One balance I find especially tricky is work versus play.
From the many, many articles written about workaholism, it seems I’m not alone. However, when reading these I often feel like an alien learning about another species. I know that, technically, anything can be addictive—but work, really?
Why aren’t there any articles on the opposite impulse? What about my secret fear that I might be addicted to anything-but-work?!
At times, I’ve felt trapped by my desire for leisure. Work feels crushingly heavy, and my mind longs to be literally anywhere else. I feel guilty and deficient—other people are apparently unable to stop working, and here’s me struggling to start.
Then, at other times, I’ve been so lost in work that I get why all those articles about workaholism exist. But I’m curious about that instinctual sense that, left to my own devices, I would find it far easier to become addicted to learning, socializing, resting, and playful creation.
Sometimes it seems as if I’d happily do anything, as long as it’s not productive!
Of course, pure fun is never useless. But when we’re stuck in a long period of only caring about playing games, or talking with friends, or learning Hindi, or painting model figurines… and nothing that’s useful in that moment… let’s call that playaholism.
Is it possible that I’m a latent playaholic?
A note on terminology
Before we go any further, I admit that I’m being cavalier with language. When I say “workaholic” or “play-aholic,” I mean “an unhelpfully skewed balance between work & play,” and not the serious addiction which the “-aholic” suffix usually implies.
While a serious addiction might require professional assistance to resolve, there may be changes we can make if our balance is a little skewed, and those changes are what I’d like to explore here.
What’s going on when we want to play (or work) all the time?
It’s good to fill our lives with fun. In fact, I’d go further than that: a life of fun and leisure seems like a worthy aim. So I don’t want to add to any unnecessary guilt we have about our leisure time. Downtime is critically important!
But like a dog left alone with too much food, we have to resist any impulses to gorge until we’re sick.
I believe a healthier balance can be found by exploring:
- Our instincts
- Our reaction to those instincts
Our instincts will often try to tell us when we’re getting the balance wrong. For example, does clicking “next episode” on Netflix bring us joy, or guilt?
But that’s not enough. We have to go one level deeper, and ask “is this joy/guilt justified?”
We might have convinced ourselves that we don’t deserve any leisure at all, and even the slightest break would be guilt-inducing. Or perhaps we falsely believe that our work is of no value, or that failure is guaranteed, and that no joy could come from anything but leisure.
Each of us is different, and our circumstances are unique. So each of us must consciously examine our feelings, as well as the beliefs which underlie them, for ourselves. Here’s some ideas which might help:
1. Examine your motivations—both positive and negative
What feelings are motivating your desire for work/play? Can you identify any feelings which motivate avoidance of the other?
For example: “I’m avoiding work because it makes me anxious, while play makes me relaxed.”
(There’s a fun trap in which we convince ourselves that both this and the opposite are true. There’ve been times when I’ve struggled to either work or play because whichever I chose, I’d be convinced I should be doing the other.)
2. What underlies those motivations?
What are the beliefs which give rise to those feelings? For me, underlying beliefs vary wildly, but I’ve found that, at times:
- Play stresses me out and makes me feel guilty because I believe I haven’t earned it
- Play relaxes me because I believe it’ll give me more energy to work in future
- Work makes me anxious because I’m afraid I’ll fail (or even succeed!)
Sometimes one belief overwhelms the others, sometimes a little internal war takes place between all of the contradictory beliefs.
It may help to go deeper by asking why of each belief. For example, “I play all the time because there’s no point in working”: perhaps asking why this belief exists may reveal a deeper-still belief that “…because I screw everything up” or “…because all work is meaningless” or something else.
We have to understand what’s driving our feelings before we can begin to change them.
(This process can be emotionally taxing, and may touch on deep issues. You might want to seek support from friends, family or even professionals.)
3. Seek new motivations
Once we’ve found the beliefs underneath our feelings, it’s time to reframe them.
Again, there’s no easy universal process for this. But a new perspective on each belief is usually possible.
At a particularly dark time in my life, I had a conversation with an old friend about a project they were working on. It was a nerdy conversation about modeling the physics of the atmosphere, and I found myself suddenly energized. I realized it had been months since I’d found anything that interested me, and I’d started to believe that there was nothing out there that I could care about anymore.
The moment of engagement was enough to dislodge that belief, and while I never did anything specifically with that project, I was able to find other projects that I cared about.
How can you challenge your existing beliefs? Can you find a counterexample? Or a new source of excitement and energy? This is easier said than done—but perhaps one small change could be a good start.
4. Beware “joyless play” (and “joyless, unproductive work”)
As if to perfectly illustrate my own work-aversion, moments ago I tabbed away to idly browse Twitter, where I immediately saw a t-shirt saying “I’m not lazy, I’m just highly motivated to do nothing.”
The relevance to this article gave me a jolt, and I instantly realized that I was deriving zero pleasure from this idle browsing. I was just joylessly scrolling.
I knew I’d be ultimately happier if I finished writing, so here I am again: back, and re-engaged.
In short, if you’re not enjoying play, ask yourself why. Is there something better (more fun, more productive, whatever) that you could be doing? What’s stopping you from doing that?
Finding balance between work and play can be tough, particularly as the boundaries between each are becoming increasingly blurred. That’s why putting effort into this internal work is so worthwhile: it pays off in extra productivity, and happier play. Next week, we’ll explore what a life that’s in balance might actually look like.
How do you keep your work-play balance? Share your thoughts and stories with the community in the comments.