I subscribed to the “back to the grind” philosophy for a lot of years. Heck, a lot of decades. The thought that time off, or vacation, or downtime, or even a somewhat slower period at work MUST be followed by an intense period of overwork.
The word “grind” started to become used in a metaphorical sense (at least according to some sources) in the 1600s. As a verb, it of course refers to the crushing and breaking of things into smaller pieces. As a metaphor for work, that crushing action became associated with how people felt about going to or going back to work – the crushing feeling of oppression or being worn down. It’s also associated with the actual task of grinding – think grinding corn – which was incredibly difficult physical labor. “Back to the grind” became associated with having to go back to a grueling task. I don’t know about you, but about ZERO of that feels remotely good or motivational to me!
I started opting out of the grind philosophy almost a decade ago. I was working in a place where the culture was commonly referred to as “The __[workplace name]__ Grind”. Sometimes we used that phrase in passing to each other as a sign of solidarity – a recognition that something didn’t feel right. More often we used it to try and make light of the challenges of working in that kind of culture, sort of a “What are ya gonna do?” statement to remind ourselves to just accept what was happening. Occasionally it was weaponized – a statement to each other perhaps meant to motivate but more like a threat that seemed to imply if you weren’t tough enough, you didn’t belong. And often, we wore it like a badge of honor. Virtue-signaling that by longer hours, working on weekends and days that we were supposed to be off, or accumulating more unused vacation hours than anyone else we were somehow the cream rising to the top of an unhealthy culture.
This never felt right to me, but it dang sure felt familiar. I’d grown up with this philosophy. Heck, I even had it on a print on my wall: “Work hard and be nice.” My resistance seemed to grow, mostly because I was getting more and more unwell. My insomnia ratcheted up to unprecedented levels. My shoulder ached constantly from stress. I sacrificed healthy movement for my body, cut out meditation (who has the time when it’s a grind!?!), and even cut down on time with family and friends because getting back to the grind required my full attention and beyond a full-time time commitment. To literally no one’s surprise except for my own oblivion, I got sick. And it took a looooong time to recover. It wasn’t anything super crazy, but a persistent cold that required rest. A lot of rest. And that took time away from grinding.
I don’t know if it was my own illness that opened my eyes or the overwhelming amount of coworkers who had ended up in my office in tears, but once I recognized it, I couldn’t help but move to action. My first act of resistance was to leave work within 15 minutes of the official end of the day, regardless of what was still left on the to-do pile. I originally started it as a test. Field research to see how my workload and stress level would be impacted. Then, it became a habit because it just felt so freaking good to know that I had a defined end-point. Sure, I still came in early most mornings, and occasionally I would run through emails at night, but for the most part, I walked out that door on time.
You would have thought I was committing some major infraction! Instead of “Wow, how are you doing that? I’m so happy for you!” I got comments like, “Gee, must be nice to have a small enough workload to leave early.” I wasn’t even leaving early!!! At least not by official standards. But by grind culture standards, leaving on time was the equivalent of coming in at 8 and bailing after lunch. I had no idea that it would be considered such a radical move.
That’s one example, but even now, a decade later, in charge of my own business with no one else to drive my schedule except for me, I still have to battle the mentality of grind culture. Unhooking from the concept that work must be hard to be valuable. That the only use of time that “counts” is if it’s producing something tangible or crossing an item off the list. That my productivity addiction is something to be praised rather than unwound. That unless it feels difficult and I end the day completely spent, wrung out, and exhausted, I didn’t do enough.
I’m opting out of those philosophies. Those are old patterns I’m growing out of. I’m growing into new patterns of wanting work to feel good. Of wanting my life to drive my work schedule rather than the other way around. Is it easier because I run my own business? Maybe. More directly, I’d probably say yes and no. Client schedules, availability, time zones, and even geography all drive a lot of what I do and what is possible within my schedule. There are tradeoffs in this kind of work, too. But my opting out of the grind mentality started happening a lot longer ago when I shifted how I was thinking of work. I allowed myself to see what wasn’t healthy about it, and where I was able, I made small changes. In some cases, I left positions and beloved organizations and coworkers because it was clear the culture wasn’t going to change. Opting out of the grind mentality cost me money, positional authority, and even some relationships in the beginning. But what it did for my mental and emotional well-being was worth all of that. And now? Even when the schedule is packed and every moment feels like a sprint, I still don’t subscribe to the grind. I choose my approach to my work, and crushing has no place in it.
Even if it’s in some seemingly small way- how can you start your own personal revolution to opt out of the grind?