A Stoic Perspective On Work/Life Balance

"Caesar determined at first not to fight a general action, but he engaged every day in calvary skirmishes, in order to discover what the enemy could really do, and how his own men stood up to them."
 
"...But the situation was saved by two things - first, the knowledge and experience of the soldiers, whose training in earlier battles enabled them to decide for themselves what needed doing without waiting to be told...the generals did not wait for further orders but on their own responsibility took the measures they thought proper...Each man on coming down from his work at the camp, went into action under the first standard he happened to see, so as not to waste time searching for his own unit."  - Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul

So much has been written about the Roman army and the tactics and strategies they used. Whenever I read about Roman military history, one thing always stands out to me: how incredibly active the soldiers were.

During calm periods, they seemed to spend little time relaxing and a lot of time preparing for the inevitable future battles. In short, they focused on making their everyday lives blend seamlessly with the sporadic conflict which history would remember them for.

There are numerous instances throughout The Conquest of Gaul of Caesar instructing his men to use the time in between major battles for minor skirmishes (which basically enabled them to a/b test means of targeting the enemy) or for fortifying their defenses. When the inevitable conflict came, they scarcely needed orders. They were prepared.


We've talked a lot about Stoicism in prior posts. About its value for handling unexpected life events. Or for tempering existential angst. Or for confronting mortality and the finite nature of time. All useful, but at its core, Stoic philosophy is about every day life. “The Stoic's eyes were fixed on life, not on intellectual truth", Edith Hamilton writes in The Roman Way.

It's easy to sit around philosophizing about lofty ideals and vague theoretical concepts, to debate the meaning of life and so on. That doesn't eliminate the everyday grind, the grim reality of crawling out of bed on a Monday morning, or figuring out what to do on a rainy Sunday, or trying to get anything done on a Wednesday afternoon.

Hence the tremendous value of Stoicism: it is a philosophy that deals with everyday life. A philosophy which provides instructions for the mundane stuff, like  dealing with petty, obnoxious people, avoiding distractions, for keeping a handle on your emotions during a confrontation. There's also quite a bit of about of the nature of work. Everyday life is largely about work, yet there's little discussion of it in many major philosophies.

Caesar's soldiers are the perfect metaphor for the Stoic approach to everyday life, which is about two things:

-Using the every day to prepare for the one-offs, the once in a whiles, the Black Swan events, the unexpected surprises.  Then, when those events occur, we can competently manage them. Think of Seneca reflecting on his mortality every day. Then, when his death came, he reportedly faced it with total calm and acceptance. An extreme example perhaps, though one which illustrates the power of using this perspective. In the same way as Caesar's soldiers used uneventful days to strengthen their camps and defenses, the Stoics used that time for strengthening their minds. 

- And turning the every day into a source of satisfaction and meaning. Finding purpose within what we do on a regular basis - work, helping people and spending time with loved ones, learning, improving ourselves. Think of Marcus Aurelius reminding himself that obnoxious people are part of life, but there is value to working with that and showing them an alternative way through his own actions.

That's very different to the usual approach: viewing the every day as dead time to slog through in order to reach the alive time (weekends, holidays, evenings.) To the Stoics, it wasn't about enjoyment or immediate sources of pleasure. It was about fulfilling their duty as humans - and work is a big part of that.

Work/life balance is irrelevant

"It is common today to locate one's 'true self' in one's leisure activities. Accordingly, good work is taken to be work that maximises one's means for pursuing other activities, where life becomes meaningful."  - Matthew B Crawford, Shopcraft as Soulcraft

I don't like the concept of work/life balance. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the idea of a strict division between our work and our lives is unnatural. The Stoics certainly didn't view it that way. 

For a start, it presupposes that working isn't living - that life is what happens in the time we are away from our offices or desks. The most obvious pitfall is that this attitude pushes us to compartmentalize work, to see it as something to slog through before getting back to real life. And that is a dangerous idea. There is no work/life distinction - there is just life. Work happens to be part of life, a big part actually. Seeing it any other way cuts off the possibility of finding any enjoyment in a substantial chunk of our lives.

For the Stoics, their lives were a project to work on each day with no clear division between labor and leisure. 

Personally, I don't get fed up when I don't have the time for watching TV or taking naps. I get fed up when I'm not actively working on something, when I don't have some overarching project to give my days shape. 

See, the thing about me is that I don't really have hobbies or a work/life balance. There's just life. When I'm not directly working, I'm doing stuff which makes my work better and which feeds back into whatever project I'm working on. Reading makes me a better writer and provides material  for work. Going for walks lets me mull over ongoing problems and thrash out frustrating issues. Travelling is an opportunity to decompress, have new experiences which enliven my work, and renew my focus. It's all complimentary and I love that. 

When I stopped delineating work and life in my mind, it changed everything. I stopped waiting for the evenings or weekends or holidays to enjoy things. I started focusing on optimising the every day, on making work energizing, on ensuring I used some time to look after myself because that's a part of it all. I began utilizing the Stoic principle of preparing for disaster every day, rather than letting myself get caught by surprise. 

Look at how Peter Akroyd describes Turner's attitude to work: "He was never happy unless he was busily engaged. He was one of those natures who seem destined for work and who take positive pride in their energy and industriousness...'Work' is hardly the word for what was essentially a mode of life."


I recently overheard two students in a coffee shop talking about work. One told the other "Look, everyone hates their job. Work is meant to be boring, you're meant to hate it. That's just the way it is." That is a sentiment I've heard numerous times from people my age. As with so many others parts of our lives, Stoicism points to a different way; a means of deriving great value from the mundane, routines parts of our lives.