Defining work vs. leisure

There’s this cloud of guilt that follows me around. It’s relentless – it’s there on saturday mornings, sunday afternoons, tuesday evenings…it feels especially stinging when I’m procrastinating – say, reading the latest self-indulgent prose on Thought Catalog.

I’ve struggled with this for almost as long as I remember. I remember filling out some silly survey back in high school (maybe one of those email chain surveys…I don’t even remember) that asked something like “what makes you happiest?” And I think I said something like “being productive.” I was 15, max. Little workaholic in the making.

Student life naturally lends itself to this no-boundaries lifestyle, where every moment theoretically could be put towards doing readings, studying, or writing papers. Add some extracurriculars on top of that and the problem is exasperated. One of the things I was really excited about when I graduated and started work was this idea of “closing the office door” – of being able to have guilt-free evenings and weekends, where I can lounge around watching re-runs of Law and Order SVU (Stabler and Benson are my friends; we solve crimes together), and not feel a tinge of guilt about it. Not saying five evenings a week of that would lead to a particularly fulfilling life…but it was a good option to have. Free time, to do whatever it is I want, no strings of “but I really should or could be doing x, y, or z” guilt attached.

Indeed it was pretty much everything I had dreamed of. I cooked elaborate meals, savoured in the joy of learning and trying new recipes, did my dishes with music on as I danced in the kitchen. And yes, there were some episodes of Law and Order. Life was good.

But this was short-lived. Within a few months I had found myself some new volunteering commitments to take on. I love getting involved in the community and putting my skills to where I think could make some sort of difference. It gets me excited and makes me happy – that’s why I seek them out. But they also take away that dream life of evenings of freedom to waste away as I please. I guess I didn’t want them to waste away, but I wanted the option. Ah, life is complicated.

The thing about the volunteering involvements that I tend to find myself in is that they are not time-bound. I’m not serving food at the soup kitchen. I like developing programs and organizations, drafting communication plans, developing fundraising strategies…for me, that’s getting to the “meat” of it that’s really fulfilling. But guess what the problem with that is? No. Time. Boundaries. Just deliverables and deadlines. The plus side: fantastic flexibility, I can be doing it at 11pm if I wanted. The down side: that guilt cloud is back.

It’s ironic, really – there is a part of me that craves this idea of guilt-free leisure time, but the choices that I make consistently are completely against that. Consulting: not a profession known for its boundaries. Co-founding a social enterprise: who are we kidding – running a business is the furthest thing away from having boundaries. Compounding both of these at the same time: some crazy idea that effectively zaps away all of my free time. But I love them both in every other way.

There were some periods this past year where almost all of my waking moments were consumed with work or the Hub. There was just so much to do, and never enough time to do it all. I think there may have been a few weeks where the only time that I didn’t feel guilty not working was when I was pausing to consume food. I didn’t complain much because this was work that I loved, that I find meaning in, that I asked for. I didn’t have to do the Hub, it doesn’t help pay bills – but I wanted to. In many ways, it was a dream come true.

Around the same time some articles surfaced. One I received almost obscurely – from someone in high school that I don’t really talk to that often. The article was titled “Get Busy Living“, and the premise was that being busy gets in the way of living. Here are some excerpts:

We wear “busy” as if it is a badge of honor. We talk about “busy” as though it’s something to be proud of. We let “busy” fill the void.

…We feel guilt when we’re not getting things done… 

When you’re busy, you miss out on amazing opportunities. Because there’s no time for creative thought. No time for trying new things. No time for taking chances and coming up with brilliant ideas. Busy clutters our mind from thinking clearly and objectively about what we really want and probably should be doing.

When you’re busy, you can pretty much say so long to spontaneity. There’s no wiggle room. There’s barely room to breathe, much less room to really capture what the moments in front of us have to offer.

When you’re busy, it wains our your ability to form strong relationships. To sustain bonds. To celebrate. To build new connections. Whether it’s our family, friends, or clients, when we’re occupying all of our time with getting “stuff” done, we’re not making room to let anyone in.

…a life constantly filled with “busy” isn’t really being lived.

Talk about resounding prose. The New York Times ran a opinions piece not long after, called “The Busy Trap”, with a similar argument: Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

I reacted negatively to these assertions at the time, though – while it made some good points, I rejected that it applied completely to me, because I felt that I was living my life. I was living the dream and finding meaning in the work I was doing, only this part of the dream temporary involved not doing much besides working. I didn’t feel that I was being busy to fill a void – I was finding a lot of meaning in what I was busy with. It wasn’t just filler, it was good stuff. It just happened to be a lot of good stuff. Maybe too much good stuff.

And then I burned out. I saw it coming, I was cautious of it – but hey, we needed to launch this thing and there was no stopping. There was a point when I snapped briefly at someone for asking me something, saying: “I just don’t have the bandwidth to deal with this right now.” I felt really bad about it. I worked harder at prioritizing and things became a little more manageable again, but I was still “working” 70+ hour weeks, easily.

So I put quotation marks around the word “working” above because it was a concept I struggled to define. In many ways it wasn’t work because it was my choice to take it on and I wasn’t being compensated financially…anytime soon, if at all. I was doing extra things for my paid job too, because it allowed me to pursue my passions there. But in other ways the choices that I made early on had morphed into commitments, which made it feel like work. And I guess the activities themselves resemble work, too. But volunteer activities often resemble work in their nature. And one could argue that volunteer activities are, by definition, leisurely – because it’s what one chooses to do in their free time.

The reality was this: if I indeed have lots of free time on my hands, what would I choose to do? Pretty much exactly what I was busy “working” on. That’s what I would actually want. Example: I would love to be reading about trends in social entrepreneurship in my free time anyway. Now I was doing it as one of my “extra things” for work…and suddenly it felt a little different.

The lines between work and leisure had never been blurrier. What had started as “leisure” activities had felt very much like work and had effectively taken over my life. What happened? Was the answer simply to do less?

As evidenced by this blog post that has quickly turned into a thousand word saga (I’m impressed you’re still reading), my time in Jamaica has given me a good chance to reflect on this. Living in this environment has really allowed me to break out of my usual bubble and gain perspective on what’s important for me, in my life. In my first couple of weeks I had a nostalgic taste of what it is like to have free time. I had taken care of things for the Hub before I left to last me for a few weeks, and since it isn’t safe to go out on my own after dark, I had quite a bit of time on my hands. I plowed through almost all of my emails. Watched some Law and Order. Did more reading than I’ve done in a long while. Didn’t feel that guilty for the most part. And you know…it was nice. I think free time is something I want to keep in my life.

But I also want to keep living the dream of spending some of that free time to do things I find meaning in. Without feeling like it’s “work”, or that it’s a chore. So yes, doing less is part of the answer, I think – but I’m starting to think the perception on choice is also key to preventing that shift from “leisure” and “enjoyable” to “chore” or “work”. It appears that once something becomes a commitment, the enjoyment seems to evaporate – it turns into a chore, something I “have to” do instead of something I “choose to” do…regardless of whether the action that created the commitment in the first place was very much a conscious choice.

Perhaps the answer lies in reminding myself of this choice. That all the to-do’s, some of them not so enjoyable, ultimately stem from something that I do want to do. And that if I really didn’t want to do it anymore – I can also choose not to. The reminder of choice helps frame activities less as obligations (which tend to have negative connotations), and more as enjoyable activities that I continue to opt in to. And things I have evolved into activities I don’t enjoy…I need to opt out of. Responsibly, of course.

I guess there are also tangible strategies that I can employ to help make this happen. For example, not put myself into more commitment than I need to. Earlier today I was at a local yoga studio, trying out their zumba class. It was so much fun and I’d love to do it more. But with this thinking in mind, I know that signing up for a regular class could increase the risk of me seeing it as a “chore” rather than an activity of choice. So I’m going with the drop-in classes approach. It’s a tad more expensive, but worth it if it means that I’m actually going to enjoy myself when I go, rather than the dread of “I have to”…perspective.

From experience, I also know that things tend to feel more obligatory as their due date draws closer. Another strategy I’m going to try: do activities way ahead of their deadlines, so that they don’t feel as much like obligations. I’ve had some success with making “must do” and “nice-to-do” lists each day. They help me prioritize for the day. Though maybe I should rename them, to the “to-do list” and then the “I want to do list”. It’s still good to write lists because I get such satisfaction from checking boxes off, but I need them to not feel like obligations, and reinforce the idea of choice.

I also need to set up some boundaries and carve out some guilt-free “me-time”, for me to do as I please. To flip that round, maybe I can carve out hours on the weekends / evenings to be productive, and be pleased with whatever I get done in that time. An article earlier this month on “Be More Productive. Take Time Off” argued that “when there’s less time to work, you waste less time. Constraining time encourages quality time.” Which I think has a lot of wisdom. So many a times I am on my email trying to get through it and it takes forever because I get sidetracked way too often. I also tend to have a short attention span, especially when I’m not under pressure. I regularly have 15 tabs open (that has got to stop). When I’m on a deadline with constrained timeframes I am great – I can stay focused for hours, just hammering away, until my stomach alerts me that it’s time to eat. There really is magic in doing one thing at a time.

Without bounded timeframes though, it’s a bit of a free for all. I feel like I’m going to be here forever anyway, so I might as well “reward” myself by (continuously) checking my Twitter, reading some fun articles, check what’s new on Facebook, find some new music for my playlist…because there is no time bound, my focus wanes and I end up being less productive, more guilty, and ultimately less happy. Ok, so maybe what I will do is set time boundaries on “productive time”, with dedicated activities for that time (the “to-do list”) as goals. And maybe I won’t get through the activities in that time, but I’ll have to stop anyway. Whatever gets done gets done, and the rest of the time is for me – to do as I please and follow what my heart desires, with no guilt attached because I had already put in my time during my “productive” block hours. The “I want to do list” will serve as a guide and reminder of things I enjoy and find fulfillment in, but I am not limited to that list either. If I am so inclined to return to incomplete activity sometime later in the day, I can – but I don’t have to. And if I don’t, I surely shouldn’t feel guilty about it. It can wait until the next block of productive time. In some ways the work is never over, but I need to stop for my own sanity and well-being.

I also need to watch my plate. Mostly, in how I fill it up. Over the last 10 years I have been incredibly lucky with amazing opportunities that have come my way. I always want to take them all, because they are always too good to pass up. And these are all things I want to do. But too much of good things, especially when it’s things like awesome community projects, can get overwhelming and exhausting. I need to budget free, non-productive time in my days when evaluating my own availability. Otherwise I’m on that fast track to burnout in no time.

Remember that Get Busy Living article I quoted? And how I had rejected it at the time as something that applies to me? It’s funny how much more resonating it is now as I am seeing it with a broader perspective. As the article put it so eloquently…

Here’s to scheduling time not to be busy. To having the room to breathe. To sustaining bonds, to celebrating, to building new connections, to letting people in. To doing things I want to do without feeling guilty.

Off I go.

Special thanks to Bryn for planting the seeds for me to think through this, for caring for my well-being when I wasn’t in a place to do that myself. For telling me that working at 10pm isn’t normal. xo

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