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Bringing slow, thoughtful living back to the states
Image provided by the author
The first time I observed my coworker leaving at the strike of 5:00pm, or 17:00 in local time, I was still in the beginning weeks of my design internship in Copenhagen. I vividly remember my eyes following him out the door, glancing at my watch, and then looking back at the now-closed door. After days of observing him in this ritualistic exit, I realized what was happening: my coworker was not staying a minute past the end of the workday. By doing so, he maintained a healthy work-life balance with the timely boundaries he had set for himself. I felt relieved when I followed in his footsteps and did not encounter any hostility that insinuated that I was lazy or undedicated to my craft.

I brought this attitude and mindfulness back with me to the states and made it a priority while searching for a job after graduation. "How is your work-life balance?" was the first question I asked during the Q&A portion at the end of every interview. Some recruiters were delighted, and even surprised, that I asked while others knew that we were not a good fit for each other based on that question alone.

"Well, we're a start-up so...occasionally we'll have weeks where our designers work more than forty hours a week. Maybe fifty, sixty."

"Oh okay, how often would you say that happens?"

*crickets*

Maybe sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

While in Copenhagen, I was far, far away from a culture that posed working overtime as a competition for people to win, and I loved it. Prior to leaving for my five-month stay abroad, I distinctly remember reading an article where a founder in the tech industry mentioned never seeing his family because he had to—wanted to—work eighty hours a week. His tone in the article sounded smug, as if this made him a more accomplished person.

Living in Denmark, a country that relishes slow living and prioritizing time with loved ones, was the best way I could have spent my last year of university before being thrust into the Real World. My coworkers at Eskild Hansen Design Studios, specifically my mentor Thomas, encouraged me to not spend so much time at work so that I could visit other countries, enjoy what Copenhagen had to offer, and even have time for myself. This allowed me to attend social gatherings with other international students, explore the city by way of my bike, and even start running again. This was also integral to my experience because Denmark only gets so many hours of sunlight a day once autumn arrives, so you absolutely have to find ways to make the most of the fleeting sunshine. Spending more time at work is not one of them.

It's been two years since my time abroad, and in wrapping up my first year of working full-time I have established firm boundaries between my professional life and my personal life. I am protective of my time and avoid work-related tasks after 5:00pm on weekdays as well as on the weekends, instead diverting that time and energy to my family, friends, and passion projects. This not only helps to ensure that my mental health is well, but it also prevents me from burning out.

I recognize that I come from a place of privilege when I advocate for taking time for yourself. Some people do not have that luxury, especially if they have others to support. And if you're several years into living and working within this culture, it's also easy to forget that it's possible to reclaim what is yours: your time, your energy, your well-being. You may feel so jaded by the industry that going back to a forty-hour work week will feel alien, slow, or—seemingly worst of all—unproductive. Over the past few years I've met people who equate self-worth to productivity. The more they fill up their days with career-related tasks, the less time they have to stop, breathe, and be intentional about their next course of action. By no means am I implying that this is the end-all-be-all, or that refusing to work past a certain hour will solve all your problems. However, I am saying that establishing these boundaries may give you the breathing room you need to figure things out.

In fact, I still struggle to slow down. It's something I'm learning how to do as I go, but I'm just grateful that I’ve crafted out time to learn how to do it.
Le Tang is a designer based in Dallas, TX. She can be found @letaang on Twitter or on her website. For more of her writing, you can sign up for her newsletter.
Art used in this issue: “Summer evening at the South Beach” June 1893 version by Peder Severin Krøyer 
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