Are you working too hard? Here’s how to redress the balance and claim back the essence of life, before it’s too late
Top Five Regrets of the Dying is not the kind of book that promises bounteous cheer.
And yet, when Australian nurse Bronnie Ware published her observations from life on a palliative care ward seven years ago, it became an overnight sensation.
With great clarity and tenderness, Ware charts the final thoughts of the many people who passed through her watch. And “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” was one of the leading laments of those she tended to.
“All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence,” says Ware. She notes that women shared similar regrets, too; but because they were often elderly, they hadn’t been the main breadwinners.
Nowadays, both men and women are greater prisoners than ever to the relentless grind. Logically, we know there’s more to life than work. And yet, most of us don’t peek our head above the parapet for long enough to find out what that “more” is.
Clearly we need to stop working so hard. And that pledge needs to be hammered home in actions, not words alone. Here’s how:
Stop working in the evenings
Is there anything more miserable than grafting in the office until 8pm or 9pm when everyone around you has gone home?
You might tell yourself you’re being productive but actually the opposite is true. Research shows that we typically get more done when we set ourselves tight deadlines; it focuses the mind. Let time spool out, infinitely, however, and your assignment will merely expand to fit within that.
To make matters worse, productivity is not linear. After a full day’s work, you’ll hit crunch mode: your energy levels lag and your motivation drops off a cliff. The longer you stick around in this state, the less you’ll get done.
Do yourself a favour and get out of work on time, each and every day.
Schedule one thing of joy every day
The way you spend your days is the way you spend your life. If you’re always hitting the grindstone with the promise that one day you’ll take it easy, inevitably that will become the sum total of your experience.
Instead, take a leaf from tech designer John Zeratsky’s book and plan something that matters every day. Zeratsky, co-author of Make Time, suggests this daily highlight is the key to making your days count.
Read more: How to tackle the mid-30s blues
Plan something that brings you pure joy, each and every day – big or small, and ideally beyond work. Make your schedule fit around this thing and then journal how it makes you feel.
If you find it difficult to fit in, you’re effectively sidelining the passions that give your life meaning. How can you switch the balance?
Plan a long, lazy lunch midweek
There’s something about a languorous midweek lunch that rallies against our rigorously scheduled lives. It’s the ritual equivalent of raising two fingers to your packed diary, where even your down-time is tightly scripted (hello, spinning and yoga classes).
A long, lazy lunch means you shouldn’t be clock-watching; so give it a good three or four hours, every month or so. Then, all you need is good company, great wine and a series of generous sharing dishes that just keep coming.
Doing it midweek will feel counter-intuitive at first, but roll with it. This is your opportunity to push back at the relentless churn of life, with a reminder of what life is actually about. And hey, if you really want to be decadent about it, throw in a siesta after.
Do less, but focus more
We hear a lot about “giving 100%” at work. But our energy and attention levels are not a finite resource. If we carry on battling tasks like we’re in some epic Game of Thrones showdown, eventually we’ll fall to the ground.
If you’re being smart about it, it’s better to take your foot off the pedal a little. But this doesn’t mean breaking out the desk-side Piña Coladas. Rather, aim to work at about 85% capacity. For example, plan your schedule for seven rather than eight hours a day. This means you have breathing room if something extra comes up, or a task takes longer than expected.
Then when you concentrate on something, don’t divide your attention. Studies show multitasking impairs cognitive function and lowers IQ so drastically, the effect is similar to smoking marijuana. Really.
So, silence your phone, turn off email and tackle one project at a time. This also chimes with the 80-20 rule, which shows we get 80% of our most important work done in 20% of our time. Bottom line? Slogging is for amateurs.
Get outside and wander
When you schedule your leisure time too much, research shows that your brain starts to lump it into the same category as work. It takes on the appearance of an obligation or chore, with a parallel mental toll.
Not only that, but when you’re rushing to make an engagement (say, meeting your friends after work), you enjoy it a bit less as a result. Your mind simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to jump seamlessly from one setting (work) to another (play).
Try and get in at least five hours a working week where you can be totally spontaneous. At lunch, head out for a walk and just see where the vibe takes you: be it a hidden park or a new gallery nearby.
Do the same when you have a few spare hours in the morning or evening. Simply walking is great for you anyway; but you’ll also give your mind permission to enter “flight mode” (a luxury in today’s over-scheduled world), with space to meander and dream up big ideas.
Try a taste of slow living
Life goes fast. So in order to keep up, we start racing it. We get apps and list down To Dos, always striving to stay one step ahead of our imaginary competitor called time.
The problem with this, is a.) the urgent things never go away, they just meld into different variations of the same urgent things and b.) we work ourselves into a frenzy of stress trying to “win” the never-ending fight. To get off this treadmill demands a radical leap: a pivot to the lifestyle of slow living.
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The slow living movement aims to create a new equilibrium between work, consumerism and personal happiness. In his book, New Slow City, Bill Powers documents how he and his wife attempt to live slow in the world’s fastest metropolis: New York.
Downsizing to a Greenwich Village “micro-apartment”, they cut back to 20-hour working weeks, shop locally and unearth urban sanctuaries that offer a slower way of being; such as bee-keeping and rooftop gardens.
Re-frame the balance of your life
If you, like Powers, are feeling strung out by the demands of modern life, it’s not too late to stage-manage a dramatic shift.
There’s no cookie cutter for how you do this. You might want to cut down to a four-day working week, try six-hour working days or move into a smaller apartment with less demand for bills and belongings.
However you go about slow living, the aim is to take away the pressure to do and achieve, and instead spend more time just being.
Today’s on-demand culture means there’s always something better just out of reach. There’s always a reason to work more and dive further into the rat race.
It’s time to push back, and appreciate what you have. This is life, here and now – you don’t need to strive, you just need to slow down enough to live it. Jump off the treadmill to stall that deathbed regret.