Remembering to live, not just work

March 18, 2013 in Career,Life,Philosophy

I’m a rare breed in the world of PR, marketing and social media: I’ve always taken a noontime break and left work at 5 p.m. Even though I usually bring my own lunch to save money, I take a lunchtime walk to stretch my legs or write letters in the sunshine. Sometimes I leave my phone behind, other times I bring it purely to Instagram some shiny, happy, only-in-NYC moment.

I strongly believe that my evening plans—a yoga class, drinks dates, an acupuncture appointment, sitting in bed watching Netflix and ordering Seamless—are just as important as whatever work I’m doing. Those are the things that keep me sane, happy, connected, balanced.

This isn’t to say I don’t take my work seriously. I’ve had overwhelmingly positive reviews by my supervisors for being extremely efficient and effective: I get my work done well and on time. But I believe that I’m ineffective as an employee if I’m unhappy, overworked, stressed out. I also know my own work habits: I’m most productive in short, intense bursts. I can sit at a computer for hours, but I will absolutely burn out (and distract myself with Gchat, YouTube and Facebook) if I don’t move from the same spot for 10 straight hours.

In New York City, it’s almost a religion to discuss how busy you are. People are  constantly running late, cancelling plans. They go the gym in the morning, squeeze in errands on their lunch break. People work until midnight, they work on the weekends. There’s a culture of staying at work past 5 p.m.: it’s as if simply sitting in front of your computer will somehow prove that you’re a better employee than the one who got their work done and left on time.

The standard American vacation time is 10 days a year—and many Americans don’t even take that. Even many who do board a plane to some exotic location with palm trees and pina coladas will continue to check work emails, work on projects,  check off daily tasks. There’s this feeling of insecurity, a sense of being indispensable; to me, however, that simply signals an inability to delegate and an unwillingness to trust. The more you make yourself available, the more people will expect you to be responsive 24/7: that’s why my work email isn’t hooked up to my phone and why I rarely (unless it is URGENT) answer work emails in the evening.

Bursts of completely disconnecting are becoming more and more valuable to me: whether it’s a week on a boat without any internet connection or simply turning my phone off every single night. It’s those times when I turn my mind off from work and from blogging that I’m able to recharge my energy levels and dial up my creativity.

As Tim Krieder wrote in “The Busy Trap” for The New York Times this summer (highly, highly recommend this read): “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

It’s a good reminder that being quiet and still with ourselves is just as important as “getting things done.” It’s a reminder to meditate, to set aside time for a yoga practice or a long walk–or, perhaps, just to let yourself sleep in and spend the morning reading magazines and drinking tea in bed without any guilt. It’s also a moment to reflect on what we’d like to be remembered for: I absolutely want to to be recognized as a reliable, creative, hard-working employee. But more than that, I want to be known as a cheerful presence, a person who always showed up, someone who appreciated her family and her community.

Because when it comes down to it: it’s more important to live than to work.

  • I love this! I live (and work) in New York too and the insane busyness can definitely get completely overwhelming, but I agree when I am home, I am home. Thats the best part about having a job instead of going to school. Theres no homework. If theres stuff I need to finish up, I can do it the next day (usually), but If i didnt treat my going home time as a completely work-free place, I think I would go insane…..my main problem is having the energy to go to the gym, or out to dinner as opposed to just sleeping/vegging on the couch with netflix and delivery.

  • camorose

    SO true! I really want to step up my networking in the city, and that means I need to go out more instead of just relaxing at home. We’ll see how it goes!

  • Caitlin

    I love this article (and the NY Times one as well). My husband and I were just talking about how “busy” everyone seems to be with things that aren’t really all that pressing or important (even on weekends). Our philosphy is to try not to turn down an invitation for anything fun where we connect with something or someone (Brunch? We’re there! Day at the museum? Awesome! Dinner at a friends house? Can’t wait!) but so many people try to fill their day with things the “have” to do, when in all reality, very few of those things are “have-to’s”. I may not be able to do that fun thing right this second, but I always try to make sure it happens….

  • This was my biggest issue with the PR world – I felt like I could never turn off! The thing is, even if people say they value their off-time, it often doesn’t actually get put into practice and there’s now a stigma against not being available all the time. I hope when I get back to the ‘real’ working world I have enough confidence and self-discipline to fight for my time!

  • Shireen

    This is great. As a marketing coordinator also working at a new company, the pressure is ON to work a gazillion hours a week. But when my employer asked me to stay later and come in earlier, beyond my normal 40ish hours, I had the same thoughts as you–why should I stay later or come in earlier (thus cutting short MY yoga practice!!) when I also get a lot done in short bursts during the normal day. By 5, I feel accomplished. If I still have a huge to do list, yeah, I’ll stay later, but I won’t stay just because it makes me look like I’m more dedicated. I hope that our generation can reform the older generations’ notions that to be “dedicated” and viewed as a “hard worker” you have to put in more than 40-50 hours. And what’s with Americans not taking vacation?? Yuck. Personally I start dreaming about Fridays every Monday morning. Great perspective, as usual.

  • I’m a supervisor of a small team. I share the opinion you’ve described in this brilliant article. I made the mistake though of sharing my work vs life views to a member of the team and faced indignation and shock. They simply couldn’t believe I placed more importance on my life outside work than my work itself, to the extent where she said she lost all respect for me. I think most people just go with the flow and are guided by society and what they read in newspapers rather than their own thoughts, so most live to work rather than working to live.

  • Monica Suma

    So true! Unfortunately, in some work places, myself included, it’s mandatory to stau until 6/7, although perhaps you’re done for the day earlier. That completely drains me; I think the same way. I need to stretch out for lunch, have a few breaks and do what I need to do when I need to. It’s how I’m most efficient and happiest. And ultimately, efficiency should be the top priority, right? Great post, Christine!

  • Couldn’t agree more!

  • I find that the east has much more of a busy business vibe than the west coast, and definitely have found that people in Toronto also make a contest of how busy they are.

  • camorose

    I love that concept of never turning anything down where there’s a chance to connect. I can be a little bit introverted in that I really relish my alone time, but that’s a great reminder to make more of an effort to reach out and connect!

  • camorose

    You hit the nail on the head: I don’t think people have the confidence or discipline to say no! The industry is definitely in a state of flux with 24-hour social media and news cycles, but it needs to realize and respect that giving people “off-time” is incredibly valuable.

  • camorose

    Exactly! I don’t mind staying if I have a ton to do, but generally, I’m able to get what I need to get done, DONE. And having a to-do list for the next day won’t kill anyone! It’s all about establishing priorities. Good luck on breaking through the status quo! p.s. have you read the 4-hour work week? The concept of 9-5 is so incredibly arbitrary–who said that’s when we all work best?! And that you can get exactly what needs to be done done in 8 hours? Ridiculous!

  • camorose

    That’s so crazy! I understand being passionate about your job–I love the company I work for–but I also think that my priorities have to be my health and happiness first.

  • camorose

    Efficiency should always be the top priority in my opinion– working from 9-5 is such an arbitrary standard! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • camorose

    Thanks lady!

  • camorose

    I found it just as bad in Silicon Valley on the West Coast–the high tech community never seems to turn off! Really hate the contest of “how busy I am” though.

  • Ashlee

    Your last sentence says it all. Love this!

  • cosmoHallitan

    Beautifully said! I was the same way when I was living in NYC and working in marketing, 9-5 with an hour for lunch. I was good at my job and effective at time management and no one ever questioned my commitment. In fact, many of my colleagues had the same practices and the supervisors encouraged it because happy hour was sort of like a team-building exercise. But when I relocated to DC, the attitude there was much different. Everyone was expected to work longer days, skip lunch if a meeting was scheduled, and be on call with a Blackberry. And to what end? Most of the employees at that company were miserable and turnover was high. Needless to say I didn’t stay there long.

  • I guess I have the European mentality of working to live rather than living to work and have never understood how Americans can work so crazily with very few vacation days. People here in Mexico seem to have the same mentality.

    When I first moved here, having 4 weeks of vacation was an adjustment for me because I’ve always had a minimum of 6! Then I realised that most people here start their jobs with only 6-7 days of vacation a year! That’s crazy. I love working hard at my job but I could never sacrifice my life for it. It would end up eating away at my personality and I refuse to let my job dictate who I am.

  • Good for you for knowing when to take a break, and unplugging for a bit. Too many people seem to think that a break = laziness, but it’s necessary for everyone.

  • cathy c

    Staying late at work means that dinner is late, no time for evening activities and bedtime is late. So I oversleep, am tired, get to work late, have to make up time later in the day, get home late – a vicious cycle. What a difference leaving on time makes. So that’s one of my goals this year – and I achieve it about 50% of the time. thanks for reinforcing it that we’re more focused, and work harder if we take time to play and relax.

  • camorose

    Thanks lady! Always a work in progress 🙂

  • camorose

    I’ve been very lucky with all of my positions being OK–to an extent–with me leaving at 5 every day. I just feel like I need to rest and regroup after sitting at a desk all day!

  • camorose

    It’s very hard to adjust back to in the USA–I’m considered “lucky” with 14 days of vacation time but I had twice that when I worked in Australia. All relative, I suppose–but I think I prefer the European mentality!

  • camorose

    Super true. Important to unplug without feeling guilty about it.

  • camorose

    Glad you were able to relate. It is SUCh a vicious cycle!

  • LostInCheeseland

    At 5pm I’m just walking into a meeting and saying to myself “oh good, I still have a couple more hours to get this done”…. in Paris. I just need to get to the point where I read pieces like Krieder’s (which I gobbled up as soon as it was published) and actually take action. But here I am, almost midnight, and I’m back on the computer. Taking that step toward idleness is SO hard. Vacation certainly facilitates it (if you’re not guilted into working during it) but au quotidien, it takes so much diligence. Good on you for taking walks during your lunch break! A tour of Boulogne wouldn’t be quite as pleasant….

  • camorose

    Midtown honestly isn’t THAT compelling, but I know that just a quick 15-minute walk around the block will do more to clear my mind and get me more productive for the rest of the afternoon than staying idle the whole time. I’ve always been pretty committed to working out simply because it’s an hour in my day when I don’t have to worry about the other stuff–huge, huge priority for me in terms of mental health more than physical fitness.

  • thesillyashy

    i am living in asia…crazy bustling asia…there’s so much to be done in a day and it’s almost impossible to have quiet moments at all. the weirdest thing about the office culture in asia is that you are not allowed to leave before your boss does. so, imagine if you are boss is a workaholic and clocks in 12 hours a day, chances are you have to do the same.

    well….i am sure different one of us experience different things in our work life. peace and quietness are such a rare commodity these days. it’s a luxury that all of us are yearning for but can’t attain.

  • camorose

    Interesting! I never realized that about work culture in Asia–I don’t think I could handle it!

  • Pingback: Looking back on 2013 | C'est Christine()

  • Great post…I always felt guilty when living in the US about taking lunch breaks and leaving work on time to fit in a gym class or meet a friend. I’ve never been one that enjoyed staying late just to fit in, but the guilt would still eat at me. I felt that if I wasn’t running around like a chicken with my head cut off, I wasn’t doing something right. Living in Europe has been a breath of fresh air. As crazy as London is, its nice that people take their holidays seriously and are not afraid to use all of their annual leave in a year. I’m not sure if I can ever go back to 10 days now!

  • camorose

    It’s very hard to adjust–and the guilt is a big factor!

Previous post:

Next post: