Reclaiming your time and the perils of ‘Work Hard, Play Hard’

In high school, I said a lot of dumb stuff, but this may have been the dumbest: “Work hard, play hard.”

I loved that saying. It was a four-word philosophy that underlined the fact that no one adult could touch me. I was in National Honor Society, got early acceptance into college, and my room was clean. Suck it, authority figures. I work really hard, so I can party all I want.

I wasn’t wrong, but stay with me…

This belief held strong throughout college. My freshman year I won a university award for having the highest GPA in my dorm. My RA also told me I had one of the highest write-up rates of anyone in the dorm, which means I got busted partying. A lot.

I thought this was super cute. I could “do it all” and was good at it all.

Lol at 21-year-old me.

In hindsight, this “work hard, play hard” aspect of my personality was less indicative of my work ethic and talent and more indicative of my need for extremes. I’m an absolute perfectionist when it comes to work, and as impulsive and destructive as a rock star when it comes to play.

“Work hard, play hard” was an excuse for not taking care of myself — at work or at play.

As far as mental health issues go, I could have been handed a much shorter stick than chronic impulsivity and a preference for extremes, but it was a beast to break regardless.

That’s because it was such an elusive problem to nail down in the first place; I had also tricked myself into believing the myth — my apartment is paid for, I had fun last night, why am I so sad all the time?

Luckily (well, it felt lucky later… at first it sucked), once you get out of school there are fewer ways to litmus test yourself to ensure you’re working hard. There are industry awards and maybe an employee of the month title you can take home, but for the most part, the paycheck is the prize. And that doesn’t feel good enough when you’ve been getting weekly, sometimes daily reminders that you’re working your ass off.

This is a good thing though and here’s why: You’re forced to address what’s really going on if you want to be happy.

Even if it’s not as extreme as my version of “work hard, play hard,” I think a good swath of us born in the ‘80s have the desire to do both. I’ll stop you right there, though, Millennial-haters. This is not to admit we’re entitled little punks who need put in our place.

Today’s young adults don’t want a trophy for everything because they’re egomaniacs. They want a trophy for everything because they need that dopamine rush of getting an A or a pass or some kind of positive indicator of their success, their worth.

The need for that rush was instilled in them as young as second grade and only got hungrier as they were validated test after test after test the next decade and a half of their lives.

That’s a hard habit to break and one that I think adds a unique challenge to getting through your 20s in the 2010s.

(It’s not just us who struggle with this either. Work, being busy and self sacrifice, are glorified to the point we make ourselves sick. The supportive parent who has no life or identity of his or her own is as American as apple pie. And we collectively honor that! Call them heroes! But what’s heroic about not taking care of yourself?)

The #struggleisreal is reflected in all this nonsense about Millennials killing off industries. One thing headed to the Millennial morgue that I find particularly interesting is this: Vacation.

Why would we “kill” vacation?

The company that researched published this 2016 report, Project: Time Off, clearly has a stake in making you want to go on more vacations. However, I think there are some interesting nuggets in here:

  • 24 percent of Millennials forfeited vacation time the previous year
  • 22 percent of Boomers forfeited vacation time (22 percent compared to 24 percent doesn’t seem like a huge difference but is when you consider that Millennials probably have a lot less time to forfeit)
  • 43 percent of Millennials met the qualifications for the term of being a “work martyr,” while only 29 percent of all workers qualify as “work martyrs”
  • 48 percent of Millennials said they wanted their bosses to think of them as “work martyrs”
  • Millennials are nearly twice as likely (42 percent of Millennials versus 24 percent of others) to shame colleagues for taking the vacation time to which they’re entitled
  • 34 percent of Millennials worked every day of their vacation


There are so many reasons for these numbers. A big one is fear. We’re afraid not to have a job, to lose a job. We graduated in the midst of the recession. Jobs, good paying ones, seem hard to come by and we’ve watched whole industries crumble in our brief lifetimes. We need this job. We’re stressed about student loan debt that’s racking up interest. We’ll do anything for this job. We’ll be martyrs for this job. Whatever you want, we can do it.

But none of the pieces I’ve read about Millennial work martyrdom have really pointed to this: Extreme work is what so many of us have been trained to do. Overachieving and racking up titles for our resumes to get into a good school. Competing with the next overachiever to just have a spot in a class we want to take. Spending every free moment volunteering so we can get likes on social media or doing a second job to pay for that schooling, etc.

I don’t think we know how to take vacations. “Trophies” are more rewarding to our dopamine needs.

That theory and data is, of course, completely incongruent with the stereotype that we’re lazy and entitled to time off, a stereotype that, I’d argue, comes into play because we do what we want outside of work. And we do what we want outside of work because we have learned to value “work hard, play hard.”

We want to be professional successes and bad bitches (and/or Bill Murray unaffected cool guy types). How does that shake out?

Many, many different ways. But, overall, we’re exhausted.

That’s why Representative Maxine Waters’s recent saucy overture of “reclaiming my time” went viral. She unintentionally unleashed a rallying cry for a culture overwhelmed by work, social media, outrage culture and more.

Ah, and we should take it.

Reclaim what’s ours!

Make more time.

Be less afraid.

Live like we were dying and less like we we’re dying to live.

Etc. Etc.

But after a while, these maxims start to feel like new versions of “work hard, play hard.”

Working hard isn’t hard.

Playing hard isn’t hard.

Balance is hard.

To reclaim your time takes more than saying a hollow truism to yourself over and over. It’s just a starting point. Reclaiming your time, if you truly want to do it, requires making difficult choices about where you want to invest that time. It means getting that Google Calendar on fleek. It means being honest about why everyone else seems to take your time in the first place or why you seem to have so little of it.

Because, unlike Maxine Waters, your time is probably not being taken by an evasive witness at your congressional hearing.

Sometimes it’s not the other people we need to put boundaries on, it’s ourselves.

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