Take it easy, or take it seriously?

Modern life is often stressful, and it is rightly advised that we slow down, take some time for ourselves, and relax. But have you ever found yourself heeding that advice—relaxed, completely at ease—only to realize that you’re getting further and further behind in your work and your home is an utter mess? We can take that good advice to relax too far, and it might be time to put some more effort into our responsibilities.

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Or do you find yourself hyper-focused on work, trying to live up to your or other’s expectations of your absolute best effort? But after time, you burn out and struggle to keep up the pace…

So what are we supposed to do, relax or work hard? Well, both are important—it’s a matter of knowing when to focus more on which.

Understanding the Relax ~ Work Hard Dichotomy

We don’t always recognize it, but there’s a continuum that stretches between these two endeavors—from relaxation to hard work—with a lot of space in between. Sometimes we need to slow down, zoom out, and take a look at where we are, so we can then make some adjustments.

relax•work hard 50-50

It’s important to recognize a couple of things about this dichotomy:

  • Both endeavors are good: Relaxing and working hard are both positive things in their own right. It’s not that we need to avoid one or the other entirely.
  • Too much of either is bad: Cranking the dial all the way to Relax may mean that we shirk our responsibilities. Similarly, going whole-hog on Work Hard can lead to that feeling of burnout.


So what is the sweet spot between these two endeavors? The Relax ~ Work Hard Dial can help you figure out just how much to push yourself to focus on work, and how much to kick back and relax. But before you make a change, figure out where you’re starting from.

Evaluating Your Starting Point

It’s unhelpful to offer blanket advice, devoid of context: “Stop and smell the roses” may be good words of wisdom for a hard worker, but what about for the super-relaxer?

Before you decide to make a change in your actions, honestly assess your default mode. Do you tend to stress yourself out with hard work, or do you lean lazy if allowed? Try to gauge for yourself, and even ask others you know well and trust for their take—they may have a challenging, but helpful perspective.

relax-work hard more work

Time to recognize you’re slacking and get to work?

If you typically relax and take it easy when there’s work to be done, consider when you need to crank up the hard work. You want to avoid people seeing you as unreliable, or receiving repercussions from school or work.

Or, are you the kind of person who constantly stresses yourself out about expectations? Do you need to get every responsibility done, on time, at your maximal effort? Maybe you could benefit from nudging the dial towards relaxation from time to time. It may help you feel less stressed and enjoy your free time.

Of course, different situations will call for different adjustments. It all depends on the context.

Consider the Context and Adjust

For specific situations, we can consider the context to figure out what to change.

You’re a high school freshman, and a decent student. You get most of your homework done on time. Today it’s Sunday, and you have a geometry test in two days. You know the content pretty well, and you’ve just done your latest math homework, and are considering calling it a night. You could stop and catch up on the latest show you’re binge-watching. After all, you’ve been seeing so much about self-care on social media lately… But you actually have a bit more attention and energy left, and spending another 30 minutes studying will likely help you get your grade up before midterm progress report. It probably makes sense to nudge the dial a bit towards work.

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To make this (hopefully) helpful decision, you’ve considered the important context of you circumstances, like:

  • how important is the task?
  • how time bound is it?
  • what have you been doing lately?
  • what do you have energy for right now?

But of course considering these same factors—given different context—you may arrive at the decision to adjust the dial towards relaxation:

You’re in 8th grade, and you have a history test tomorrow. Every time you have a quiz or test, you spend hours reviewing the textbook, your class notes, and doing extra research online, days in advance. In this current unit, you know the information inside and out, but occasionally get tripped up on a specific date you should know. Do you keep plugging away, or just go to sleep? Maybe you can study for another short while, but give your brain a rest and take some short rounds of Drop 7 (or your phone game of choice). So you make the adjustment to relax more, but to a degree that will still make you comfortable.

relax-work hard situation less work 1.gif

Let the Dial Be Your Guide

All work and no play makes Jack… you get the point. It’s not good. But all play is not the answer either. To find the sweet spot between relaxing and working hard, first understand that this dichotomy exists, and then evaluate your starting point to see if you can catch yourself in an old habit. And then, finally, adjust how much you relax or work hard according to the context. Hopefully, with this level of thoughtfulness, you’ll be happy with your decision you make.

Balance Challenge in Action! Relax ~ Work Hard



Too much stress IS unhealthy! But choosing relaxing and fun whenever you feel like it has bad results. So how do you apply this whole balance idea? 

Let’s consider Henry:

Henry is in 11th grade. He has homework to do every night and will have to start working on his college applications soon. Should Henry “buckle down” and push himself to work harder? Or should he relax a little and take things easy?

The correct answer is… it depends.

What does it depend on? It depends on the context—the factors happening around Henry and his work. For example:

  • How hard does Henry usually work?
  • How are Henry’s grades?
  • Is Henry stressed out by his work?
  • What feedback have his parents and teachers been giving him?

So how can Henry decide what to do? Let’s help him…

Applying the Balance Challenge Scale

relax-work hardLet’s help Henry make a decision by looking at a recent Balance Challenge post on the balance between relaxing and working hard.

The visual we used to understand this balance is the scale.

The scale helps to see how these two ideas are opposites, and that you can “lean” more toward one side or another. Also, it illustrates that as you lean more toward one side (for example, relaxing), you move away from the other side (working hard).

For more details on these elements, see the Balance Breakdown page.

Another helpful image to use to make this concept more concrete is the slider:


Again, the left side of the slider represents relaxing; the right side represents working hard. The triangle at the top shows just how much someone is relaxing or working hard.

Here are the possible “positions” along the slider, from all the way to relax to all the way to work hard:

slider animation

So how can the slider help Henry decide whether to “take it easy” or “buckle down”?

Remember the context questions we asked earlier? Where to position the slider all comes down to answering those questions.

Scenario 1

  • How hard does Henry usually work? Not so hard – he usually has free time at night 
  • How are Henry’s grades? He’s getting B’s and C’s
  • Is Henry stressed out by his work? Not usually, no
  • What feedback have his parents and teachers been giving him? People have been telling him to “put his nose to the grindstone”

Well, maybe in this context, it would help Henry to work a bit harder. His grades aren’t terrible, but he has time, he isn’t too stressed out and people are giving him reminders to work harder. Maybe he could move to around 75% hard work:

action copy 75-25

That might mean spending another 45 minutes on homework at night, checking his homework for accuracy before turning it in, and setting up a schedule to start working on his college applications.

But what if Henry’s context were quite different?

Scenario 2

  • How hard does Henry usually work? Incredibly hard! He stays up really late every night making sure everything is perfect.
  • How are Henry’s grades? He’s getting almost all A’s.
  • Is Henry stressed out by his work? Yes. He rubs his forehead a lot and sometimes has to take deep breaths to calm himself down.
  • What feedback have his parents and teachers been giving him? People have said he’s doing a great job, but they’re worried he’s making himself really anxious.

In this context, it sounds like it would help Henry to relax quite a lot. Maybe he should be at 90% relax ~ 10% work hard:

action 90-10

For Henry in this case, it could mean he goes to bed 30 minutes earlier—even if not everything has been triple checked—and he could go for a walk after school to calm down and think things through. It doesn’t mean abandoning all his work, but it does mean he should relax a lot more than he is now.

Balance Challenge in Action!


My hope is that the Balance Challenge provides a framework for thinking about social decision-making. But it may be too abstract for some. I’d like for this to be something understandable, concrete, and ultimately, actionable.

Achieving balance is all about finding a good position on the slider—one that will be helpful to you to get a result you’re happy with. And it all depends on the context: what’s going on around you?

Using the slider to put the Balance Challenge in Action! should help people not only figure out how to think about a situation, but also how to act.

As always, I appreciate any feedback. Tweet or leave a comment and let me know what you think. Thanks!


For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.

How Much Work Could a Work Chuck Work?


1319116855468_8606634What do you mean I can’t expect to play video games for four hours every night?!

Wait, what’s the homework? And when is it due? How long should it be? Is it OK if it’s longer than that?

I’ve recently heard quotes like these from different high school students with autism. One student seems to think any assigned work is a personal affront on his free time, and the other is incredibly diligent—sometimes too much so. Two very different students with two very different problems. I think the advice we give students is partially to blame.

Common Advice About Hard Work

Teachers and parents often give young people advice about the value of hard work. They say things like, always do you best, and the only things worth having come from hard work. There’s also put your nose to the grindstone, you only get out what you put in, and many more.

p32254These mantras are probably intended to inspire people to keep working on something that’s hard for them. In many cases, this is a nice thought. But there can be problems with this advice, generally speaking and particularly for autistic individuals.

What if someone takes that advice completely to heart and becomes anxious and stressed out, thinking they must work their hardest at all times?

The other problem is that people frequently advise others to do the exact opposite! They say don’t sweat the small stuff. And, take it easy.

Well, which one is it? Should we always work hard? Should we feel relaxed all the time and never worry? Seems to me we need to find a balance.

relax-work hard

Finding a Balance Between
Relaxing and Working Hard

It’s not possible to always do your absolute best. That would mean not sleeping so that you can revise that report one more time. And it’s not possible to always relax. You’d never complete anything that’s required of you (and the reality is that life is full of things that are required of you).

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