Work vs. Play

Work is anything that is not play.

Is it work to clean up disk space in my computer? Unclear. It could be. Is it play? It is not. Then it must be work.

Is it work to go to the consulate to pick a document? Unclear. It could be. Is it play? It is not. Then it must be work.

Is it work to wash and fold laundry? What about planning my week? What about reading old journals to track the development of my thoughts? Unclear. Are they play? They are not. Then they must be work.

At any moment, when unsure a thing fits a category or not, it is useful to think of the opposite category.

To define play, Brené Brown points to Stuart Brown, who defines play as time spent without purpose. This makes so much sense to me, and explains why some tasks like cleaning up disk space, going to the consulate, laundry, planning or reading old journals don’t fit in the category of play. When doing these tasks, I am coming from a very purpose driven place.

It’s true that these tasks can be fun, and can carry elements of play, creativity or enjoyment. I can watch something and laugh while folding laundry; the organization of my closet can turn into pure joy; I can get satisfaction from a well planned out week; my old journals can stimulate my creativity. Even so, connecting to the purposes of these tasks (as opposed to doing them for the sake of doing them) adds a bit of stress or pressure, and takes the task out of pure play zone.

Stuart Brown doesn’t agree with a “pure play” or “pure work” zone. In this short interview, he argues that work and play are not opposites. He says the separation of work and play is completely artificial and unnecessary. We think of them as separate because it is built into us to think of them as separate.

He defines play as voluntary, non-repetitive, pleasurable tasks that take you out of time. He says play is a biologically altered state, and argues that experiencing play during the work hours is just as important from a public health perspective as nutrition and sleep. He emphasizes that play should be included in every day of our lives, not just during three weeks of vacation, and positions play as a stabilizer of positive mood and as a crucial step toward cohesive, altruistic and cooperative societies.

Coming from this perspective, in his TED talk, he encourages all of us to explore our personal play histories and find new jobs or ways of enriching our current jobs with more meaning and play.

I agree with him. “Work vs. play” is a useful way of containing work only when I am discerning how much work and how much play there is in that moment. Otherwise, it is impossible and completely futile to try to categorize tasks into buckets of “pure work” and “pure play”. Every task can be one or the other, depending on how I experience it, and tasks often carry elements of both.

That said, especially for boring tasks (consulate visit, disk space) or repetitive tasks (laundry, planning), it is useful to recognize their work-like qualities, and to include them in my total work time. Especially now, when my days are so much more spacious, stretching open in front of me starting from the early morning hours, and I have the flexibility of doing these tasks at different moments throughout the day as opposed to doing them at 10 pm when I come home from the office dead tired (when they for sure feel like work), recognizing them as work and recognizing the effort that goes into them is important.

This week, I will be experimenting with counting all these tasks (home care, chores, admin work) as part of my work time. I want to see what the week looks like on Sunday evening, what was the split of purpose driven time I spent versus the time spent without purpose. I have a sense that I will have so much more information in my hands.

I will also existing more comfortably in the gray zone between work and play, and will be exploring how to make the purpose-driven work hours more playful (voluntary, non-repetitive, pleasurable).  

Continue reading this series: Break Time

Go back to the start: Containing Work When Working For Yourself