Work-life balance is a myth. It’s time we start admitting it.
Relax, he said. Have some fun for a change. Go with him to a cookout. It was his cousin’s son’s birthday, and he wanted to show me off. So instead of working on an important project, I spent hours trapped in awkward conversation with extended family.
There was a piñata in there somewhere. But I didn’t get to hit it. Kids only. How disappointing. Almost as disappointing as the lack of alcohol or phone reception. I couldn’t even play Angry Birds in the bathroom.
That night, I tried to pick up my momentum on a work project but wound up collapsing on my desk from party-induced exhaustion.
“See, you work too hard,” my ex said. And he was right, except he meant my project. Not the party.
That’s when I realized that not everyone defines fun the same way. Some people don’t enjoy what most of us think of as “leisure”: riding carousels, standing in line for cotton candy at the state fair, going to a cookout.
If you don’t like that stuff, you’re labeled a “workaholic.” Many of us will do anything to avoid that label. We’ll even pretend to enjoy baseball. Well, maybe that’s pushing it.
We Relax in Different Ways
My ex-fiancé was always pushing me to do more “relaxing” stuff on the weekends. Not just on Friday night, but for all of Saturday and big chunks of Sunday — time I needed for work.
We live between two equally unhealthy work cultures.
Not just needed. Wanted. For me, work (in my case, research) is fun and relaxing. Spreadsheets don’t stress me out; family reunions do. But, somehow, I always gave in. Even if I’d rather have gone for a hike, I did the things he convinced me were “fun.”
We live between two equally unhealthy work cultures. The Amazon approach grinds people into a fine powder of man hours to line the pockets of billionaires. On the other hand, tidy little advice columns and commercials tell us to take time off. Relax. Spend weekends with family. Invest in ourselves.
Those encouraging us to take it easy make the mistake of assuming we all relax the same way. And some of us let them impose their version of fun on us. They don’t understand that we’ve turned our fun into work, and we accommodate them by trying to do things their way. But when we try to live by other people’s rules, it presents a new set of challenges.
When Fun and Work Collide
When you love your job, it’s hard to know when to take a break. Personally, I’m willing to work upward of 12 hours. Maybe even 14. Work and play and relaxation all bleed into each other, making it impossible to log my exact hours.
Let’s say you go for a hike in order to brainstorm a project. Or you hit the gym to think through part of a presentation. Was that work or relaxation? I would argue it’s both.
If my boss ever asked me to report my hours, I’d probably say 70 or more. That sounds inhuman — unless you love your job. If you truly enjoy what you do, when someone gasps and tells you to chill, it comes off as a little pushy. Who are they to decide you work too much?
Or, let’s say you grab coffee with a friend. But your friend’s a co-worker. Your conversation toggles back and forth between casual and shoptalk. In fact, anything other than shoptalk bores the hell out of you.
Nothing wears me out like listening to someone talk about their vacation. I know that makes me sound like a terrible person, but it’s not like I tell them that. I smile and nod politely because I consider listening to co-workers talk about their weekend to be part of my job. Now, those are hours that I can log.
Let’s say you go for a hike in order to brainstorm a project. Or you hit the gym to think through part of a presentation. Was that work or relaxation?
Some people need a long weekend, or a vacation. I love those, too — because they give me time to do the parts of my job that I like the most. What energizes me even more than a vacation, though, is a compliment. If someone I respect tells me “nice job,” I feel like I’ve spent a summer in the Alps.
More people are like this than they’re willing to admit. They don’t want to sound like they’re bragging, or promoting an unfair work ethic. Sure, don’t brag about how much you work. But don’t lie to yourself about how much you enjoy vacations, especially if all you want to do is sneak away from the beach and find reliable WiFi to answer emails.
Vacations Can Stress You Out
Spending time with your family can feel like a chore. Sure, it’s important, but it’s still work. Planning and going on long trips isn’t exactly barrels of fun, especially if you don’t actually want to go.
Sometimes you indulge friends and family, doing the things they love. Parks. Museums. Festivals. Seeing them happy matters. Once, I spent four hours watching birds because my spouse wanted to. It was a great crane migration. Some people describe it as a religious experience. Mine was meh. Wow, look at all those birds. There sure are a lot of them. Can we go now?
We couldn’t, though, because if you leave your outpost, you’ll spook the birds. And it will ruin the whole night for everyone. I almost killed him, and everyone else in that little shack we were stuck in with no bathroom. But I didn’t. Because love.
Someone should’ve paid me for those hours, but they didn’t. It wasn’t fun. It was work. Relationship work. The hardest kind.
Pretending to Have Fun is Work
Don’t trick yourself into thinking that doing what someone else wants is fun, or relaxing. Your happiness depends on this. There’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t enjoy watching birds. Or going to the beach. It doesn’t mean you’re a workaholic.
Last year, my in-laws dragged me to the ocean. Personally, I hate American beaches. They’re the most boring places on earth. Jet skis. Volley ball. Hot tubs. Suntan lotion. Just the thought makes me shudder.
But I love deserts. And the plains. My great wish is to one day go tornado hunting. That strikes some people as dangerous, but to me it just sounds fun.
In some ways, everything we do is a kind of work. Family outings. Travel abroad. Trips to see the parents. There’s no such thing as a totally relaxing experience.
How did I survive my time at the beach? By bringing my laptop with me and balancing “family time” with trips to Starbucks. The ability to work kept me sane.
The entire concept of vacations is busted. What matters isn’t how much time you spend relaxing. It’s how you feel about your day. Whether you truly did something meaningful. To some people, that’s mowing the lawn. To others, it’s baking their flesh in the sun. Excuse me, tanning.
True Fun Is Productive
Some people say Netflix is a waste of time. But for me, watching season 2 of Ozark not only calms me down but provides a valuable lesson in storytelling. Watching standup comedy has taught me how to use humor in my writing. So has reading memoirs and binging on blog posts.
I’m also an avid gamer. Sometimes you just have to turn off parts of your brain for a couple of hours. Doing so allows your mind to incubate a problem and break through creative roadblocks.
Other than playing a game, maybe turning off your brain means going for a walk. Hitting the gym. Netflix and chill. These activities might seem frivolous, but you’ll do more productive work if you feed your creative soul.
People often ask how I find time to watch movies and play games while churning out articles, books, and blog posts. But my “goofing off” time actually makes me more productive. If all I did was write and produce content, I’d burn out within a few months.
In some ways, everything we do is a kind of work. Family outings. Travel abroad. Trips to see the parents. There’s no such thing as a totally relaxing experience, devoid of any labor. Everything has its own scale of investment and reward.
The sooner we stop pretending, the better. There’s nothing worse than lying to yourself about how you feel, just because you recently did something that mainstream culture has classified as “relaxing.” That can cause even more damage than “working too hard.”
Don’t let anyone judge you for how you spend your free time. You might have to sacrifice some of it to do what other people consider fun. But be honest with yourself and others about what you truly enjoy. And then go do it. Don’t give others the power to define it as work or play. And if you see a piñata, don’t be a coward like me. Hit it. Hit it hard.