To work harder, or not to work harder? That is the fundamental question underlying the issue of work-life balance. Here’s my take on it…
I’m often asked how I keep so many plates spinning between everything happening here at Muscle for Life and over at Legion, and my answer is very simple:
1. I have a hard-working team of friends that do whatever is needed to help make sure the show goes on.
2. I work a lot of hours. On average, 65 to 75 hours per week, with the occasional 80+ hour weeks now and then depending on what’s going on.
I’m then often asked how I can possibly work that much without burning out. How do I manage some sort of “work life balance?”
After being asked it enough, and seeing it as a recurring topic of interest among various lifestyle and “intellectual” blogs I follow, I thought I would write an article on it.
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And I thought the place to begin such an article would be a contemplation of why I enjoy working so much. Is it because I love the sense of purpose it gives me? Or is it more about the material things it gives me?
There’s no question that I’m driven by a simple urge to be helpful to others, and I like money and nice things just as much as the next person, but these factors alone don’t comprise the full why for me.
Is there a darker side, maybe? Is my work just an “existential reassurance” or “hedge against emptiness,” as Tim Kreider wrote? Is it a way to avoid other areas of my life? To numb undesirable feelings or fill a void? Am I “addicted” to busyness in the same way others are addicted to alcohol or sex?
None of these things really resonate with me, but the nature of self-awareness being what it is, it’s hard to rule them out altogether. I don’t desire to be “busy” for the sake of being busy, I don’t have some gaping wound in my personal life that I’m avoiding, and I don’t care about looking our sounding important to others. I can happily enjoy time away from my work, but I’m always looking forward to getting back at it.
Well, for me, the answer is beautifully expressed in the following poem from Goethe:
Daily work— my hands’ employment,
To complete is pure enjoyment!
Let, oh, let me never falter!
No! there is no empty dreaming:
Lo! these trees, but bare poles seeming,
Yet will yield both food and shelter
That is, I just like making stuff.
If I’m addicted to anything, it’s to seeing my ideas manifested in the real world, and to seeing them work as I had anticipated. That’s far more thrilling to me than walking my dogs or riding my bike or watching a movie, and the fact that others find my ideas helpful and are willing to pay me for them just makes it all the more sweeter.
So that’s why I like to work. I like being able to look at something physical and real and working and know that I did that.
But, going back to the point of this article, what about balance? How do I possibly work that much and also fit in social and play time?
The answer is simple: I work a lot more than I play. There are only so many hours in the day and something has to give.
I’m fortunate enough to work with friends but rarely hang out otherwise. I don’t believe in “TGIF,” I don’t check my calendar for upcoming holidays, and I don’t fantasize about “getting away from it all.”
As Seth Godin so wonderfully put it…
“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.”
Or, as Sir Richard Branson mused..
“If you hide under the covers because you can’t face another day of the same old grind, you clearly need more change in your life.
“If you leap out of bed precisely because, today, everything is going to be different and something is sure to surprise you, then you’re halfway there already.”
What about burnout? How much can one really work until the problems begin?
Well, most people I’ve known that talked about maintaining “balance” to avoid burnout were simply lazy. The type of people that, if you sent them back a couple hundred years, would complain nonstop about work conditions and probably wind up starving to death.
Whatever you think is too much becomes too much. If you want an excuse to underachieve, simply decide to be exhausted every day come 5 PM. Tell yourself you couldn’t possibly do more. You’ll find plenty of sympathy among friends and peers, and you’ll be right.
“Sometimes death only comes from a lack of energy,” Napoleon once said. (Click here to tweet this!) Without enough challenge, mental and physical lethargy are inevitable.
On the other hand, decide that 80 hours of work per week–on whatever projects you want to work on–and all the things you get done in that time, is exhilarating, and it will be.
And this brings me to what I think is the crux of the work-life balance conundrum: you have to find your balance, and that means reconciling your ambitions with your actions.
If you’re like me and have a strong desire to make cool stuff happen, and you don’t do enough of it, your life is going to feel out of balance. I think idleness has value, but it’s like a medicine: too much and it makes you sicker than before.
If, however, you’re not too concerned with all that and your ambition is to relax and play, I don’t see any reason why you should feel compelled to stay busy all the time or feel guilty for not working as much as the next person. Just because you can burn the candle at both ends doesn’t mean you have to.
As Bob Dylan said…
“What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.”
In the end, it really is just a question of what you want to do: make stuff happen or luxuriate?
If it’s the former, then go do it and who cares what others think. People love to disparage what they don’t understand or wish they had. As Hegel said: “To be independent of public opinion is the first formal condition of achieving anything great.” (Click here to tweet this!)
If it’s the latter, then embrace it and be resolute in your idleness. Spend time with people you love and be careful with your obligations. Ironically, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy your idleness nearly as much in a world without the inventions and creations of the other group, but that doesn’t mean you have to join them.