NOTE: This post was revised on August 21, 2015.
Down time is looking up. What a relief! Mainstream publications, best-selling books, TED talks and social media reflect what should be obvious (but we humans can be so stupid): It’s not healthy to work too hard. It’s dangerous to be sleep deprived. It’s counterproductive to skip vacations or never take a break.
In honor of long-overdue attention to these issues, I revisited what I wrote two years ago on overwork, down time and the sad contest of being overwhelmed. Here it is, for your reading pleasure:
“I’m too busy” is a worn out phrase I wish we could retire. Growing up in a culture that venerates working hard, being a go-getter, and doing whatever it takes, I, too, have engaged in stupid, competitive, winning-by-losing “I’m too busy” conversations.
How often have I been caught up in boasting — disguised as complaining or commiserating — about who’s the most buried in work, stressed, overwhelmed, swamped, slammed, exhausted, wiped out, ad nauseam? Ugh.
How sad to feel inferior — a loser in the non-stop energizer bunny at work game — because I need 7 hours of sleep to function well, when famous biz gurus brag about clocking 4-5 hours. I’m weary of feeling judged or resented, too, for my favorite path to renewal and productivity: a daily walk. I recently heard this unhelpful comment: “Well. Lucky you. Must be nice to have time for a walk. I’m way too busy to even consider it!”
I’m coming out as a person who needs quiet time to accomplish my best work. I’ve learned something about time management and goal setting. “Down time” steps up my creativity, clarity, and connection with clients to achieve their goals.
I can put nose to grindstone when necessary. I’ve had happy periods of extraordinary energy, productivity and flow, being so absorbed in business matters that I lost track of time. I have climbed and conquered mountains of work, but I’ve also suffered altitude sickness, and worse.
Through painful consequences of over-work I’ve learned I require breaks, from a few minutes to clear my head, nurture my heart, and rejuvenate my body and brain… to vacations, retreats and even sabbaticals. (During a sabbatical in 2002 I founded Coachwalks, cared for a friend in need, took courses to enhance my skills and did the most rewarding volunteer work of my life.)
An important note: I’m aware of my privilege in this unfair world of unequal opportunity. I’ve been able to afford sick days, vacations and the occasional sabbatical. “Take a break” advice is pointless and absurd for too many people forced into working their butts off to survive, buy groceries, or pay rent. Policies need to change, wages need to go up, and I could go on, but not here, not now.
I’m simply inviting other fortunate people to take a stand for down time (a rare and courageous stance when it’s more popular to pursue lots of stuff and money).
Years of “way too busy” times taught me I never win through wiping myself out. I need to be thoughtful, open-minded, rested and not overwhelmed if I’m to be a helpful consultant, communicator, teacher, learner, friend and human being.
A final thought: It’s dangerous to admit I don’t live to work (yet I love my work)! Self-employed folks are drilled in laboring harder, faster, better and longer. The argument I hear most often for a relentless focus on business is this: How else can an entrepreneur succeed in an era of rapid change, customer demands, and intense global competition? Well, it helps to redefine success.
I don’t have millions of dollars, but I’m grateful to have extraordinary, rich work/life experiences and to enjoy loving relationships on my “down time.” My best ideas and creative business solutions come up during walks, vacations and times of rest.
Is this true for you, too? I welcome your comments.