Friday, August 23, 2013

Don’t work too hard?

As I finished purchasing a cup of coffee, the person behind the counter said, “Have a great day!  Don’t work too hard!” 

A few days later, while waiting at the doctor’s office, I heard outside my door, “Don’t work too hard!” The response was, “Great advice to hear, but hard advice to follow.”
How did “don’t work too hard” become a standard farewell? It is right up there with “have a great day” and “take care.”

Somewhat related, I’ve also heard a few times of late the saying that no one ever said on their deathbed that they wished they had worked more. There are quite a few variations on the exact wording, but the sentiment seems to be conventional wisdom now. 

This feeling may come in part from the recent book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing by Bonnie Ware. The second of the regrets she studied is I wish I had not worked so hard. (The other regrets are about not living true to one’s self rather than others expectations, not expressing ones feelings, neglecting to stay in touch with friends, and not choosing to be happy.) 

How have we gone from a nation that values work and identifies with the protestant work ethic to one that considers work as more of a necessary evil that should be avoided where possible?

Is working too hard an actual danger for folks? That does not seem to be the case. Recent articles like this one from the Atlantic say we are working fewer, not more, hours than in the past. 

I concede that some folks do work too many hours and let their work consume their lives. I know that is an area I struggle with. However, I think more folks in 21st Century America struggle from the lack of meaningful work than from working too hard.

People without work lose much of their identity. Recently a friend committed suicide, due at least in part to being out of work. My dad often said that retiring was the worst thing he ever did. I watched him dwindle away without meaningful work.

I believe the reason is that we were created to work. Genesis 2:15 says, “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” The Hebrew word translated as cultivate means to work or serve. Indeed, working is one of the ways we were created in the image of God, as He is described as resting from His work of creating the heavens and the earth (Genesis 2:2-3).

In Colossians 3:23, Paul instructs, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord, rather than for men.” The Greek word for heartily literally means from the soul. That verse is one that I try to incorporate into my life. I am to work, not lackadaisically, but with my very soul. And, not for the approval of others, but of God. It is hard to put any higher value on work than that.

Contrary to the sentiment of regretting working too hard, I can picture on my deathbed wishing that I had worked harder, that I had accomplished more.

Maybe we can make “Work hard” or “Have a productive day” be the phrase to replace “Don’t work too hard!”


  1. I think that phrase came up from people who do in fact work too hard. Putting work ahead of other more important things, such as family and building relationships with friends and God. I have no problem with the saying--after all, the saying isn't "Don't work." I personally feel that too many people do place too much of their value and self-worth on their jobs. Then, when they lose their job or retire, they have lost their identity because they never cultivated it outside of work. Or, on their deathbeds, they realize that life could have potentially had more meaning to them if they had worked less. I completely agree with you about finding meaningful work, and that Americans in general do not work heartily, as unto the Lord.

  2. I think you hit on the key--the problem is people deriving all of their value/self-worth from their jobs, not working too hard. Maybe the injunction should be something positive like, "Make good use of your time" rather than an encouragement to laziness!

  3. Well said. I see this very true in this generation of students- not universally, but significantly.