shadow work towards productive and desirable ends. Here are a few tips for doing so:

Develop a new mindset on busyness. Part of the reason people have failed to examine their perceived busyness more closely is that many don’t actually think it’s such a bad thing. Busyness these days has become a status symbol — a sign you’re someone who’s doing things in the world. People may complain that they’re overworked, but they’re often really just signaling their membership in the movers and shakers club. Our automatic equation of being busy with doing something right overlooks important facts — such as whether this busyness is actually making us happy, or even lending itself to our productivity! Someone may be expending their energy in a hundred different directions and feel entirely worn out, but be accomplishing very little.

Minimizing shadow work will make you feel less burdened, and it’s important you don’t interpret this greater lightness as doing something wrong. Again, sheer busyness itself does not equal productivity and creativity.

Outsource when you can. The DIY ethic is admirable, but only when you’re doing-it-yourself, for yourself! Putting in time for a corporation doesn’t satisfy the soul. So if they’re going to outsource jobs to you, consider passing the task along and outsourcing it to someone else. Yes, outsourcing usually costs money, but this upfront cost should be weighed not only against the time you save, but the psychic energy and willpower you’ll preserve as well. Doing things like using a travel agent, hiring a tax preparer, and even riding the bus to work instead of driving yourself, can actually end up making you more money in the long run; if you feel so exhausted at night that you never end up putting in time on your side hustle, it’ll never get off the ground. The more you outsource tiresome tasks, the more time you’ll have for satisfying and creative pursuits.

Set no-brainer blocks on your devices. Instead of expending your precious willpower trying to resist the urge to check your devices when you’d like to be working on other things, take that possibility completely off the table by putting blocks on certain apps and sites at certain times. This article covers all the ins and outs of how to do that.

Clock out from production and consumption. The average modern American is either producing or consuming at any given moment during the day. Our identities are ever tied up in economic pursuits. Take a break from the marketplace by trying not only to keep regular working hours where possible, but to adhere to regular business hours when you shop. Just because you can buy some Beard Growth Spray on Amazon at 11 o’clock at night, doesn’t mean you should. Set parameters for your economic hours, consider taking a weekly Tech Sabbath, and make unbroken lengths of time — periods in which to pursue things for their own pleasures and ends, and simply to be a human — a sacred part of your routine.

Be a satisficer rather than a maximizer. Maximizers seek out every possibility and weigh every option before making a decision; satisficers pick the first thing they’re happy with and go with it. While maximizers do end up with better things because of all their effort, research has shown that they’re still less happy with what they get than satisficers! They can’t enjoy what they pick because they continue to wonder if they made the right choice, and whether there might be something else out there they’d like even better.

In our modern life, it pays to be a satisficer. There may be a dozen different natural deodorants out there, but just pick one and stick with it. That is, whenever you find a product or service you like, if you remain happy with it, keep on using it instead of constantly surfing reviews and perusing new products that are only infinitesimally different than the previous versions.

Be ruthless in filtering information. Everyone is now their own media editor, and how you perform at this task will have much to do with the quality of your life. Grade channels/sites; do they occasionally have excellent content, while 80% of it is junk? Give them an F. Does another media outlet have the reverse ratio of gems to crap? Give it a B-. Then, instead of randomly surfing, only frequent B-quality sites/channels. Imagine yourself as a real-life editor, and ask yourself if you would publish/broadcast the content that crosses your desk; if not, you shouldn’t consume it either.

If there’s a site you’ve come to trust, as you know they examine many sources and sides of an issue before presenting advice, go right to it when you have a question, rather than wading through everything yourself.

Also apply this mindset to your social media feeds. Hide everyone and everything that doesn’t consistently share at least B-grade content.

When you start ruthlessly filtering your media consumption, you’ll often worry that you’re missing out on things — that you’ll miss something important amongst the 20% of good stuff a generally junky site puts out. But I’ve found that once you give up a particular media outlet for awhile, the tugging and withdrawal symptoms quickly go away, and you realize it was adding nothing to your life. Further, the important subjects that the junky site occasionally covered, invariably pop up on other sites, only executed far better!


Shadow work promises greater autonomy, but ends up making us feel more out of control — that we don’t have the time or energy to do the things we really want to. Don’t let yourself be added to the ranks of a corporation’s employees without realizing it, and don’t freely hand over the cream of your energy to the lords of media and commerce. Willpower is a man’s most precious resource; if you wish to be the lord of your life, rather than a serf, guard it closely and use it wisely.

Listen to our podcast on whether people today are the most exhausted in history:



Shadow Work: The Unpaid Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day

The Overestimated Workweek Revisited

American Time Use Survey Summary

Stressed Out on Four Continents: Time Crunch or Yuppie Kvetch?

The Evolution of Income, Consumption, and Leisure Inequality in The US, 1980-2010

Overwhelmed: How to Work, Play, and Love When No One Has the Time

Upwards Leisure Mobility: Americans Work Less and Have More Leisure Time than Ever Before

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