Should I Live to Work or Work to Live? How to Decide

If you’re grappling with which is a better life perspective—to live to work or work to live—I’m guessing there’s some facet of your current work life that’s impacting your greater personal satisfaction. Trust me, it happens to all of us!

Whether you’re frustrated with being expected to respond to emails on weekends; considering a major career/life pivot, downshift, or a career break; prepping for your company’s exit strategy; or going for your entrepreneurial dreams midlife—expect to be catapulted out of your comfort zone, to disrupt your current work/life balance, AND to prove yourself all over again.

Given all the emotional, psychological, social, and potentially financial stressors at stake, our internal debate about whether to live to work or work to live boils down to aligning our values and priorities at any given snapshot in time of our lives.

The thing is, those priorities gradually change with time—but often, it’s such a subtle shift that we don’t realize the balance of the scales has slid so far off-kilter until feelings of uncertainty, frustration, or dissatisfaction start to outweigh the satisfaction we previously had with [fill in the blank] work/life scenario.

So if you’re currently grappling with: What’s better? To live to work or work to live?

Here’s my answer: Get back to the basics.

Mental Exercise: Envision Your Ideal Day

For this exercise, it doesn’t matter what age you are! The point is to envision your ideal day with as much crystal-clear detail as possible.

To get a detailed mental picture of the FULL day, start by asking yourself the following questions (and consider journaling your answers):

—Waking up: What time are you getting out of bed? How are you feeling as you’re waking up?

—What are your morning priorities?

—During your ideal day, are you primarily spending time indoors or outside, and for what tasks?

—Who do you interact with in your ideal day? e.g. Do you go to work (at home or in an office, or outdoors)? Do you spend some portion of day with, or taking care of duties for, your family? Are you teaching/leading others, or perfectly content to work solo on creative/ideation projects without interruption?

—How do you take time for yourself in your ideal day?

—What does your ideal afternoon/evening look like? e.g. Are you or your spouse/partner cooking at home together/for the family, or are you networking and/or strategizing with business partners about a next business move or opportunity? Are you attending an evening cultural activity, catching up with a friend, going for an evening walk at a favorite nature park, etc.?

—On this ideal day, how do you wind down before bed, and what time do you tuck in for a restful night’s sleep?

How Your Ideal Day Relates to ‘Live to Work or Work to Live’

Now that you have a fuller picture of what your ideal day looks like, it’s time to dive into: WHY is that particular day your ideal day?

Make a mental tally of the day’s components: Where your priorities predominantly related to career/business goals and work success, or family or otherwise personally focused, or some mix (or equal balance) of both?

Weighing the priorities that manifest in your ideal day will help answer the question of what’s more essential at this moment in your life (and, if it’s a mix of both): to live to work or work to live?

Once you start to understand your ideal world, you can start working backwards towards that ideal as best you can—which often starts with some meaningful conversations with your spouse/partner, or business partner, or other trusted confidants.

Working Towards Your Ideal Reality Starts With Meaningful Conversations

As the saying goes (I’m paraphrasing): Those who are closest to us often know us better than we know ourselves.

Having lived with you (and/or worked side by side with you) week in and week out, through so many of the curve balls, the growth and milestones, the life lessons learned, your innermost circle of trusted confidants are your greatest allies when it comes to strategic discussions about any life changes in order to manifest an ideal reality that more closely aligns with your ideal day. 

With your spouse or life partner, that means really tapping into, visualizing, and discussing together: What does our lifestyle actually look like in this ideal reality? If you’re wanting to pull back on work hours, so you’re only working part-time outside the home/can spend more time with family, is that feasibly sustainable for your household needs and budget? Conversely, in order for you to launch your business venture, does that mean hiring a part-time or full-time nanny, or could your spouse/partner step up as more of a stay-at-home parent, or do you need their salary and benefits to get started? Once you’re in agreement with what the relationship needs to successfully weather the change, the two of you can make adjustments together.

Stage of life is always a consideration: How much more effort do you have to give? What/when are you thinking about retirement? Could you maintain the lifestyle you have now into retirement?

These aren’t always easy conversations to have—but they’re essential ones to have before making shifts or pivots of any size, in order to better align our lives with our ideals, while at the same time enriching and strengthening our relationships with those who we genuinely trust, respect, and love.

What’s most important to remember: You can change your mind at any time and prioritize re-evaluating what you want. Life isn’t stagnate. We need to remain fluid and attuned to our changing needs.

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