Today, despite the fact that it’s a national holiday, I really wanted to go into the office. Ultimately, I chose not to because that was the harder choice to make. If that statement makes no sense to you, then I’ll be honest, this article probably isn’t for you.
But if you, like me, are a compulsive workaholic, then today is as great a day as any to sit down and question why that is. Where does that behavior stem from? Why do you experience anxiety on a beach with no cell phone service? Why do you check your email first thing in the morning?
Chances are, you’ll be embarrassed by any honest answer. Because unless you are an oncologist, are busy saving the fucking planet, or literally will not make rent and eat this month if you don’t drive Uber all day every day, you can probably afford to take a few hours or wow, even a whole day off here or there.
If you struggle with taking time off, it’s more than likely that you just don’t want to, and that’s almost certainly a problem. Because work obsession is equally as harmful as work aversion on the psyche, on life outcomes, too.
So much of our compulsion to work so hard is based in ego. It’s deeply rooted in fear and avoidance behavior. We want to be the type of people that are always moving and shaking, the type that “make something” of themselves. Afraid to sit still for too long, uncomfortable when disconnected.
As if people will judge us, as if our motivations and ambitions will evaporate, as if trading time for joy is a sorry use of it, we wear busy is a badge of honor. And it makes us feel worthy, even important.
But “busy” isn’t a virtue. It’s not even an effective means of getting anything meaningful done. It’s just a distraction from what matters most in life.
Boredom, sloth, leisure — these qualities feel like a sins in today’s always-on digital world. Because you are nearly always tethered to a device with an internet connection, you have the privilege (and disadvantage) of always having the option to work.
It’s an active choice, not a logistical obstacle, that stands between you and working at 2am on a Tuesday “just because you couldn’t sleep.”
But is that the important work of life? Always being available? Responding within 20 minutes to non-urgent requests? Giving people what they want?
Is this just something we do because we’re afraid of the backlash, afraid of the opportunities we might miss? How come we don’t think more about what we might missing out on while we were busy trying to get to inbox zero?
The concept of “balance” is one I’ve personally struggled with forever.
I’ve been a champion for what high performers have called “work-life integration.” That is, designing a system that makes living and working inextricable. Your people are with you at work, your work is with you at home. There’s no need to escape either because they are always intertwined.
There’s no problem with this strategy in theory. But for me, I’ve realized that workaholism, above any other -ism is my kryptonite. It’s the driver for my behavior, and I like to use the word “integration” as an excuse.
Like maybe you do, I have a terrible addiction to productivity, a terrible affliction to anything that disrupts it.
Sometimes I think this is because I feel a crushing moral responsibility to doing good. Or existential guilt having been born in this country at this time. But more than likely, it’s driven by the fear of never reaching my potential. And work is my crutch in aiding that deep, void-like fear.
Yet, I “know” productivity for productivity’s sake is NOT what makes life meaningful. Nor is it what will lead to realizing my potential.
What makes life so rich, so fulfilling—is the commitment to seeing, being, and doing something beyond ourselves.
At the base level, that’s what work is. It’s service. Whether you’re a nurse practitioner or a janitor, whether you are a sales rep or an entrepreneur, when we do work right, it’s about connection and contribution.
When we do it wrong, it’s about making ourselves feel important, significant, and wanted. It’s about filling the holes in our fragile identities and distracting ourselves from the void with tedious details.
When I boil my cliché ambitions to “change the world” and “help people” all the way down to the source, I start to realize that my logic and work behaviors are flawed. I am working to ease the discomfort of a meaningless life, a nameless life.
And when I am working for work’s sake, I forget to do the small things that will add up to mean a whole lot more. Because the crazy fact of it is, if you want to make the world a better place, it’s a lot simpler than you think:
Love the people around you. Work on being trustworthy. Say hello to struggling strangers on the street. Tip that barista. Don’t make jokes at the expense of others. Laugh hard. Support good art. Be slow to judge. Live a life that is true to yourself. Don’t gossip. Work on yourself. If you’re raising kids, raise good ones. Be curious about people.
This is the stuff that makes an impact.
When you are nearing a birthday with a zero at the end of it, it feels like time starts to speed up. You become hyper-aware of your mortality, your moral failings to this point. Leisure is a luxury you simply cannot afford.
You haven’t accomplished what you wanted to accomplish by [insert some age here]. So you begin this crazy cycle of shaming yourself into working harder, into doing more.
Tim Kreider writes:
“Squandering time is a luxury of profligate youth, when the years are to us as dollars are to billionaires. Doing the same thing in middle age just makes you nervous, not with vague puritan guilt but the more urgent worry that you’re running out of time, a deadline you can feel in your cells.”
Your biological clock is ticking. The fear of death is creeping into your veins. Time spent being feels wasted. You aren’t ever going to amount to anything!
The craziest thing about it is that research shows the top-10% of high performers of all ages, across all industries are actually far more balanced than the average person. They don’t think in these neurotic ways. They don’t feel like they are constantly trying to “do it all” and falling short.
Instead, they know what’s important to them and design their lives around exactly that. How freeing.
And that’s the key. You need to ask yourself — based on your current behaviors, what are you optimizing for? Happiness? Connection? Impact? Legacy?
If you do an intensive audit on how you are currently spending your time, you may realize that you are actually optimizing for burnout or deathbed regret. You may realize you’re optimizing for financial wealth in the future or global notoriety. You may realize that you are right in line with what you want or way outside.
There’s nothing wrong with what you choose to optimize for, only something wrong with not choosing at all. Letting your life values be dictated by your inbox is a recipe for disaster. So is spending your precious time on things that don’t matter to you just because someone sent you a calendar invite.
And at some point, no matter what, whether it be spending too much time on beautiful beaches or too much time in your cubicle, you will start to experience diminishing returns. It’s important to notice that too much of anything is counterproductive, even counter-enjoyable.
Because as Tim Ferriss has said,
“By working only when you are most effective, life is both more productive and more enjoyable. It’s the perfect example of having your cake and eating it, too.”
Get you a life that can do both.
Because saving space for slack, white space even, in your calendar is equally as important as logging all your appointments.
You’ve heard the classic flight attendant metaphor. You know, the one where he tells you to put your oxygen mask before that kid sitting next to you. The core concept is simple: you can’t save someone else if you’re dead.
Rest and relaxation are a requirement of great work. Great work is a requirement of guilt-free (and true) rest and relaxation. You need both to thrive.
You need to do things for the sake of doing them. You need structured meetings sometimes, too. You need to take days off just to think. You need time for deep work. You need to spend quality time with the people you love.
That’s what makes you uniquely human. The ability to hold so many things in your heart and mind and then choose what’s truly important.
When it comes to thinking about how I want to optimize in my own life, I often think about Ray Dalio’s definition of what makes a good life:
Meaningful Work + Meaningful Relationships
Or even Freud who said…
“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
The question is not whether life is worth living or work is worth doing. Labor Day is not a time to reflect on why you shouldn’t work at all or why it should be summer all year round.
It’s a day dedicated to being instead of doing. A day to reflect on whether or not you have enough of these kinds of days to be truly fulfilled, to be truly proud of the life you are living and the person you are becoming.
I’ll leave you with this…
One of the most cherished parks in the world (according to my admittedly limited worldview) is Central Park in New York City. The green space and trees are plentiful. When I used to live in the city, I’d run around the reservoir at 86th street in the evenings, go for a walk right through the middle of it to brainstorm, and hang out in open fields with friends on the weekends.
But take that same park and put it, say where I grew up in New Hampshire, I’m not sure I’d ever have hung out there. It wouldn’t have been spectacular at all, just a slightly cooler replica of my big, green backyard.
What makes Central Park so beautiful is that it’s the eye of the storm, the calm center of one of the craziest, busiest, loudest cities in the world. It’s the juxtaposition of greenery to gray skyscrapers.
Maybe the same thing that makes Central Park beautiful is what makes summer beautiful. It’s not the finitude of the season that makes us cherish it so dearly, but the juxtaposition of it against fall, winter, and spring. Maybe, too, it’s juxtaposition that overwhelms us with emotions in the happy moments, the sad moments.
It’s the comparing and contrasting of the things, the experiences, the places, the activities that make them meaningful and beautiful.
And if that’s the case, then we need both work and leisure to understand and appreciate either.
That’s what makes it all so rich, so fulfilling.
The juxtaposition of it.