Work Before Play or Play Before Work?

With the industriousness of a new year in full swing and all that it implies (goals, resolutions, changes, etc), I’ve been thinking about how we balance work and play. I don’t know about you, but I learned long ago that I should finish my work before I go out and play. “Clean your room and then you can go to the park with Debbie.” “You need to get that algebra assignment done before Jerry takes you to the movies.”  “It’s Grandma’s birthday so make sure you wrap that gift before the party.”

Sound familiar? Now I don’t mean to imply that it was a bad thing for us to clean our rooms, do the dishes, and wrap the gifts. Of course not. Those are the ways children learn responsibility. But because the world now moves at a 24/7 pace, our responsibility buttons seem to be permanently switched to “on.” Work gets pushed to the top of the list, but the list never gets finished. There’s always something new to add, and we develop a work mindset. And by work I don’t just mean the activities we engage in to pay the mortgage, I mean all the things we do that make up life nowadays: cleaning, cooking, gardening, shopping, errands, personal emails and phone calls, ferrying the kids to practice, taking care of family members and pets, etc.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. I know you know what I mean because I hear the sheer weight of it from my clients. They’re buried in obligations and work. And they feel like they’re on a treadmill, never able to get ahead. Interesting, huh? With all this responsibility coursing through our veins, you’d think we’d be way ahead.  But we’re not, because human beings are simply not built to work all the time.

And in truth, we don’t work all the time, even though it feels like it. Instead we procrastinate, because everything on our list seems like drudgery. So we waste time on things that have little value to us. Terry tells me she watches too much TV; Jacob checks out with Internet surfing; Vivian hits the mall more than she’d like; Danny mopes on the couch and drinks a few beers. The result: we end up stressed and stymied, satisfied with neither our work output nor our play output. And the cycle keeps repeating. 

Now I do understand that sometimes it’s important to just check out, stop, veg. But when we do it so often that it nags at us and takes us away from the vision we have for our lives, then we feel trapped on the treadmill. So wouldn’t it be lovely to get off? Yes? In fact, why not start now? Get out a piece of paper right now. Draw a line down the center, and mark the first column “play” and second column “work.” On the play side, write down at least ten things you could do that bring you joy. Don’t go for over the top stuff, but keep it simple. Sally’s list included dancing around the house for ten minutes, going to the farmer’s market, and reading poetry. On the work side, write down ten manageable things that you need to do in the next week (reminder: writing the great American novel in one week is not manageable). Frank’s list included mowing the lawn, finishing a report for work, and taking his dog to the vet.

Okay, now that you have the list, I want you to make a commitment to do at least one thing from the “play” side every day this week and one thing from the “work” side every day this week. But here’s the caveat: you must play before work. Here’s where clients will try to wiggle out of it, saying “yes, but…,” which really means they won’t do it. So please trust me, and banish those “yes, buts.”

And at the end of the week, objectively assess how you felt about each activity. If you’re like most people, you will find that you feel happier, not only because you gave yourself permission to play, but because the work activities seemed less onerous. According to David Burns (author of Feeling Good), we’re not very good at assessing how much satisfaction something will bring us, so we really need to just take action and do it. Action leads to motivation, and then even more motivation and action. And then you get the sense that your life is moving forward, and you’re no longer stuck on that treadmill.   

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