Living to work isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re doing what you love, though defining yourself by your career can make having a life outside of it more difficult.
Last month, Samantha Eyler wrote a smart column on our American love affair with Being Busy, in which she challenged us to “[use] the time we’ve been given not more productively, but more meaningfully.” The great paradox of white-collar culture is that more and more people, according to sociologist David Graeber, “spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed,” yet profess to be busier than ever. Though only 30% of American employees report feeling engaged in their labor, photos of extra-tall coffees and statuses logging late-night hours have turned social media into a humblebragging battleground of the overworked.
I’ve held the demoralizing, “soul-sucking” job where I was not appropriately challenged, where my marketing efforts felt futile in an environment that was only interested in marketing to itself, and where I pissed away hours a day on Wikipedia hoping to be interrupted with an actual assignment. Though adjunct professors are devalued in other ways—meager pay, no benefits, temporary contracts—I am fortunate enough to now hold a job that is genuinely fulfilling and fun.
There’s the saying about the world being made up of two kinds: people who work to live, and people who live to work. If you classify yourself as the latter—or at the very least feel more than occasionally worn down by your job—then you know how crucial taking time for yourself to avoid burnout is.
But what if, instead of feeling like a corporate zombie with no identifiable purpose, you’re actually enriched by what you do? Living to work isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re doing what you love, though defining yourself by your career can make having a life outside of it more difficult. Need to draw some boundaries between work and play? Start here.
Get and Stay Organized
I’d lose my ass if it wasn’t attached. Because organization has always been a challenge for me, I have to make a concerted effort to wash dishes as soon as I use them or to put documents away instead of creating a new stack that I’ll deal with later. Everything that you don’t take care of immediately, from the dirty dish to the new pile of papers, requires an additional time investment that will only cause unnecessary stress and detract from something else far more enjoyable.
When it comes to organization, think simple and visible. Remember the old college excuse, how can I write my paper with a messy dorm room? A clean, uncluttered work space encourages productivity and confidence while minimizing distraction. Organization is also a natural mood booster because it makes us feel in control, which leads to feelings of satisfaction and contentment. After you’ve simplified your space, open the windows and light a fresh-smelling candle to make all of your senses happy.
Next, make important and frequently used items visible—if possible, in more than one place. Buying a master calendar for the wall next to my desk and plugging in all class schedules, lesson plans, due dates, and other activities has been much more convenient than rummaging through folders to locate course syllabi. All I have to do now is turn my head to the right. A planner with the same exact information broken down by day also sits on my desk, and can travel with me anytime I need to access my calendar information away from home.
Realize That Leisure Can Benefit Your Work
Throwing yourself passionately into your job means that the distinction between work and play is often fuzzy. But facing this fact positively rather than negatively can help absolve those feelings of guilt you may have over self-indulging versus getting a jump on tomorrow’s list of Things To Do. Instead of viewing leisure as wasted time, think of work and play as a mutually beneficial two-way street.
The paths to improving my skills as a teacher frequently involve reading, writing, researching, and building relationships—all things that I already love to do. So when I curl up with a good book (right now it’s The English Patient) or movie (last night it was The Kids Are All Right), I keep in mind that everything I learn becomes a new part of the lexicon I can reference or connect to my lessons. Who knew that the six seasons of Mad Men I spent lazily ogling Jon Hamm would help me build a new unit on ‘50s and ‘60s American culture in literature?
Make Time for Social Activities
Disconnecting from outside life in order to either complete a project or de-stress has many short-term benefits, but shut yourself away for too long and you’ll notice some major drawbacks. The socially awkward or avoidant academic trope (c’mon, we’ve all had that teacher) is a cautionary tale of who I could become if I neglect my existing relationships or fail to form new ones.
In the long run, the more you socialize, the healthier you’ll be—mentally and physically. A report by Statistics Canada found that among seniors, “engaging in more social activities was related to better self-reported health and less loneliness and more life satisfaction,” and that unsurprisingly, life satisfaction “really depended on whether they felt that those social relations were of high quality.” Quality social relationships can stimulate you via an energetic debate among friends (I’ve had some great thought-provoking conversations with friends on my online writing alone) or provide you with some much-needed catharsis after venting to someone who will lend an ear. Bonus points if you can socialize while doing something active, like visiting the gym or going on a hike.
Learn to Say “No”
No is not a word we like to hear or say, but its power is undeniable. As hard as a no can be, especially if you’re a people-pleaser, keep in mind that you are still communicating with the other person versus ignoring them altogether. The reality is, says Mia Freedman, “people are usually so grateful just to have a firm answer.”
In an effort to slow down her life, Samantha Eyler “[clocks] about 15 hours a week, only accepting assignments that interest me.” And while both she and I acknowledge that this is not possible for everyone (I spend 15 hours a week just in the classroom), it is possible to prevent your work week from creeping up to 50, 60, 70 hours by accepting every little plea thrown your way. For me, this means balancing a willingness to help others with knowing when to decline Hey you teach English, can you edit this? requests or redirect questions better answered by another department. Saying “no” does not make you a selfish stick in the mud—it makes you someone who knows your limits and exercises control over them.
Or as Mia Freedman puts it: “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves.”
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications in Maryland. She runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen and also writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, and the media. Find her on Twitter.