Why you should work less, not more

Hi everyone. My name is Alexandra, and I’m a workaholic. If you read my blog now and then, or follow me on Twitter, you might see me travelling here and there all the time and think I have one of those chilled-out travel-blogger lifestyles where I relax on the beach, drink Italian wine and hang out with other chilled-out hippies. Well, to be honest I do do all those things, but I also work full-time as a translator, copywriter, project manager and editor. Travel blogging has made me a couple of quid, and photography has sneaked my boyfriend (and by extension me too) into a couple of major festivals for free, but it’s by no means a workable lifestyle in itself. Any other freelance translator will know that freelancing can be a super stressful and time-consuming career choice. Not only do we have to work for hours on end on translation projects, we also have to do all our own accounting, marketing, PR and admin. And I think you’d agree if I say that a lot of us translators tend to be workaholics. I for one hate to turn down projects, so I often end up with a pile of them that means I end up working on Saturday nights, or until 10 pm, or at 6 in the morning because a project has to be in at 8. Sometimes I end up missing out on some of these fun traveller experiences because I’m holed up all weekend translating sub-contractor agreements, but I simply find it impossible to take weekends off, or ‘holidays’. I simply try to balance my working lifestyle. I.e., nowadays, I work 7 days a week, but only 4-5 hours per day. This works perfectly for me right now.

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However it wasn’t always like this. Back in London I had a typical 9-5 style job. Nothing outrageously stressful, but once you add on the 4-hour daily commute that I committed myself to, I ended up being out from 7 am to at minimum 8 pm every day, leaving me just the time for some food and a shower each evening before I went to bed. On top of that, not wanting to let my translation career slide, I also freelanced on the side. So I’d take on around 4,000 words of translation work almost every weekend as well. Somehow I still managed to get out now and then, but realistically speaking I was spending 90% of my waking hours working. And still not really ending up with any money, although that’s another story. I really loved both my job and the translation side too, so I wasn’t too disappointed by all of this, but I was still allowing work to take over almost everything. My friends and boyfriend could probably also confirm that I couldn’t even take my 20 days of holiday each year without hauling along my laptop so I could translate shampoo bottle descriptions or advertisements for nappies. When you get sucked into this 24-hour working culture, you feel like taking a break or stepping away for even one day will somehow damage your career.

Anyway, after I quit my job and became a digital nomad, I started to try and redevelop a sense of work-life balance and to enjoy the lifestyle of road-tripping, travelling and experiencing new cities and countries. And for a while this was going pretty well – I was doing roughly what I do now – wake up, work for 1-3 hours, go out for the day, and spend another 1-3 hours in the evening finishing up with projects. However, I started to feel like this wasn’t enough, and like I had to go back into the full-time scene. So that’s why I started working as a project manager. Actually, I found a job where I could work remotely, so I thought maybe this was the perfect way to combine my twin obsessions of travel and my career. I could work full-time without being tied to a location. Perfect, right? Well, it was, and it wasn’t. I genuinely loved the job and the colleagues, who even though I didn’t meet most of them face to face, I came to be friends with from our internet-based relationship. Even though we all worked remotely, we worked like a real PM team. And I really loved the work.

However, the remote aspect also meant that there was no clear distinction between ‘at work’ and ‘at home’. Home was my work. So instead of switching off at 6pm, I was feeling pressurised (by colleagues, clients, deadlines, myself…) to keep going ‘until the work was done’. Except the work was literally never done. There was always something else coming in from a client, round the clock, and one of us had to be there to pick it up. Translators would email 24-7 with queries that had to be dealt with immediately to avoid projects spiralling into disaster. A combination of huge workload, tight deadlines and a lack of clear office hours meant that we all ended up being ‘on the clock’ 24-7. I was by no means the only one in the company who would wake up in the middle of the night to check emails, start work at 7 am ‘to get a head start’, forget to eat because I was so busy, wake up at 5-6 am to deal with urgent project hand-ins, stay working until 10-11 pm on Friday nights because a text hadn’t been assigned, work entire weekends on a regular basis because the workload just piled up and up without end. And to be honest, some crazy part of me loved that. I felt important, and like I was part of something. The fast pace of the work was exciting and kept me interested. I loved being kept busy and challenged all the time. But realistically, something had to give. I don’t want to blame the company as I think all of the PMs ended up piling pressure on themselves, but the salary was incredibly low for the amount of work, and the amount of work was eroding absolutely every aspect of my life. My relationship, my social life, my health and all my other interests were being pushed aside into the 30 minutes of spare time I left myself with. I was turning down social events constantly, sitting at home whilst everyone else went out. I wasn’t eating properly, sleeping properly because of the stress, or even finding the time to wash or clean the house. If you’re freelance, or you work from home, you can end up in this trap, because there is literally no distinction between when you’re working and when you’re not. If you’re not careful, you just end up working all the time.

However I don’t think just us freelancers are the ones who fall into the ’24-hour’ working culture. Many workers in full-time jobs end up in this office culture where you feel forced to stay at your desk until 8-9pm every day in case you appear lazy, or someone else snatches your promotion from under your nose. Companies pile the pressure on you, making you feel obliged to work longer and longer, harder and harder, often with no additional pay. But at the same time, you get guilt-tripped into staying those extra hours when you see everyone else is doing it too. What if they think you’re lazy if you go home before them? What if you let them down? So, work eats up more and more of your life, if you’re anything like the people-pleaser that I am. I hate saying no, so I won’t say no to projects I can’t really fit in, or weekends and evenings in the office, or helping someone else out at my expense. What starts out as an exception ‘I’m working late honey, there’s an emergency at work…’ ends up being a regular feature, and you end up working way, way above the prescriptive hours. Who really works 40 hours a week? Put your hands up if you do. Most of us work 50, 60 or even 70. And how many of us actually get paid any overtime for doing so? It’s just expected isn’t it. If you don’t work enough extra hours you’re not proactive and go-getting enough. You’re not dedicated, or hard working enough. How are you going to get ahead?!

Well, this is just my opinion, but if you’re working a significant number of excess hours on a regular basis without being paid or recognised for it, you know what? Stop it. Just stop it. You’re not proving your worth to the company, or working towards a promotion. You’re just giving away hours and hours of your time to some guy in a suit because of some invisible and unknown force that tries to guilt-trip you into doing so. Now, considering what I said to you before – that I’m a workaholic myself – it might sound unreasonable or hypocritical to suggest that maybe you actually go home at 5pm sometimes, or maybe you decide not to take on extra work unless there is some reward for it. But as a freelancer now, I actually get paid according to how much work I do, not how many hours I sit at a computer for. If I translate 1000 words, I get a fixed rate. And as soon as I’m done with those words, I can switch off my computer and do something else. There’s no-one standing over me making me feel like I should sit at my computer to make up the 8-hours I ‘should’ be working if I finish in less than that. As I mentioned before, I generally work 4-5 hours a day now. Sometimes less or more depending on what workload I decide to go for. But let’s say I work 5 hours a day every day. That still adds up to less than a 40-hour week, and yet if I balance my books right I actually end up with more money in my pocket at the end of each month than when I did my ‘real’ job. Certainly more money per hour, anyway.

I’m not trying to denigrate 9-5 jobs, or any of the companies I’ve worked for (I loved them!), nor am I trying to suggest everyone quits their job to become a freelance nomad or whatever. However, I think we could all benefit from looking at the culture of working more and more and more for no increase in pay or reward. If you love your job, that’s absolutely great, and if you’re well paid for it too, then well done! However try to stay aware of how many hours of your life you’re giving over to a company, and whether or not this is even required or beneficial. Maybe it’s ok for you to go home on time sometimes, or take your holiday days, or turn down some of the extra work that’s foisted on you. Who knows? Maybe you could even be better off!

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What do you guys think? Is the 9-5 model outdated and unnecessary? Is there a smarter and easier way to work? Let me know your thoughts!!

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