All work and no play or just the opposite: What’s just right?

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

Goldilocks had it right all along. Not so much the break-in that surprised the three bears, but her quest to experience the satisfying equilibrium that’s just right. Her desire applies as much to porridge and chairs as it does to beds. And, as it turns out, to work and free time.

Suppose Goldlilocks works as a software engineer. What equilibrium would she try to achieve between time spent at the office and such leisurely pursuits as wandering through the woods?

The answer is unique not only for Goldilocks, but just about everyone and depends on gender, age and a host of other variables.

Consider, for example, the perspective of the editor of a business journal with a lopsided schedule: leisurely at the beginning of a production cycle, frantic at the end. After more than 40 years in print journalism, I’ve never managed to moderate the load. That’s a function of the process, but also procrastination. I remain reluctant to work harder at the beginning of a cycle although I know it would mean working less hard at the end. Then necessity kicks in. To paraphrase Descartes: I face deadline, therefore I toil.

Nonetheless, researchers have discovered some generalities about work and free time as well as some possible explanations why. The findings couldn’t be more important for businesses in adjusting workweeks, affording more scheduling flexibility and helping employees strike a balance between work and life. After all, happy employees are more productive employees.

The good news for businesses is research confirms people who are busy are happier than those who are idle. That might seen counterintuitive to those who dream of accomplishing nothing more ambitious than laying on a beach and drinking cocktails with those little umbrellas. If people are honest with themselves, though, I suspect they actually prefer the opposite. I know for a fact most of the business owners I’ve interviewed over the past 20 years enjoy a challenging pace because that means their ventures make money.

The issue remains one of degree, of what’s just right. One study analyzing data covering 35,000 Americans found that among those who are employed, the ratings of their satisfaction with life peaked when they had about 2.5 hours of free time a day. The ratings for those who don’t work, by the way, peaked at 4 hours and 45 minutes.

People who’re too busy at work and as a result enjoy too little free time suffer stress. All work and no play makes Jack if not a dull boy, then an exasperated one.

Not surprisingly, stress diminishes as people approach their optimal amount of free time. After that point, though, people reported they had too much time on their hands and felt less productive. That can challenge a person’s self-image and induce stress, too. That’s not to mention the cultural inclination to work harder or hectic schedules some maintain as a status symbol. Hey, look at me. I’m so busy.

Of course, the optimal 2.5 hours of free time a day is more what you’d call a guideline than actual rule. Still other factors go into the calculus. Free time is less fulfilling for people who can’t spend it with others. There’s also the amount of control people exert over their schedules.

When do people prefer to enjoy their free time? At the beginning of the day, the end or dispersed throughout? Are people happier with the traditional five-day workweek or four longer work days and three-day weekends?

Some wonder whether or not the whole work-life balance thing is helpful. Rather, the concept implies a separation between work and life that doesn’t exist and suggests a precarious footing that with one misstep could prove disastrous.

Then there’s that age-old advice: Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life. But even those who love their jobs and feel fortunate to make a living at it realize there’s a difference between work and play.

I count my blessings nearly every day. I actually get paid to meet interesting people, to learn interesting things and then report the results. I get to write these columns, for heaven’s sake. Still, there are lots of times nearly every day I’d much rather hop on a plane, squeeze into my wetsuit and explore the Palancar Reef off Cozumel.

Instead of seeking balance between work and life, perhaps the better aspiration would be to seek fulfillment in both work and life. Now that would be … just right.