Do you live to work — or work to live?


Do you ever just STOP and take a breather?


By Caitlin Kelly

This recent blog post by a good friend — an American living in London — once more reminded me of what I value most…time away from the grind of work:

Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.

And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state.

It’s not easy to take a proper holiday when you live far away from your family, losing a day each way to travel, (driving or flights, usually), plus cost.

You only get so many paid vacation days and then…they’re gone!

It’s also difficult if you’re burdened with debt, have multiple children and/or a very tight budget.


A holiday doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it does mean time for farniente — literally do nothing.



People like Jose and I work freelance, which means that every day we don’t work we don’t get paid — and our bills don’t magically drop in size and volume. (Our health insurance alone is $1,400 every month, more than our mortgage payment.)

Even so, I usually take at least six weeks every year to not work, even if it’s just sitting at home.

American work culture isn’t as bad as Japan’s where karoshi — death from overwork — is real. But its savage demands of low wages, a thin social safety net, precarious employment, almost no unions — plus the insane costs of a university education — combine to keep too many Americans working with few breaks.

And —  how dare you look “unproductive”?!

Here’s my whip-smart pal Helaine Olen, writing on this in the Washington Post:

The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.

Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn.

I still enjoy writing, but I’ve been doing it for a living for decades and no longer seek the career-boosting thrill of a Big Magazine byline.

I’d love to write a few more books, but this year has been dis-spiriting — both of my book proposals, (which cost unpaid time to produce), have each been rejected by more than three agents. Not sure if I’ll keep trying with the second one.


Do you work to live or live to work?


Has that changed for you over time?

12 thoughts on “Do you live to work — or work to live?

  1. it has definitely changed for me over time. at 40, when i changed from the ad business to teaching, part of that had to do with my finding more value in time over money. at this point in my life, it has grown from there, where time has become more important to me each year/day that passes. i think you’re smart to find a way to give yourself the 6 weeks of time to step away from work and just enjoy being a part of the world, even it is from your own home –

    1. Thanks for this…

      We can always (if healthy/skilled) earn more money, even by dog-walking. We can never buy more time. The best book on this — life-changing — is “Your Money or Your Life?”

      And any serious diagnosis makes clear what we value most. I have very few remaining professional goals at this point, so my gaze is moving in different directions.

  2. I’m very European in the sense that work-life balance is a priority for me. I’ve worked a four-day week for the past three years and I relish my three-day weekends. But it does come with a compromise: less money! As a 20-something who came of age at the time of the financial crisis, I’m careful about saving what I can. But I’m currently trying to decide whether to give up that extra free day per week and start working five days. Time vs. money – it’s a tough decision. What would you do if you were me?

    Also, I definitely agree that taking time out away from work is so important. I have a trip planned to Madrid and Barcelona later this summer – any recommendations/tips?

    1. The earlier you start saving and investing (in your 20s) the more $$$$ you will have, thanks to compound interest, which is one argument in favor of working more and saving more — also while you have fewer other responsibilities that would consume that extra income. So it’s a trade-off. I also think working ONLY for money is tough because your heart’s not really in it.

      Haven’t been to Spain in decades, unfortunately…

  3. I definitely now work to live, although there was a time when that wasn’t true – I was just happy to pay the bills and have some money (I was young). Living in Canada I have six weeks off and work-life balance is very important. I don’t usually take work home with me (although very occasionally I have to) and it’s not something I’ve made a habit of at all. Right now I’m on holidays, spending every day lolling, going to the beach, reading and eating. Work is very far away. 🙂

  4. Thank you for the shout out! I have a BUNCH of posts on topics like this swirling in my brain…with one coming tomorrow. Unlearning what I believe to be bad work life balance habits is actually quite hard work.

    I’ve lived to work for many years…but partially because we’ve *had* to work hard for smaller benefits than our parents or even peers just a few years older than us. I wonder what the long term toll will be on our society as a result.

    1. Of course….

      I wonder about this as well…huge student debt + crazy housing prices + stagnant wages = toxic frustration.

      I actually wonder when or if this might even spark significant political change or revolution — check out the boat-rocking win of 28 yr old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez here in NYC. Scaring the pants off centrist Democrats with her very strong advocacy of democratic socialism.

      1. Indeed, I’m following her closely! There is a lot of hand wringing at the moment (Oh no, the children like socialism?! Whatever shall we do?!) and it makes me want to scream into a pillow. It demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how unstable many of my generation feel and how little we feel the traditional promises of an economy style that has undergone several fundamental shifts, without much hope of ever shifting back.

        We followed all the rules and here we are crippled with debt for educations that didn’t earn us better wages because there were too few jobs to compete for, with salaries that don’t match rising cost of living and haven’t changed significantly in 30 years, frightened of medical emergencies because we can’t afford healthcare, and with delayed expectations of retirement (if we have them at all). And you’re shocked we want more security? You want us to feel more cheerful about your grandfather’s capitalism, you sure as hell make it work for us more than it’s currently doing! (…she ranted into the void)

        It does make me laugh when people ask when Jeff and I are moving back to the States. They quiz us about high taxes and we always respond with befuddlement, “You know we have healthcare, maternity/paternity options, and two full time incomes, right?” And we STILL need to be tight with money.

      2. It’s also a thing (she ranted) that millennials are supposed to hate Boomers (and vice versa) but that doesn’t do a lot for me.

        For every fat cat Boomer sitting in a house they own that’s now worth Big Bucks, there are as many who lost their savings in 2008 and also, possibly, a good job that they/we now will never get again thanks to age discrimination. So there are many issues that I think could actually create common cause between these two groups…

        I am foaming at the mouth with frustration at the useless Democratic party yelling that everyone BETTER BE CENTRIST or else…when it’s clear that many people are so desperate for a change! Trump’s election proved it.

  5. While I like the work I do, I work in the first place because I need to have a steady income so I can have a home of my own, eat and above all, write. And while writing is a job, it is also a fun experience and passion for me, and I would be sad if I couldn’t do it anymore. Hopefully I can combine writing into work as a full-time job someday, but for now, I’ll have to keep them very separate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s