About a month ago, I rode exactly 12 subway stops past my own. I bring this up not to brag about how well traveled I am, or for the sake of complaining on the internet, but because it signified a real issue: I was insanely overworked.
To meet a handful of deadlines, I’d been spending, on average, 11 hours a day in the office, eating lunch at my desk (or skipping it entirely), and answering emails in the few post-work hours I had left (at home, out with friends, on dates, and, clearly most disastrously, on the subway).
This is hardly a unique situation — a 2016 study by ManpowerGroup shows that millennials in the U.S. are working 45 hours a week on average. And the majority of my friends struggle to achieve a good work-life balance, too. In an effort to get myself out of my work-first mindset, I finally decided to do something about it. Over a Oui by Yoplait — French Style Yogurt, I looked to the French for inspiration.
In 2000, France mandated a 35-hour workweek (meaning employees can’t work more than that without being paid overtime) to reduce unemployment rates and offer its citizens a better quality of life. So for seven days, I decided to follow the French way. I’d work no more than seven hours a day, take a full hour for lunch, and not check email outside the office, in hopes that I could finally achieve a better work-life balance or, at the very least, stop missing my subway stop.
I’m notoriously terrible at detaching from my phone, so on the first day of my 35-hour workweek, I decided to leave it behind in the office while I went out for lunch — that way I’d have no chance of checking my email. I took a packed salad and yogurt and ate in a nearby park, and I didn’t let myself return to the office for a full hour. I expected to be a nervous, email-wistful wreck, but somehow, the hour went by insanely fast. I read, did some non-work writing, and enjoyed not spilling salad over my keyboard for the first time ever.
When I got back to the office, things were a little less rose-colored. I had several unread emails and Slack messages, and I felt way behind in my to-dos. When 5 p.m. rolled around and my seven work hours were up, the panic really set in. I envisioned myself staying up til 3 a.m. playing catch-up...except I couldn’t. I had worked all the hours I was allowed for the day, and even emails were a no-go.
In an effort to fully clear my mind of everything work related, I decided to take a meditation class. I scooted out of the office — being careful not to make eye contact with my coworkers for fear of them questioning why I was leaving hours before the norm — and headed to a 30-minute intro meditation class at MNDFL. It was my first time meditating ever, and I was skeptical that I’d actually be able to sit there in peace and tune out work.
I was right. The moment I sat down on the cushion and closed my eyes, I started thinking about deadlines, emails, and all the work I would otherwise be doing in that moment — that is, until the teacher led us through guided breaths. As I focused on my breathing, I felt my work-related thoughts begin to slip away. I felt genuinely calm and clear-headed. 40 seconds later the teacher announced that class was over. I checked one work email after class.
The good news was, my shortened work schedule wasn’t actually compromising the quality of my work. In fact, the few things I had left over when I left at 5 p.m. were easy enough to wrap up first thing the following morning. The real problem was that I couldn’t get myself to stop thinking about work — to stop imagining what might be in my inbox or brainstorming story ideas.
I realized that the only way I was going to be able to get through the week was if I tapped into that feeling I’d experienced in the meditation room — the fleeting high that came from doing something for myself that had absolutely nothing to do with work. I needed to spend my lunch breaks and evenings doing things I’d always wanted to do but never felt like I had the time to.
To really lean into the French spirit at lunch, I stopped by Le District, a Parisian-style marketplace and collection of restaurants near my office. I sat down at a counter, ordered steak frites, and lingered over the meal without once worrying about my to-do lists or wondering what gif-filled messages I was missing on Slack. When I got back to the office, there was plenty to catch up on, but I felt far more relaxed about it all. In fact, that hour away from my projects let me approach them with a clearer head.
When I left at 5 p.m., I didn’t feel stressed about cutting things short. Maybe I was subconsciously working faster to overcompensate for the lost time, or maybe stepping away from work midday actually made a difference. Either way, I was actually ahead on the majority of my to-dos. I decided to use my extra nighttime hours trying a new workout, Box + Flow, which combines elements of boxing and yoga (a significant departure from my regular routine of walking to the gym at 9 p.m., arriving at the door, and promptly turning around to go home). I was able to totally suppress work thoughts during the class, and when I got home and scrolled through Instagram and Twitter, I had zero desire to check my work email.
By Friday, I was actually starting to believe that work-life balance was a real, achievable thing. I was able to squeeze a pedicure into my lunch break, and after work I did something utterly groundbreaking: I made it to happy hour. Yes, I drank a $5 cocktail inside a bar in New York City.
In the end, it wasn’t about living like the French. It was about feeling comfortable setting boundaries for myself at work — something I’d been hesitant to do for fear of coming off as entitled or disinterested in my job. I didn’t get in trouble for not answering an email that came in at 7:45 p.m., I didn’t fall behind on my work, and I didn’t get chastised for leaving earlier than normal. Was the 35-hour workweek sustainable? Yes and no. In the two weeks since trying it out, I’ve managed to keep certain boundaries up (for instance, I’m still not checking email past 7 p.m., and I’m trying to get out of the office for lunch at least three days a week), but there have been a handful of occasions where I’ve had to put in more than seven hours. Still, the number of late nights have dwindled significantly, as have the all-consuming nighttime work thoughts. And I have yet to miss my subway stop again.