Do You Work to Live or Live to Work?

I’m about to say some things that might be heretical to my fellow Americans. My apologies in advance, but I’m about to question one of our common shared religious beliefs: the belief that we should live to work. I would, after going through my own workaholic phase, respectfully suggest we reverse that behavior

Living to Work

From 2003 to 2012, I can say with reasonable assurance that I became a workaholic. After finishing the master’s degree, I was at least pursuing the career I wanted, doing work that was challenging me and stimulating my mind. There is nothing wrong with that, per se. Sadly few Americans enjoy the luxury of enjoying what they do. The advantages of living to work, if you’re in that situation include:

  • You have a positive reason to get up every morning.
  • You look forward to going in to work.
  • Work doesn’t feel like work but (almost) play.
  • A motivated worker is more productive and engaged.
  • A motivated worker is more likely to give 110% to a task, including putting in extra hours and coming up with creative ideas to make the work better.

Sounds great, right? Certainly any manager, peer, or customer would welcome such an attitude and related work ethic. However, such a work-focused life can have downsides, such as:

  • It can cut into your personal time, including time with significant others, family members (children), and friends.
  • It can negatively affect your ability to communicate with people off duty, especially if you’re at a social occasion and a) all you want to talk about is work and b) the people around you, who might not be quite as job-focused, want to talk about anything but work.
  • You can develop guilty feelings about relaxing or not working.
  • Even if you’re having a good time doing what you do, working at 100-110% all the time can lead to exhaustion, burnout, or actual poor health.

Working to Live

I picked up some of this attitude from a vacation in Europe back in 2009. Given three weeks with nothing to do but explore, look at pretty things, and try new/exotic food, I grew to really enjoy my leisure time in a way that short three-day or four-day weekend jaunts just couldn’t capture. And much to my manager’s dismay, I came back to the States  delivering products somewhat slower than at my usual blazing-fast rate. I got reacquainted with the willingness to embrace personal time when I found myself underemployed and looking for work as a freelancer.

Vacations can make managers crazy. They lose a productive person for X number of days and then the person can come back not as motivated. (Well, Mr./Ms. Manager, perhaps you’d prefer your employee/contractor burned out and out on sick leave?) In short, longer vacation are subversive to American workaholism because they give the vacationer time to put work in its proper perspective, and that perspective usually says, “You know what? There’s more to life than the job.” So here’s how a person working to live operates:

  • The employee starts to deepen interests, activities, and relationships that are not work related.
  • The work ethic remains, but the willingness to put in extra time as a regular habit eases, as does the default assumption that overtime is going to be a regular part of life.
  • The employee starts to see work as a part of their life, an important part, perhaps, but not the most important.
  • Off duty, the employee/contractor learns to set boundaries on what they are willing to accept regarding working hours.
  • Family and friends might start appreciating the employee/contractor more because s/he is willing to spend more time with them than the job.
  • Work is seen as a means to an end, a way to support one’s own desires and ends rather than solely the ends of others.
  • Most importantly: Their ego/self-esteem are not demolished if they lose their job because they have other things going on in their life and a support system/outlet they can turn to when in distress.

Fear not, leaders and managers. I am not suggesting that your employees and contractors slack off. I am suggesting that if you find that you really, REALLY like your job–to the exclusion of all other things in your life–that you take a vacation and think it over. In the end, how do you want to be remembered: one of those people who was known only through their work or one of those people who can be remembered fondly for more than one thing? Just think about it.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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3 Responses to Do You Work to Live or Live to Work?

  1. I LOVE this…. I’ve grown to realize I work to live.

  2. Nevin says:

    I was nodding my head in agreement throughout this article but I would also suggest that a person with a better work-life balance is one who stays calmer in situations of high-pressure and is able to bring a wider perspective to problems within work thus leading to better solutions and outcomes in the end. It’s not always obvious up front but I’ve seen it happen myself. When we balance things better we tend to be able to see the wood from the trees.

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