What’s the difference between work and play?

Photo by Gloria Villa on Unsplash

So much of paid work today doesn’t look much like work.

Most of us aren’t making things, filing things, or meeting about things 8 hours a day. There’s networking, education, and creative practice in the mix. And because so much of what it takes to do our quote-unquote jobs is pleasurable, it often bleeds into our early mornings or late nights.

It’s super easy to think you’re working a standard 40-hour week, or maybe a generous 32-hour week. But if you were to actually account for all of the activities that contributed to your paid work, you just might discover that you’re working 60, 80, or even more hours per week.

We love the benefits of our flexible, porous working lives.

But there are drawbacks, too. It’s much easier to overwork when you don’t even realize you’re working. It’s harder to take a real break when you don’t know you’ve been going for 12 hours straight. And justifying putting in a few more hours in the evening is easy when work is supposed to be fun, right?

Since 2020, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how much time I spend working. I don’t mean the time that I’m at my desk—I mean all the time I spend working that doesn’t involve being in front of a computer. For me, the distinction between what counts as “work” and what doesn’t is unclear at best and, at worst, utterly meaningless.

Most of us seem to be operating as if there was still a clear delineation between work and leisure when our realities provide no contrast between the two. And thanks to the work of pioneering sociologists like Arlie Russell Hochschild, we recognize that unpaid work is still work. We might only work for pay 6 or 8 hours a day—but then we have housework and reproductive work to do.


This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.


Still, I think there is a ton of reason to be optimistic about what we can create for ourselves and others with more flexible work.

We just also have to know what we’re dealing with.

I want to draw on labor writer Amelia Horgan’s work for some background here. Horgan devotes an entire chapter of her book, Lost In Work, to exploring the “paradox of ‘new work’.” The ‘new work’ is exactly what I’ve been describing here—and it’s probably the way that most listeners of this podcast go about their work. We can contrast that with the Fordist model of labor. Fordism—named for Henry Ford—is the sort of production line, manufacturing work that we think of when we think of those “good middle class jobs” from decades gone by.

Fordism creates a stark line between work and play. Work involves a hard & fast schedule where a routine task is performed to specific standards. Workers trade that labor for enjoying freedom from the specter of paid work in the evenings and on weekends.

Now the concept of work that the Fordist zeitgeist represents was only ever available to a relatively small segment of the population. Imagining that everyone had the privilege of clocking out after 8 hours of straightforward work in the middle of the 20th century is like imagining that everyone today has the privileges of people working in tech with progressive benefits packages and workplace policies. Women, people of color, immigrants, the disabled—Fordist work models never really applied to the kind of work that was largely accessible to these groups. Yet, the ideal of Fordist work, or at least a romanticized version of it, persists to this day. Many people long for a Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 jobs that they can “leave at the office” when they’re through.

Fordism today has largely been replaced by the Toyota-style of just-in-time production, or in the tech world, lean start-up and agile methodologies.

This is how work got flexible.

Flexible work and production weren’t conceived as a perk for workers but a profit management strategy. Of course, there is a lot for workers to like about flexible work—if managed with the worker in mind. That’s a rarity, though. Instead, working time and non-working time blend. Horgan puts it this way:

This means the merging of work and leisure, with work increasingly resembling play, and leisure treated as something we can and should make profitable; each hobby a potential ‘side gig’.

From what I can tell, most of us know this—but few of us actually apply it to how we understand our own time. Fordism is still so engrained—and valorized—as a mode of work that we just assume it represents our reality. We assume there’s a line between work and play when that line was erased at least two decades ago.

And that brings me back to where I started: so much of work today doesn’t look very much like work. But maybe what’s even more true is that what it takes to get our jobs done—the work we actually get paid for—requires quite a bit of non-working time. Here’s what I mean: The other day, I was just scrolling through my Twitter feed, when I saw a very wise tweet from a user named moontwerk The tweet said:

Is it writer’s block or did you just need some time to immerse yourself in the parts of the writing process that don’t involve production?

As a writer, I do quite a bit of work that doesn’t involve producing publishable work. And I’m not just talking about building my audience, pitching stories, or drafting and revising. The quote-unquote work that keeps me writing is reading, listening, and researching. I often do that work before 8am or after 9pm. I do it while I’m running or while I’m taking a lunch break. I do it on weekends and on vacation. If I don’t do that work, I cannot do my paid work. But… it still doesn’t seem like work. And I hardly ever remember to factor it in when I think about how much time I spend working.

Weird, right?!

Maybe “work” just isn’t a very helpful idea anymore—at least not for the self-employed.

Horgan sheds some light on this, too:

‘Work’ can be immensely general, near enough to a generic form of expending effort, it is also particular, typically being used to mean paid work, a place of work, a job. This means that the same activity can be both work and not-work depending on the conditions in which it is undertaken. So, scrubbing floors in someone else’s home is work when done for pay, but not work, at least in the narrow sense, when done to keep your own home clean. Similarly, uploading a picture to Instagram, writing the caption, engaging with any comments, and so on, are not work when done on your own time, but are work when your job is managing the social media accounts of a company, or perhaps when you’re an influencer, posting sponsored content on behalf of a brand.

So… how do we think about working less when the idea of work covers so much territory?

How do we think about working less when some of our most important work doesn’t much look like work? And how do we think about working less in a way that benefits others, instead of exploiting them?

To help me think through some of these questions, I talked with Anne Ditmeyer, an American ex-pat living and working in France. She’s a designer, creative coach, and consultant with a global clientele. Anne got in touch with me on Twitter and told me that the way she works today is inspired by her parents’ retirement. She also told me that she was normalizing working less—both for herself and others.


This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.


Before we can get to her unique decisions about time, work, and even location. Let’s find out how she was working before she started doing things differently. Early in her career, Anne found herself working as a graphic designer at an architecture firm in Baltimore. “I enjoy it, but I didn’t love being at a desk from 8:30 to 5:30 every day,” she told me. But the schedule wasn’t the worst part for Anne. The worst part was the 10 meager vacation days she was allotted each year. Now, I know, that’s 10 more than a lot of people have! But Anne loved to travel and those 10 vacation days made it difficult for her to live in a way that was meaningful for her. Without the ability to travel more and seek out new inspiration, she knew she wouldn’t be as good at her “real” job.

So Anne decided to negotiate. She knew that a raise was unlikely since the economy had tanked—so a little more time off seemed like a trade-off the firm would go for. She could make a case for travel time. The first boss she talked to about getting some more time off was on board. But the second boss, a woman she was actually close to, pointed to the employee handbook and reminded Anne that she’d have to work there six years before she’d earned a third week of vacation. That and become an associate architect—which wasn’t going to happen since she was a designer.

“I knew I had a lot of resistance to full-time work.”

Anne ended up leaving that job to attend graduate school in Paris. And she knew she wanted to stay put. She told me that grad school taught her plenty—including that doing her own thing with a flexible schedule is how she works best. Even though her instructors told her that staying in France would be impossible, Anne found a way to do it. In fact, six years ago she even became French and holds two passports.

To support herself in Paris, Anne decided to start a business. Her work options were limited by her status in France—which she didn’t mind at all since flexibility was to be the name of the game. She told me that she was learning how to build a business the hardest way possible, while also dealing with the added challenge of navigating French bureaucracy.

I’m grateful for France—I call it one giant creative constraint. I had the right to work in France, except in salaried [roles]. But I didn’t want salaried work. So what I was allowed to do and wasn’t allowed to do became a thing that was never a thing as an American.

Part of the challenge with “new work” or post-Fordist work is that it has so few constraints. If I can answer emails on my phone while I’m in bed, why not do it? If I can turn a picture of me and my kid into lots of likes, why not share it? If I can turn my evening YouTube viewing into research for work, why not take advantage of that? When Anne says she sees France as a giant creative constraint, she’s acknowledging that limitations have value.

Okay, but what is being self-employed in Paris actually like?

Anne told me that, at first, she just wanted to enjoy the freedom and resisted putting any kind of structure into her days. But over time, she’s developed a practice of gentle structure that’s actually allowed her more freedom over the way she works.

So now I have this morning routine: I’m up at 7:10, which my French friends are like, “That’s so early!” I get up, do a meditation, and [do my] morning pages. I joined something called Writers’ Hour, which is a free Zoom room through London Writers’ Salon. I’m trying to work on my own projects [during that time]. I just like to have a productive morning. And, whatever happens in the afternoon, is a bonus. If it gets done, great; and if it doesn’t, so be it.

Anne told me that the momentum of those early hours of focus and creative work most often carry her straight into her workday. Her morning routine reinforces how she actually likes to spend her time—so she doesn’t fight with the snooze button anymore.

I have a similar routine to Anne’s—and I find that there’s a lot to be learned about how we work today from cultivating this kind of practice for daily structure. Why continue to try to find the distinction between work and leisure or work and life when there isn’t one? Instead, bringing awareness to daily routines can shed light on how our time has become converted into something that can be applied to paid work, unpaid work, and pleasure—sometimes even at the same time.

Of course, not everybody is on the same page with this! Even among professionals, knowledge workers, and other business owners, the lack of distinction between work and life can create friction—either externally or internally. Anne told me that she often experiences a sense of judgment and guilt about the ease with which she moves through her day. “For so long, I just held a lot of guilt,” she said. She was working in a way that was counter to everything she’d seen modeled to that point—her compunction was warranted. But she’s started to shift that mindset.

I have this one memory of having lunch with a friend in my neighborhood. And she said, “Oh, what are you doing this afternoon?”

I said, “I think I’m going to go home and read a book.” I think it was even about teaching online courses. So it was for [a class I was teaching], but she said some comment to the effect of, “You’re so lucky you get to read during the day.” And it wasn’t meant as an insult or a dig! But I realized how loaded that statement was.

I have another friend now who I’ll say, “oh, I worked like 15 hours this week.” And he said, “You have to remember to define what work is.” And for me, work is nourishing myself. It is reading lots of books. It is listening to podcasts. It’s not overloading myself, but it’s to be able to support my clients, support other support myself, and it takes time to digest this stuff.

Even with Anne’s sharp attention to her work and time, she can still underestimate the burden a choice might create.

For instance, last year, she decided to do an extra round of one of her workshops.

In December, I ended up doing four variations of a workshop I run, and it’s all the same material. It’s all stuff I can do in my sleep. But at the end of the year, everything going on in the world, everything going on in life, I recognized, ‘wow, even that took a lot out of me!” Maybe I didn’t need to do this bonus work.

She said that she decided to run the workshops because there was interest. It seemed like an easy way to some extra revenue at the end of the year. But work is work, labor is labor. Even work that’s fun or easy is still work to consider in the broader scheme of your time and energy budgets. Anne told me that she’s been learning to “question how things are done and why we’re doing things” the way we are. She really did do less last year and tried to normalize it conversation, too. She hates the way “You do so much!” is coded as a compliment.

When I say that to somebody else, that’s not a compliment. But society makes you think it is. It’s not a badge of honor.

I can really relate to that. Just yesterday, I was telling someone how I’ve had to learn to think about different types of work impacting my working time differently. Time devoted to talking to people—even if it’s just an hour or two in a day—might reduce my ability to focus on other projects significantly. While time devoted to writing work seems to generate more time. This is akin to what Brittany Berger calls “energy management.” We’re all familiar with task management and time management—but those systems are all built with the idea that each working hour or each task are, essentially, the same as all the others. Last August, I asked Brittany how she defines energy management:

I like to say that energy management isn’t letting go of all of the other productivity tactics. It’s using your personal energy levels as a filter to put [your productivity tactics] through. Energy management is kind of just like honing your self awareness around your productivity. Because once you know your energy levels and rhythms, [as well as] how they fluctuate throughout the day and week, it becomes really easy to … arrange your life to expend minimal amounts of energy at the right time.

It’s clear to me that Anne has developed a real self-trust.

And that is not an easy feat! Her secret? Being honest with herself. She knows it’s going to take longer and require more patience to do what she wants to do than she first assumes. To create the space for that, she tries not to tackle multiple projects at once. She told me, “I try to be less of that juggling act, that multitasker. Just be in what I am in for that moment.”

The other thing she’s honest about is knowing she doesn’t have it all figured out.

I know that there are so many more evolutions I haven’t considered yet. But the less I work, the more I feel a natural flow of the work I should be doing—the work that brings the biggest change, and evolution, and transformation in others. I feel alive. I feel energized. I get the nicest notes from people.

And France has also taught me that life is a full-time job. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I have a lot more freedom and luxury than a lot of people, and I’m still astounded how full my days are. So I just know how important those cushions are, that space is, because we can’t go 110% all the time.

Life is a full-time job.

It sure is. I don’t know that there’s any point in trying to make a clear distinction between working and non-working time anymore for people like Anne and I—and probably you, too. But I do think that we need to cultivate a deep awareness of how we are spending our time and why.

If we just let work blend into the rest of life unconsciously, we’ll feel tired and overwhelmed without being able to pinpoint why. The more we can recognize the connections between leisure, family, self-care, and work time, the more we can make intentional decisions about how we navigate those connections.


This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.


By Tara McMullin

Writer, Podcaster, Producer. Founder of What Works.

Mar 24, 2022

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