No, being exhausted all the time is actually not a worthy goal

By Caitlin Kelly

When do you just...sit?
When do you just…sit?

A powerful piece from the Washington Post about why being “productive” is such a punitive way to measure our human value:

I see it a lot when I interview people and talk about vacation. They talk about how they are wound up and checking emails and sitting on the beach with their laptops. And their fear is: If I really stopped and let myself relax, I would crater. Because the truth is I’m exhausted, I’m disconnected from my partner, I don’t feel super connected to my kids right now.

It’s like those moving walkways at the airport — you’ve got to really pay attention when you get off them, because it’s disorienting. And when you’re standing still, you become very acutely aware of how you feel and what’s going on in your surroundings. A lot of our lives are getting away from us while we’re on that walkway.

There are several cultural expectations in the U.S., even after living here for decades after leaving Canada, I’ll never agree with or adhere to.

One is the notion, an outgrowth of a nation with shockingly little government regulation or oversight of the workplace, no paid maternal leave, no mandated vacation days, that work is the single most important way for all of us to spend all of our time.

Every day, in every way, we are exhorted to workworkworkworkworkwork fasterfastefasterfaster and the hell with a personal life that includes family, friends, self-care, volunteer work, meditation, travel.

Looking at art restores and refreshes me. It isn't $$$-making but it soothes my soul
Looking at art restores and refreshes me. It isn’t $$$-making but it soothes my soul

Why, all that time you want to spend binge-watching Netflix or patting your puppy or making pancakes with your kids? That doesn’t boost the GDP! How dare you?

How about…rest?

Of course, a thin and fragile social safety net — hello, cause and effect! — makes working your ass off a necessity for all but the wealthy. The single largest cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical bills; we now pay (yes, really) $1,500 a month for our health insurance, meaning we have to earn at least $18,000 after-tax dollars before any other cost.

For two full-time freelancers in a struggling industry, that’s enough to make me go back to bed.

Who owns your time?
Who owns your time?

One reason I’ve stayed freelance is the ability to control the use of my time, when and where and how often and for how long I work. I started work the other day at 8:10 a.m. (early for me) and had already written and filed a story by 10:30 a.m. I took the afternoon off to enjoy a day in Manhattan.

Some people need to work 1o or more hours a day — they have multiple children to support and/or a non-working spouse and/or earn low wages and/or live in a high-cost area. But beyond basic economic need, tethering your life to the profit-making demands of others rarely produces much joy for those of us expected to answer them.

Americans love to mock Europeans – those five weeks of vacation! That free health care! Those subsidized university educations! – as though the endless toil and debt required to earn the money to pay for all of that were somehow so much more virtuous.

When it’s really just exhausting.

Having lived in Canada, France, Mexico and England gave me a perspective many Americans lack.

Time off recharges and restores us to full mental, physical and emotional health.

You can work hard — and play hard.

It’s possible to be a deeply valuable human being without adding any economic value.

Working freelance means we’re choosing a life with less financial security but all the pressures faced while collecting a salary.


The major difference is our ability to say no.

To not leap to answer an email at 11:00 pm or 1:00 a.m. or on a Sunday morning when we’re getting ready to attend church.

Yes, it might cost us some lost income.

But it gives us a life we deeply value.

Do you feel — or succumb to — this kind of pressure to be productive?




31 thoughts on “No, being exhausted all the time is actually not a worthy goal

  1. Such an important piece and a subject I think about frequently. I’ve done the grind; I’d rather make less. Since quitting a regular job ten years ago that included a comfy salary and good benefits, I’ve freelanced, done my share of house and pet-sitting, been a mystery shopper, taken temporary teaching jobs here and there, the list goes on and on. It works in many ways, and I love the flexibility. I’m also able to do it because my partner has a good job with benefits, but it drains him, and it’s taken a toll on our marriage. He often laments that our retirement funds are lower because of my choice to not work full-time. I KNOW we are fortunate — we both are intelligent, college-educated people, but we have a first-grader and a second-grader, no family nearby, and as you said (in a nicer way), the benefits for parents in the US suck. My spouse works in the better-paying industry, so we made the logical choice that he’d be the one with the bonafide job; I’d stay home until the kids were in school, but here we are… Life feels busier than ever, and though my husband makes more money, he works more than we ever dreamed he’d have to. We’re fortunate that he truly loves what he does and has a large degree of agency, though with that comes further responsibility and pressure. I’ve never lived outside the US, but I’ve traveled extensively — enough to SEE that it doesn’t have to be this way. As my husband advances in his career, HE sees other Americans who view wants as needs, which creeps into his psyche, and in turn serves as internal/society-imposed pressure to work even harder. We’re looking at more of a co-parenting type of relationship at this point because we no longer share the same values. I want less tangible stuff — particularly highly-marketed, keep-up-with-joneses-type stuff. I want a smaller, but meaningful life, and I especially want it to include more travel. I also want to model this type of existence for our kids. We’re figuring it out as we go, but it’s disconcerting to watch him because I see SO clearly the root of his lack of contentment; he’s so overworked that he’s oblivious to it. Even in my current personal disenchantment, I’m hopeful. I see many people choosing differently these days — mothers in particular. The traditional workforce hasn’t delivered, particularly for women, and many are carving a different path. I suppose a challenge with this might be — how do we create the pay we deserve? Obviously, your piece struck a nerve. Thank you for writing it.

    1. It’s a real challenge to detach in the U.S. from the usual work-get-spend/save-die treadmill. It takes a lot of conscious decision making about where and what to trim or live without (how un-American!). It means not succumbing to cultural and peer pressure as well. If you’re “rising” but not buying bigger/more/better/shinier stuff, you look like a loser to many people, and especially those who have fully bought into those values.

      Ignoring the majority is not easy for a lot of people.

      For us that has meant not having: kids, a house, a larger apartment, a new (er) second car. In return we have the funds and time to travel, good retirement savings (i.e. freedom from the treadmill) and don’t have to work like fiends til we die just to keep our bills paid.

      It has been very frustrating to me to work so hard for decades for so little income, and never once own a house or even live in one. But that’s the cost of a badly paid industry (journalism) in decline — and my own unwillingness to retrain and start again in some entirely new career in my 50s.

      1. Your blog inspires me regularly. Never underestimate how much you’re doing right by working towards a life that’s consistent with YOUR values — though I certainly relate to the frustration. My neighbor recently commented on our “new” car purchase — a 2005 Volvo that we paid cash for by scrimping and, God forbid, delaying gratification until we had the funds. “I don’t understand your aversion to new cars. You work hard. You deserve a new car.” Hmmm… she always buys new, budgets for a hefty car payment…but has never been on an airplane and has no interest in traveling further than a couple hours down the road to visit relatives. Like you said — it’s about conscious decision making.

      2. That’s a major compliment. Thanks!! 🙂

        It’s also such a clear message about what WE value and not what others do.

        I have noticed in the U.S. (on issue I dislike intensely) that people can somehow feel judged negatively (?!) if or when you don’t move in lock-step with the majority and, certainly, with how they have chosen to live. I grew up in Canada, a much more politically and socially liberal country in many ways and did not arrive in the U.S. until I was 30 — so my worldview was fairly well formed by that point already. My POV is that, if how you behave is legal, kind and you pay your damn taxes…get on with it. Your choices are not my business.

        The insistence on work-buy-work-buy-more has always struck me as…not very interesting. I do enough work to make enough money to meet our needs, short and long-term. But the minute we have some spare $$$, we’re on the road or on a plane. The world is huge and there is so much more I hope to see of it. Sitting surrounded by piles of stuff (and locked into years of debt service) strikes me as depressing.

  2. Oh, we’re channeling each other this week. I posted a piece last night on a peaceful Christmas–one in which I’ve not worked myself to the point of illness only to collapse on Xmas Eve. Fragile safety net? Yes. Happier European friends? Oh yes. And I worry that instead of us picking up on the sanity vibe, we’re exporting our crazy thoughts about worth being not intrinsic but solely achievement related. Ariana Huffington started the convo–but I don’t see anyone else really taking it up.

    1. I doubt other cultures are rushing to emulate this…

      I also find it disgusting that Arianna — who earned $350 m from FREE labor from writers working for “exposure” would even dare to advocate balance. 🙂

  3. When I worked for somebody else, I definitely felt the pressure. Now that I work for myself and have a family, I realize how silly it all was. Mock the Europeans all you want, but I say they know happiness! I certainly miss the money, the security, and the health benefits, but I wouldn’t trade my time with family for it again. Great post!

    1. Thanks…The “security” is illusory though, as anyone who’s been laid off (with no severance) and with no warning can attest.

      I would never mock the Europeans! I hope to acquire an EU passport and retire there at least part-time.

  4. Here in New Zealand we have a ‘mad panic rush’ every year in December because the place basically shuts down for a few weeks for the summer – and apparently the world ends on 25 December, thus requiring every single thing to be done ahead of it. Come January, people sit idly about twiddling their thumbs. That aside, there’s no question that the ‘Puritanical work ethic’ has had due effect here too, in general – something that I perceived coming in particularly during the 1980s. A generation on, and there is still a sense that people feel able to validate themselves only by relentlessly working, usually at the expense of necessary ‘recharge breaks’.

    1. That’s really sad to hear.

      I was in NZ in 1998 and loved it. I find it really depressing that so many people only find their life’s “value” or meaning in their economic power or job status. No one on their deathbed will whisper “I wish I’d been more productive” — and yet we run our lives away in the process.

  5. i used to live quite a busy, fast-paced life during my advertising years, but always knew there was a better way. now, i am living that simpler, slower-paced and happier, other way. )

  6. It’s a lot like that in Asia as well. In Singapore where I’m from, you’re rewarded for all that ambition by being granted the most expensive, prestigious and shiny material possessions to make your friends want to be you, and thus spur everyone to work harder.

    “It’s possible to be a deeply valuable human being without adding any economic value.”


    I think that sadly, not many people really believe this. We’re conditioned to believe that if we cannot measure a thing’s worth in the manner we’re accustomed to, then it has none.

    To that I say, I’ll fight to stick to my freelancing life as long as I can, because it has worth to me.

    (1500 for insurance a month though! *faints*)

    1. The longer you stay in that culture, surrounded by people who reinforce those values, the harder it is (ever) to leave. By definition, you’re an outlier and marginalized by those unpopular choices.

      My single greatest measure of personal wealth (beyond good health) — free time. Time to sleep in or take a day off or a week off or a month off. Would I enjoy a shiny new car? Sure! Am I willing to spend the next 4-5 years servicing the debt to pay for it, every single day? No. I don’t dislike work, but having done it for more than 30 years, I’m quite ready to not do it.

      OMG….then who am I? What on earth will I be able to boast about? 🙂

      The health insurance is insane. There are much cheaper plans but they all have some sort of string attached.

      1. “Time to sleep in or take a day off or a week off or a month off.”

        I am with you on that one. I’m still recovering from close to a decade in the corporate / financial world, its horrendous culture, and the consequences of never being able to desensitize myself to it.

        My father often observed that the people with time didn’t have money, and the people with money didn’t have time. Like you, I love that I have the time. To read all day when the opportunity arises. To choose how I work, to sleep, and to savour a cup of tea every morning with the one I love. To walk. To breathe in (and notice I am doing so!) the vitality of wherever I happen to be… I never did when harried-ness that unending hours in the office haunted my every waking, and sometimes sleeping, hours. The freelancing struggle is a different one, but I don’t walk around all day fearing the inevitable loss of sanity. That is something.

        But yes, it does make me very much of an alien, most of all in a place that should be some kind of a home. But eh, that’s life. This one isn’t bad at all, so far.

      2. The larger challenge — and it’s a serious one — is if we choose to earn less (and therefore save less $$$) what will we live on in our old(er) age? That’s the balance you also have to consider.

      3. Yep, that’s something I have no answer to other than “go back to corporate life” at the moment. But we will see.

        Time yet to win the lottery 😉

  7. Judging from my reading, certain countries in Europe have a much better work-life balance than others. And I think the UK is gradually following the US.

    Our healthcare system is becoming more and more privatised under the current government, and OECD statistics on very long hours (50+ per week) say that 13% of Brits work long hours compared to 11% of Americans. I did some research on this last week for work, and I was expecting to find the reverse!

    In countries like Denmark and Sweden, only 1-2% of people work 50+ hours per week. They have extensive parental benefits and assistance for families with young children, including a business culture where it is encouraged to have a good work-life balance. It’s crazy that the US, in the 21st century, has no paid parental leave — the only developed nation in the world without it.

    Although I know abstractly how expensive US healthcare is, seeing you write the figure down on paper like that is shocking. No wonder people are struggling to make ends meet, or have no healthcare at all. It’s a heck of a lot of money!

    1. It is a staggering sum of money…there is much less costly care (but medical bills are the single greatest cause of personal bankruptcy here) so I would rather (not really, but) deal with this cost than face some nasty and surprising gap in coverage from a cheaper plan.

      It is one of the many ways that the American system — for all the folderol about “liberty” — makes self-employment extremely difficult and expensive and gives employers ridiculous power. The things you learn by immigrating. 🙂

  8. I’m almost embarrassed to say that here in France I enjoy 6 paid weeks’ vacation a year, I work a 35-hour work week and my health insurance, deducted from my pay and subsidized by my employer, costs me 44 euros a month.

    HOWEVER….you’ve forgotten an important fact, Caitlin. We’re taxed up to our eyeballs here. This year my annual income tax was augmented 38%…and that was without a rise in salary! I was so incensed that I wrote a letter to the tax office demanding an explanation. The Socialist government here even went after retirees this year. Those earning teeny-tiny retirement revenues of 1,000 euros a month had to fork out a hefty contribution. There was such a national uproar that the plan was cancelled.

    After Denmark, France has the highest tax rate in the OECD countries.

    We’re sick of President Hollande and the Socialists. You saw the recent regional elections here with the National Front on the verge of winning the first round. That was a protest vote. I’m happy to say that in the second round the National Front was crushed and the conservative party won (that’s Sarkozy’s party re-named.) Hopefully, the conservative party – with a leader other than Sarko – will win the 2017 presidential elections because, as I said, we’re sick of the Socialists and their high taxes. (We also don’t feel sufficiently protected from future terrorist attacks.)

    So the grass isn’t always greener. Sure, we have better benefits and balance, etc. But Americans sometimes forget that there’s a high price to pay for that. It’s called taxes.

    Best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.

    1. Thanks for this…I really appreciate hearing from you and sharing this information!

      Yes…all a tradeoff, for sure. Have a great 2016 as well. Many great memories of our New Year’s adventure last year. 🙂

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  10. With my illness, I’ve had to let go of so much. I still have that voice in me that pushes me to account for my day and measure up (am I worthy to take up space and air?), but I have to resist the ever-present urge to chide myself for being unproductive. I used to be a real go-getter perfectionist. Now I’m a perfectionist without a cause!

    1. It’s hard!

      But in a weird way, it’s a gift to detach from that insanity. I really don’t think being “productive” matters as much as many are led to believe. I am not a lazy bum, but I think there is so much work to a life of value than that.

      1. Agreed. It’s just hard to get rid of all that early “programming.” But the body is a vigilant reminder to take it easy. If we ignore what our bodies are telling us for too long (as I did), we’ll get a message so serious that ignoring is impossible!

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