I’m relaxing on Saturday afternoon when I decide to open my laptop to play a crossword and listen to a little music. As I type the website into the address bar, my eyes scan the homepage and drift to the Gmail button. Hmm, I wonder if I have any new messages? There it is. A revision for an article I’m working on. I’m curious to read the comments and immediately open it. Before I know it, my chill out time turns into adding citations and modifying run on sentences; thoughts of 4-down and 27-across long gone. Does this sound familiar?
This phenomenon has a name: work creep. The uncanny ability to be doing something completely unrelated to work, in fact sometimes the exact opposite yet somehow finding yourself doing work nonetheless. It’s almost subconscious. I can’t recall the number of times I opened a web browser and instinctively started typing the web address for my Outlook inbox. Thankfully, I know better than to go down the email rabbit hole on weekends, but still; it’s incredibly frustrating to have internalized the mentality of always being “on” for work.
The difficult part of dealing with work creep is the many different flavors it comes in. It’s easier to resist the urge to work on my official job on the weekends since I’m putting it 40-50 hours regularly Monday-Friday. But when it comes to writing this blog, articles, or even researching a new topic I’d like to know more about, the line is a bit murkier. I’ve found myself posting interesting bits of work-life balance articles to Twitter for far longer than I’d like to admit. Ironic isn’t it?
It’s a constant challenge as a solopreneur to not think about work, so it’s not entirely surprising how easy work can creep into the most innocuous of moments. The mental reel keeps the phrase ‘If I just do this one more thing I’ll somehow be that much further ahead’ on repeat.
Clearly this is not a healthy way to live. Even if you’re the kind of person whose work is their passion and I can genuinely say that writing and striving every single day to create better, more balanced institutions where people can thrive is something I never tire of doing, I still need a mental break. Even with a plethora of balanced living strategies at my disposal, this is still one area that I’m routinely working to improve.
One thing that helps is to recognize work creep moment the it’s happening. This takes a degree of self-awareness which thankfully years of mindfulness has cultivated within. I may start reading the latest draft of an article but I also take a deep breath and stop long enough to ask myself precisely what I stand to gain from working at that particular moment. Sometimes the answer is clearly that I was just on autopilot mode, something I try to avoid as much as possible because ultimately that is a very harmful way of living. Other times, work creep snuck up on me because I just didn’t quite know what I wanted to do in the first place.
How often do you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through your Facebook feed because you feel like you don’t have anything better to do? There are so many choices of what to do in our modern age that it truly can be paralyzing at times, even subconsciously, that we end up choosing the path of least resistance. I’m already on the internet, might as well reply to that email from a colleague.
The other strategy I employ after catching myself ‘accidentally’ working is asking how long I’m willing to work once I’ve started. That usually triggers another wave of self-awareness because I know that what might seem like a five minute endeavor, can quickly turn into an hour spent optimizing my website search rankings. I don’t want to spend my weekend doing any extra hour worth of work, especially since I already dedicate time every Sunday to advancing my projects for the week ahead. With this strategy, I can prioritize tasks that I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of my leisure time for or get a complete grip and steer my hands in the direction of opening up a novel rather than a spreadsheet.
Humans are notoriously difficult at guessing how long any one task will take and with work creep; a few minutes can quickly get away from you. The end result is an early morning, evening or weekend that is less than restorative, perpetuating the cycle of overwhelm and exhaustion that seems to plague most adults over the age of 25. Work creep might be considered an inevitable part of the modern professional’s life but with some creativity and self-awareness you can at least spend most of your leisure time doing whatever it is you truly want to do, even when that is absolutely nothing at all.