There's a middle ground between burning yourself out and quiet quitting: 'enoughness'

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There's a middle ground between burning yourself out and quiet quitting: 'enoughness'
"Over the last three years, a lot of people have been asking: 'What's enough for me?'" Robert Kelley, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, told Insider.Cavan Images/Getty Images
  • There's a middle ground between quiet quitting and burning yourself out: it's called "enoughness."
  • The idea is to devote enough energy and time to work to meet your professional and financial needs.
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What's the appropriate — and sustainable — amount of time and energy to devote to your job?

Elon Musk has one answer. It involves working "long hours at high intensity" in an "extremely hardcore," manner. Die-hard quiet quitters, meanwhile, have another. They do only what's in their job description, never going above and beyond. Some argue that's called "doing your job" but that also inherently implies deriving little interest or challenge from your workday.

The question has renewed urgency amid the uncertain direction of the economy and as some of the world's largest, most profitable companies, including Amazon, Goldman Sachs, and Microsoft, cut tens of thousands of workers. Many lost their jobs after years of loyal hard work.

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"This also just drives home that work is not your life," Justin Moore, a Google engineer who the firm let go after he spent over 16-and-½ years there, said in a LinkedIn post. He added that employers see their workers "as 100% disposable."

Surely there must be some middle ground that doesn't require near-burnout-level exertion that also allows you to reap satisfaction, financial and otherwise, from your job.

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According to Robert Kelley, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, there's a word for what many of us are seeking: "enoughness." The term literally mean "a state or condition of adequacy and sufficiency." But three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it could also refer to the happy medium of balancing your employer's expectations and your personal ambitions with an enduring need for self-preservation and sanity.

"Over the last three years, a lot of people have been asking: 'What's enough for me?'" Kelley told Insider.

"They don't want to over-index on their jobs at the expense of their lives — they don't want to work nights and weekends or sacrifice time with their kids or hobbies or church. They want to make a conscious choice about it."

Not a striving go-getter, but not a slacker either

Kelley first heard of the term "enoughness" in the context of early European farmers on the island of Hawaii. The Europeans hired Samoan farmers to work the fields, but instead of toiling all day, the Samoan farmers would work only two or three hours, he said. Aghast, the Europeans tried to prod them into working more, explaining that they could make more money if only they spent more time in the fields.

"But they said, 'I have enough. Why do more than we have to when we've got what we want?'" Kelley said.

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Today, every pocket of the workforce is home to the quest for enoughness, from young rank-and-file workers rejecting the daily grind all the way up to the C-suite, according to Kelley. Consider the number of CEOs that have recently stepped down who Kelley said have asked themselves: "How much more money do I need? How many more board meetings do I need?"

In the depths of the pandemic, many of us recalibrated what we wanted from work and now we're trying to put those desires into practice. We don't want to slack off, or even quiet quit, but we're less willing to make our jobs our top concern.

"Very few people get recharged from their work," Kelley said. "And so people are trying to be more deliberate about how much time and energy they spend on their jobs, so that they have more left over to spend on friends and family and on themselves."

Seeking enoughness in uncertain times

Since 2021, workers have enjoyed tremendous leverage amid a tight labor market. Today, though, layoffs are piling up and the economic picture is murkier.

What's more, more companies are demanding employees return to the office, thereby negating the flexibility many people gained early in the pandemic. Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, told staff they need to return to the office four days a week starting in March.

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The upshot: Deprioritizing work has become harder and enoughness has become more elusive. You might have zero interest in being a striving go-getter, but the consequences of not going full throttle are too great. At the same time, you want your work to mean something. It is, after all, how you spend — at least — eight hours a day.

Kelley acknowledged that there's tension there, but said he's confident people will work it out for themselves and for their families. It's up to individuals to find their version of enoughness.

"The job market has tilted toward workers in the last few years, and while it's not shifting toward employers nearly as fast as Musk and Iger think is happening, people are doing a quiet readjustment," Kelley said.

"Everyone is trying to figure out what's viable long-term."

In the meantime, perhaps we should all take some advice from Moore. He seems to know a thing or two about enoughness.

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"Live life, not work," he said in his post.

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