The Work-Life Balance Myth and the Joy of Obsession

I hate the work-life balance myth. It’s ruining the joy of obsession.

It’s 6:53am on my “Sunday,” and I can’t stay in bed. Tomorrow starts my work week at the animal shelter. I work 10 hour days and rarely have time to work on my passion projects.

I started rebuilding my website yesterday in preparation for seeking more freelance work, and got totally obsessed. As I slept, ideas churned through my head.

The challenge of building a new website is exciting enough to get me to pop out of bed early in the morning, especially when it’s my own and I get full creative license.

I had to laugh a little when my early-morning inspiration was met with a message about scheduled WordPress maintenance. I guess I can’t work on the finishing touches of my Portfolio right now.

This got me thinking about the joy of obsession and how it relates to the work-life balance myth.

My friend Nate didn’t get to lead 5.12 trad by balancing all of his hobbies.

    Think about it. You’re happiest when you’re least balanced – when you’re newly in love, when you’re totally engrossed in a fun and challenging project at work, when you’re obsessively running through the moves of your new climbing project at the bus stop.

This realization almost stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it. I was running sprints with my border collie in a park at 8pm in November, my breath coming in heavy white puffs. My feet already hurt from my ten hours of training shelter animals, but here I was. A podcast blared from my iPhone. That night, it was Seeking Wisdom and their episode on the work-life balance myth.

Colorado College made me hate the work-life balance myth

I went to college at Colorado College. It was the 5th most selective private liberal arts college in the US in 2017 and was the “Most Innovative” college in the US for 2018. More importantly for my perception of the work-life balance myth, Colorado College runs on the Block Plan.

Students at Colorado College take just one course at a time, spending three to six hours per day (or more) in class focusing on just one subject. This all-in schedule continues for three and a half weeks, often with weekends being swallowed by the workload. The school, on average, covers one week of material on the semester system in a single day.

Then the students get a five-day weekend. The parking lots before Block Break are full of students packing food, gear, and weird outfits into vans to head out into the Colorado, New Mexico, or Utah wilderness. These five-day extravaganzas exemplify the joy of obsession, and it’s probably why Outside Magazine named Colorado College “The School of Rock” for producing professional rock climbers.

Nine days of field work certainly isn’t balance. But I loved it.

I got to spend 9 days hiking and studying ornithology in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona – for class. I spent 10 hour days in the organic chemistry lab, and I taught a three-hour lecture on the evolutionary origins of addiction for a psychology class. Immersion was what attracted me to Colorado College, and immersion I got.

I Seek Joy of Obsession in My Daily Life and Shun the Work-Life Myth

After graduation, I started hearing a lot of comments about my lifestyle. Coworkers expressed concern that I worked too much, exercised too hard, or slept too much, in turn. One said that I didn’t need to spend so much time exercising and training my dog – a bit funny, coming from another dog trainer! What they missed is that I wasn’t obsessing because of some made-up “need” to check off boxes. I love what I do, and I would rather spend my weekends running, training dogs, and writing than sleeping in and watching TV.

If you want to spend your weekends watching TV and recuperating from a tough week at work, that’s fine. But I’d rather not.

I realized that my somewhat extreme work hard-play hard lifestyle wasn’t hurting my mental health or productivity. Self doubt about my love of that lifestyle was. The problem wasn’t frenzied three-day road trips to Utah for rock climbing, or spending my precious weekends in a flurry of freelance writing deadlines and private animal behavior consultations.

The problem was feeling like every day, week, and month had to be a perfect balance of work, fun, rest, social interaction, personal development, exercise, yoga, mindfulness meditation, and project time. That’s simply impossible.

Put the joy of obsession to work – like my border collie.

Barley is my three year old border collie. He does everything at 100 mph, but his love of fetch is out of this world. He loves fetch so much that his pupils dilate and he stops breathing when I pull out the ball.

Honestly, when I first adopted him, this worried me. It frustrated me that he couldn’t stop bringing me little scraps to throw for him, his eyes a bit frantic and his body rigid with excitement. He couldn’t comply with a simple request to “sit” if I held a squeaky toy in my hand.

Barley epitomizes the joy of obsession.

Instead of letting him run himself ragged with the ball (we’d probably have track marks in the floor of our apartment), we decided to harness his joy of obsession. This meant putting in some rules about fetch to start out – check out this article to see how we did that.

Instead of searching for a “balance” of a bit of fetch, a bit of training, a bit of sleep, etc, I went all in. We instated some strict rules about fetch in the home at first, and hid all the tennis balls. I gradually started teaching Barley to control his excitement about fetch so that he can think through problems while a ball is nearby.

Now his nearly debilitating fetch obsession is our greatest weapon. I’ve found what makes him tick, and I’ve taught him how to comply with requests to get what he wants. He’s not balanced, but he’s joyful.

And I’ll be darned if we’re not the best dog-handler team in our nosework class, thanks to his never-ending drive to obtain the ball.

Could you do the same with your obsession?

No Work-Life Balance Leads to Huge Success

This summer I got totally obsessed with training for my first marathon. I signed up for a trail run in Breckenridge, CO that topped out at almost 13,000 feet above sea level.

Obsessing over marathon training paid off!

If I could have, I would have quit my job, moved to a campsite in Breckenridge, and spent every waking moment preparing for the race. I’d have spent my entire summer running, stretching, bathing in cold streams, and strengthening my mind through meditation.

But I have rent to pay, an expensive lease, and a job that I enjoy. So instead I worked my ten-hour work days, strapped on a headlamp for dimly lit runs, and spent my weekends chasing my border collie through the mountains.

It was glorious – and I won my age group in my first ever marathon. That would not have happened if I hadn’t gotten a bit obsessed with training and preparing for the race.


A Note About the “Reality” of Work-Life Balance

There will be times that you cannot fully pursue your obsessions. You’ll hate your job, your spouse, and your hobbies. That’s why the joy of obsession is important – it helps guide you towards what areas of your life you want to be attending to right now.

There will be times where it’s important to rest, focus on your family, or find a balance. I’m not endorsing constant work. It would be a terrible idea to strap myself to a treadmill for three months to train for my next marathon, so don’t do the equivalent work-wise. Being totally engrossed in your work should still be healthy, because breaks and self-care are actually important for the success of your projects.

It might seem like I’m splitting hairs with the distinction here, but it’s important.

Recognize that meditation, yoga, running, visiting friends, or watching TV might actually be a part of your strategy for success with an obsession. But pursuing those extra-curriculars just because you feel a societal obligation to be “balanced” is a fool’s errand.

There will be time that your obsessions become grinds, and you need a break. That’s fine. Either make the deadline and then take a break, or put it aside now

I hope there also will be times that your life feels gloriously balanced, like a cutout of the American dream.

Can You Pursue the Joy of Obsession Anyway?

Shifting paradigms and breaking rules in Yosemite.

Reality sometimes reins in the joy of obsession. I think that’s where the work-life balance myth keeps its stranglehold. It’s challenging to quit your job, leave your city, or pursue a relationship. Excuses are easy to find. How would we pay rent? Where would we move to? What if I get hurt?

At least, you probably can’t do that tomorrow. When you get into the “reality” that’s holding you back, you often realize that those hangups are surmountable.

You can take steps to make the pursuit of joyful obsession a reality soon. That’s what I’m doing now. Stay tuned to hear more about my preparations for fully pursuing the joy of obsession.

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