I start my vacation tomorrow. Back when I was working for Other People, vacation would have started at 5:01pm Eastern, or as soon thereafter as I could slip past my boss’s door. But I’m my own boss now. I finished the last piece I needed to ship to a client about an hour ago, but I’m still here at the computer: I can’t find the Off switch.
This vacation is one of four I’ve scheduled for myself this year—one week every quarter, as I try to learn how to unwind. Last quarter, I took a day or two off and then attended a workshop in Southern California. Doesn’t sound like a vacation to you? Listen, to someone escaping a New England winter, just feeling that sweet, sweet California sun is vacation enough.
This quarter, I’m treating myself to a Staycation. (I actually wrote “challenging myself to” first—and then I realized vacations aren’t supposed to be challenging.) And I compromised on my vacation before it even began, ceding Monday and Tuesday to client work. But with next Monday being a holiday, I actually have six whole days of vacating ahead of me. Which is just about as close to a week as you can get.
But what do you do when you’re not tromping around a theme park or pulling a shawl around your body in some too-cold hotel conference room? All the ideas I come up with sound a lot like work:
I could make a to-do list for the projects I want to pursue this summer
I could read that book written by the person I’m going to interview in a couple of weeks
I could clean my house
I could clean my house? Yeah, you know things are desperate when I put cleaning my house on the to-do list. It’s not even tax time.
What will I do? I’m starting with a massage in about an hour, and we’ll see where things go from there.
But first I have to hit the Off switch. I gotta say, I’m nervous about that. What if I can’t do it? Or—maybe worse—what if I can…and I like it?
“Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity….Nothing fires up the brain like play.”
And then there’s this endorsement, from a famously smart man—Albert Einstein:
“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”
Play not only reduces stress, it also has positive effects on the “executive functions” of the brain. You know, those silly, unimportant things we do like reasoning and problem-solving. McKeown’s chapter builds to a pull-quote in gigantic type:
“Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.”
What is? McKeown says Stuart Brown, of the National Institute for Play,
“suggests that readers mine their past for play memories. What did you do as a child that excited you? How can you re-create that today?”
Great advice. But what do you do when that’s your life? When I was a kid, I read—wherever, whatever. As an adult, I read and I write. Occasionally I bake bread or knit something. I can’t wait for baseball season to start, so I can watch other people play. Does that count?
What re-energizes me is getting out of my routine. If I can get far enough out of my routine to go stare at the Pacific—as I did for 24 blissful hours last summer—it’s a grand-slam homerun of bliss. But all I really need is a place I’m not usually in, with nary a laptop in sight.
Let’s call it a Thinking Retreat.
So last Saturday, I put the dog in playgroup for the day, grabbed a good book, and spent the day AFK—Away from my Keyboard.
Okay, yes, the book was work-related reading—Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership—but being out of the office allowed me to devote my full attention to it. In my scenic wanderings, I got to check out a local coffee shop, revisit a favorite brunch spot, and discover a newly renovated library. Or as I like to think of it, the “book spa.” It may not have massages and organic lunch served poolside, but this library has everything else I need for a good Thinking Retreat.
Play vs. Think
These days it’s easier for me to motivate myself to take time off if I’m pursuing something that at least tangentially relates to my work. Hey—you start where you are. And maybe I don’t need to feel guilty about using my “free time” to learn something that moves my business forward.
I’ve just started reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Newport reminds me that I’m not the only person to have this impulse to hole up and read. You know who else goes on Thinking Retreats? Bill Gates. And he’s done pretty well for himself.
Cal Newport writes that Gates
“famously conducted ‘Think Weeks’ twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.”
Books + a week in a lakeside cottage. I can get there eventually; for now, a day at the library will do wonders to recharge me.
Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” -James Baldwin
But in this quotation, it’s like he’s showing me what the world looks like from my eyes—or at least looked like. If I hadn’t been a voracious reader as a kid, my world would have been much smaller and more confusing. Reading allowed me to “go” places and “meet” people. It got me out of the bubble I lived in, long before I was old enough to break free of it myself.
The truth is, reading is the most wonderful, subversive thing you can do for yourself. It can show you infinite possibilities. And no one can take that knowledge away from you.
What I read today
I still read, of course; it’s the other half of my work as a writer. Mostly I read nonfiction and periodicals (The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harvard Business Review, the occasional Sports Illustrated). I joke that the only way I know I’m on vacation is if I’m reading a novel.
Yesterday, I wrote about my holiday plans: mostly work, very little play. But Mr. Baldwin reminds me that I can travel without leaving my reading chair. So I’m going to commit to reading two fiction books during the holidays: One will be MB Caschetta’s story collection Pretend I’m Your Friend (I don’t have to pretend—she is my friend). I’m open to suggestions for a novel, so comment away.
I don’t know if it’s biology. I don’t know if it’s a habit thing. I don’t know if it’s the universe testing you or some strange thing like that.
I do know this:
The weekends, like every other day, are a chance to grow, a chance to move forward, a chance to be happy, and a chance to change your life.
That’s what I’m doing as I work holidays: moving forward, changing my life, learning things I can share with you. And reading all the great writing the folks in my writing challenge produce. Join us in Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge and start your new year with a new habit.
No, I know what a weekend is—I’m not quite as bad as the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey. I just don’t always notice them.
Ideally, I don’t work more than 5 1/2 days a week—okay, I’ll be honest. Six. (Did I say “honest”? Six and a half, tops.) But I write for 15 minutes every day, and sitting down at the computer to do my 15 minutes on the seventh day, it’s easy to open the email or get caught up in doing just that “one more little thing” that I imagine would make my life easier in the coming week.
The spousal unit works a regular job, by which I mean on someone else’s schedule, so I try to sync up our time off but it doesn’t always happen. Occasionally I have to take a weekday off, which leaves me only that half-day of free time on the weekend. Still, we try to make the best of it.
Fortunately, I love what I do, whenever I get to do it. Happy Sunday, everyone. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to get back to work.
Darn it, my mother was right: “Haste makes waste.”
Apologies to my subscribers, who received two blog posts yesterday. I have a discipline of writing for at least 15 minutes every morning; it’s usually one of the first things I do, and it usually involves at least beginning a blog post. Yesterday morning, my discipline of writing ran up against the spousal unit’s desire to begin our long weekend. So I wrote fast and clicked triumphantly on the Save button. Only it wasn’t the Save button, it was the Publish button.
Much cursing ensued. But the deed was done—I knew the efficient gods of the internet had already dispatched the post, not just to my subscribers, but to LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. No turning back now.
So I apologize for not looking before I clicked, and for hitting your in-boxes twice in one day. But I do hope you enjoyed the post, and the lovely clip from Monsters Inc.
Now, I’m cursing my calendar, trying to find a clearing for justone day off somewhere in the next two weeks. Actually, I think my root canal today should take care of that, but it might be nice to unplug when I’m not in pain.
Now I’m not complaining. (I can’t; I started a “no complaints for a week” challenge today.) I love my work and I’m grateful to have clients who understand flexible schedules and the need for balance. But sometimes deadlines don’t flex, and this is one of those times.
A “busy season” in the summer seems cruel, especially for a baseball fan. Then again, the Mets haven’t exactly been tearing it up lately.
So enjoy your cookouts and your fireworks; I’ll be hunched over my desk. At least I won’t have to worry about mosquitoes.