Owning Your Time

Are you one of those who sigh when you receive a text from your boss over the weekend to prepare for a meeting first thing on Monday morning? Or groan at a new work assignment when you log in to check your email on an overseas holiday?

The feeling sucks, doesn’t it? We may hate our boss for wrecking our time off, but eventually we’ll grit our teeth and get down to handling it, whenever and wherever we are. After that, we’ll end up feeling demoralized that our jobs demand so much of us, and the cycle repeats when the next email or message lands in our inbox.

There is a popular joke about work-life balance where I live, and it says that the only work-life balance that is humanly possible to achieve is when work = life. Get it? A balanced equation. Har har.

It might seem that we are powerless to change this. After all, that’s just how the organizational culture is like, right? Work is work and we just have to do it.

The truth is: What is forcing you to give up your precious free time (or even vacation time) and use it for work isn’t your organization or your boss.

It’s yourself. And if you aren’t happy with this situation you find yourself in, then it’s you that needs to change, not your environment.

The one and only reason why we fall into the trap of giving up our free time for work is simple: Our work is the top priority in our lives. That also means that everything else that we claim to recognize as important isn’t really all that important.

The above joke about work-life balance, like all jokes, hints at a small truth amidst the mirth. The joke reflects the mainstream idea that work is the defining activity of one’s life. When duty calls, everything else comes second. Family, friends, your own hobbies – people are quick to prioritize their work over all these things. Just think about one of the most common questions you might ask a stranger: What do you do? As if one’s work is all there is to the person you’re asking. The scary thing is, most of the time it’s true.

Are you okay with this? Maybe you are. But even if so, let me explain why I’m not.

If you frequent social media, you may have come across this “top 10 things people regret on their deathbed” list. And right at the top of that list is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”. We all know this intuitively. I’m not referring to the 1% of us who are actually passionate and purposeful about their work – I’m referring to the rest for whom work is basically a simple exchange of one’s time for money in order to survive.

So maybe you might be okay with making work your ultimate priority over everything else right now. But how about when you’re older? Would your older self thank you for your devotion to your career, at the cost of everything else?

The reason why many people end up working so hard is because they don’t have anything else they value in their lives. Because if they did value something else, they would make time for it. Just like how they make time for work. This may be hard to swallow, but the hard truth is you can’t make a positive change to your mindset until you accept this truth.

You might struggle with this idea, but there is hope. To illustrate this point, let me ask a seemingly random question: How do you know that an iron is hot? Don’t make that “Huh what” face, just answer me.

You know an iron is hot when you touch it and get burnt, right? But you getting burnt isn’t what gave you the information that the iron was hot. You obtained that information because when you touched that iron, your body’s pain receptors activated and sent pain signals to your brain, causing you to feel pain. From that pain, you instinctively deduced that the iron was hot. If your nervous system wasn’t working, you could be cooking your hand and not even know it until it was too late.

The above example is a physical one, but the same holds true for our mind as well. If you are devoted to your work but feel listless and dejected about it on a constant basis – that’s your mind trying to tell you something. It’s trying to tell you that maybe, just maybe, you need more than your work to live a happy and fulfilling life.

Maybe you remain unconvinced because you believe that not putting your work first will lead to disastrous consequences for your career. If you don’t respond to your boss’ texts on Sunday, maybe you won’t have to turn up at the office on Monday anymore. Or if you leave on the dot, you’ll be put in the same category as those guys who take sick leave without producing medical certificates.

Instead of worrying whether your boss or organization are really capable and willing to destroy your career over something like this, what about turning the question around? If they really are as petty and short-sighted to do such a thing, why not consider if your interests are best served by working in such an organization in the first place?

Most people never think about their concerns this way, because they have a low opinion of themselves as employees. It seems to be a commonly accepted “fact” that the employer holds all the power and employees should just do as they’re told.

But that is completely wrong. To see yourself as such is to sell yourself short. The lack of confidence is a stumbling block for many, and it’s sad to see innate potential and talent going to waste because good workers have too low an opinion of themselves.

Consider that if you really are all that lousy and expendable, then why did your employer hire you in the first place? Why didn’t they get someone who’s better? The answer is simple: Because you were already the best, out of all the job applicants. Think about that.

And what did the employer do when they wanted to hire you? They gave you an employment contract to sign. A contract is an agreement made between two willing parties. Two willing parties of equal stature. The organization wants you to work for them, and you want to work for the organization. Too often we forget the former and remember only the latter.

Take a look at your employment contract again. Is there any clause which says you are expected to answer work texts at midnight, reply emails on a Sunday or work 16 hours a day? Chances are, there aren’t any such clauses. The employment contract probably just stipulates your working days and hours. So if you are at work during the stipulated period, and you spend that period working, can it be said that you have failed to uphold your end of the bargain?

Despite all this, it might be your strong sense of responsibility that explains why you place work above all else. You are willing to put your organization before your own interests. In a certain sense, that’s pretty admirable. But if I once again turn the question around, would your organization be willing to do the same? Would it put you first if given a choice between that and placing itself first?

I think we all know the answer to that.

The hard truth is that there is no one that is going to fight for your interests. No one except yourself. People will only act in your interests if their interests are aligned with yours. The same goes for organizations, since they’re run by people.

So all this while I’ve been talking like as though the choice between putting your organization or yourself first is a black and white one. Either this or that. But what if you could have your cake and eat it too? What if you could leave work on the dot, have your entire weekend and holiday to yourself and not have to deal with last minute and unexpected work requests?

Sounds impossible? Not by a long shot. If you’re convinced by what I said above, please support me by liking and sharing this article! If there’s enough support, I’ll write a Part Two detailing how exactly you can achieve the best of both worlds: Making both your employer and yourself happy. Thanks for reading!

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