If You Say You “Work Hard, Play Hard” — You Probably Do Neither

Particularly in self-employed and (early-stage) startup circles, there’s a huge amount of people who say that they “work hard, play hard.” In general, I’ve seen that the vast majority of those who say this actually do neither.

Typically, the “play hard” aspect refers to going out (oftentimes in the form of partying) as much as humanly possible (which is going to be a lot, when you’re your own boss and have little strict scheduling and only your own discipline as your boss). Late nights and sleeping in often result — just how the body tends to deal with it. Consequently, it’s very difficult to “work hard” when you are constantly hungover and hardly sleeping.

There are countless examples of booze-fueled “networking events”, beers on tap at every co-working space, or video games and ping pong at the offices of seemingly every startup in the world. The startup culture encourages this all to a great degree.

Proponents of the lifestyle tend to state the networking benefits occurring, which is somewhat of a legitimate excuse. However, I think that more often than not, there is very little networking occurring, and that which does occur is typically through friends and acquaintances that you can make the connection through regardless of situation.

In my experience, I’ve always worked best when I’m in a good groove. By this, I mean that I’m in a day-to-day and week-to-week consistent cycle of productivity and keeping good habits. When that’s messed up with long nights or leaving the office early for drinks or constant dinners — it’s hard to keep on track. Momentum tends to suffer.

There are a lot of people who are (or look) successful and they seem to spend excessive amounts of time in mostly-social situations. However, these tend to be people who are very rare in that they are able to actually embody this mentality and still succeed. It hugely varies from person to person and comparing yourself to others is not a way to succeed. Otherwise, the people who seem to successfully embody this mentality are oftentimes already wealthy and have much more flexibility with time, or have put in their hours and spent years absent from the scene and have built their success and are now basking in it. Many times, it’s the latter.

The issue is that oftentimes, many of the above examples are very visible. Particularly if they are successful, you can easily find on social media the highlight reel of their life — which can be lots of parties and travel. This does not confirm causality between playing hard and being successful, and is dangerous for those who think it does. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too, and seeing things like that will cater to your confirmation bias, or believing what you want to believe.

When you’re self-employed in any way or starting a company, you’re almost guaranteed to have much, much more work than you can reasonably handle every day. You don’t ever really “finish up work” or “clock out” and have free time to spend on yourself. Without a doubt, this is a huge downside of the lifestyle, but it comes with the territory, and you must acknowledge this if you haven’t already. The idea here is that the rewards are worth the multi-year slog that you must endure. If you focus hard, and prioritize, that slog can be shortened little by little. If you don’t, then someone else will win out.

That being said, you also shouldn’t be working at all times — it’s simply not healthy either. Everyone has their own work ethic and habits that are developed over a lifetime, and no one is constantly productive at 100% capacity. Breaks, whether a 15 minute break after writing some code or a weeklong vacation somewhere, are vital for performing optimally without burning out. Go ahead and be out with friends, take trips, socialize, and do what you want to do. In the end, if you’re in this lifestyle, you chose it. If your choices result in a happy balance — great. If you find that your work ethic goes down the drain without proper structure — then you’re responsible for the consequences and for making improvements.

Ultimately, it boils down to priorities. If you genuinely prioritize non-working time a lot, or you truly believe that you’re of the rare breed that is a superhuman that needs no sleep, then all the more power to you. People like that exist. But for the majority of people, work must come before play.