Live to Work or Work to Live: Thoughts on Work/Life Balance

The other day on a podcast, entrepreneur and author Joanna Penn said something like you only worry about work/life balance when you dislike what you do. This caught my ear. My feelings about how work fits in my life, or how it “should” fit, have changed during the last six months, partly because I’ve shifted professionally so that most of my work time relates to my thriller writing. Even so, I’m not sure I completely agree with Joanna’s comment.

During the 14+ years when the majority of my work time (the majority of all my time, for that matter) was spent practicing law, I strived to keep a sharp divide between what I did to earn a living and the rest of life. That seemed vital because I worked so many hours, first at a large law firm and then running my own law practice. I rarely worked at law projects at home and rarely handled anything personal from my office. I also tried to designate certain times of the week–Saturday evening, all day Sunday–whenever I could as non-work time. My thriller and horror writing, though also work, was my great love, so I counted it on the “life” side of the balance.

My view as I write this post.

Now that I spend most of my professional life writing, and a smaller amount practicing law and teaching, work/life balance isn’t a big focus for me, yet I’m happier. I sometimes choose to research or write legal motions and briefs Saturday and Sunday mornings so I can send my final product off to a client or file it in a court early, leaving the rest of the week for revising the third thriller in my Awakening series. Likewise, I might grade the papers my law students write while taking Amtrak to visit family, despite that it’s officially vacation, because it helps pass the long train ride. Or I’ll sit out on my deck and dictate parts of a blog post into my phone while watching a beautiful sunset, which is how I began this entry.

At first I struggled against this migration of work into evenings and weekends–those times I’d tried so hard, often without success, to keep sacred when I labored primarily at law. But being too rigid led to me feeling both busier and as if I weren’t getting as much done, as I always felt I ought to be doing something else. Paying bills during 9-5 when I’m most sharp and productive seemed like a waste, as did going to the grocery store during evenings or weekends when everyone else is there. When I felt freer to handle tasks when I’d be most productive at them or enjoy them more regardless of the time or place, I discovered I found it easier to relax during downtime, plus I had more of it. Letting myself open my laptop on a Saturday morning to rewrite a scene that had sifted through my mind during the night gave me more than one uninterrupted hour to read a novel during the week. Immersing myself in reading that way is something I loved from childhood on but hadn’t done regularly since before I’d started law school. From then on, reading for pleasure happened only in 10-20 minute increments unless I was on vacation.

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Now I wonder if, while I was practicing law full time, I might have been happier had I allowed myself the same flexibility. I liked my work, and I loved running my own business. But I got depressed, feeling like the only person in the whole world working when I stayed at my office every night until 7 p.m. At the big law firm where I’d practiced, seven was a normal time to leave work, but on my own most of the people where I shared offices left by 5 or 6. And on weekends, it was just me and the security guards. I might have felt happier doing routine administrative tasks at home with a glass of wine and John Fogerty playing on the stereo.

One of the things I do identify with that Joanna Penn said is that because she loves writing and everything connected to it, her leisure time and social interactions all often relate to her work, and she enjoys that. Authors need to read, and that’s a great love of mine. I’ve also made very close friends at writing conferences and more recently through writing communities on line. We’ve become sounding boards for one another for our careers and for other parts of life. Plus we have fun. I recently had a great time eating good food and drinking wine at Lady Gregory in Chicago with my friend Patty, who runs Path to Essential Health. Yet we were having a business meeting about a creativity workshop we’re putting together.

At the same time, I remember when I started my law firm I was also delighted at the many ways business and social came together. At the large firm, the hours of legal work required to meet guidelines left little time for any type of social life–business related or not. On my own, I was thrilled that I could eat lunch often with friends, attend bar association events, and host get togethers at my firm. That a side effect often was sharing good business advice or connecting one another with potential clients or vendors was icing on the cake. Three or four years later, though, when my practice had grown almost beyond me, I felt burnt out and tired. I still loved seeing my friends, but the hours in the office felt less rewarding, and I began to resent the lack of time away.

It’s tempting to believe that’ll never happen with my writing, and with the business side of writing, because I love it more. And that’s probably true in part. But the author of The E-Myth Revisted, a book about entrepreneurs with small businesses, talks about the dangers of growth without a plan. The author gives examples of small business owners who survive the all important first five years (during which most small business fail) only to confront a challenge they never expected: too much success, resulting in working too much for too long and no longer loving the business. I recognized myself right away and realized that within a year of opening my doors I ought to have hired a full time legal assistant rather than doing so much myself with office support only on a project basis.

I plan to learn from that experience, so much as I love writing and everything connected with it, I’ll make a a little nod to work/life balance more often than I feel the need to. Also thanks to Joanna’s podcast, I’ve started scheduling my tasks for the following work day the night before. It helps me get more done and, as important, I schedule in breaks and I know when I’m finished for the day. And I’m keeping an eye on what additional aspects of my writing business and law practice I will outsource if I hit a point where I feel all I do is work.

What about you? Does whether you love your work affect your need for work/life balance? What tips can you offer on enjoying your life inside and outside of work?


Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower.