Finding balance between work and what matters more

Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012 5:45 AM

I lost my father two months ago.

While he was sick for a long time, his final decline happened over a period of just three weeks. And, of course, I didn’t realize how little time we had until the very end. Time. It is so precious. It’s all we really have. As I am going through the process of grieving, healing, reflection, and inventorying a man’s life, I’m struck by the idea of time. I can’t get it out of my head.

I picked the news magazine The Week and read a column compiled there by Richard Schiffman of The Washington Post called “Getting More by Working Less.” He says, “We shouldn’t have to kill ourselves at work just to make a living. Too many Americans are sacrificing their sleep, health and happiness for their jobs. We plug away late at night and on weekends, working hundreds of hours more each year than people in other developed countries.”

There it is again, time. Too many of us in and out of education (adults and students) work ourselves to death – long hours, weekends, up at 3 a.m. writing to-do lists at the expense of not only our health, but the relationships with the people we love and care about the most. I’m as guilty as anyone. I am often so focused on a task or a to-do list, I lose sight of what is truly important. We live in a culture of constant movement, endless stimuli and the ability to work remotely (a paradox of good and evil there for sure).

A friend of mine always says, “Work smart, not hard.” While his meaning is clear, I like to think there is an inherent value in hard work. I’m only proud of the difficult things I’ve accomplished, not the easy things. But nothing should come before those we love and our own health and happiness. Work is important and can be life enriching – though too often it can be life draining. My goals for 2012 and beyond lie in the idea of time – whether it’s not working too hard myself, or realizing that my students have lives outside of school and deserve time to be young, or most important for me, never losing sight of the person looking at me across the dining room table. There has to be a balance for us all what we do and who we are.

The strongest economies in Europe including Germany, Holland and France have significantly shorter work weeks, longer vacations and leaves, health care and better benefits. These countries have systems in place that take into account that a happier, healthier workforce is a more productive one. Germany’s economy is growing during these tough economic times because of a combination of education policies and the positive and balanced work environment for all its workers, regardless of occupation. The average work week across the European Union is 37 to 40 hours per week. In some countries it’s 35 hours per week.

While a shorter work week isn’t the end all or be all, it may be a good place for us to start. Who hasn’t awakened at 2:33 am with their brain buzzing like a hornet’s nest? If you’ve blown off friends or family for work, you know I’m talking about. Or even worse, speaking for myself, sometimes I’m so engaged in my thinking about work-related matters that while I may be in the same room physically as my friend, I am really somewhere else entirely. I owe her more than that.

And I owe it to myself. There isn’t much I wouldn’t give for just a little more time with my father.

Ryan Montgomery teaches 10th and 11th grade English at Durango High School. Reach him at