Taking Time

“Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” 
― Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

I am bad about this to the point of commentary from my colleagues who point out when I have not taken a holiday, especially in periods of high stress and hectic projects and encourage me to book my next holiday. It’s a very strange, but very nice thing to be encouraged by bosses to take time off regularly–it’s antithetical to the American work culture (according to Forbesless than a quarter of Americans take all of their available vacation, and I KNOW I am personally one of them).

Time off is built into British work life and I’ve had the experience of bosses policing my requests–not because I was asking for too much time off, but because they thought I wasn’t asking for enough. It is assumed that regularly scheduled holidays, even a three day weekend every couple of months or so, keeps workers more balanced and productive. I have been amazed to observe how holiday time is respected. On one occasion, early in my British working life, I checked my work phone for emails on a day off, saw that an urgent request had come through and immediately responded. The recipient thanked me and then scolded me for breaking my holiday to provide him with something he himself had stated was important, and forbade me from responding to anything else until I was back in the office. This was astounding and confusing to me!

I’m a big believer in time off. But I’m also a badly inconsistent practitioner.

Over the past year I’ve been working on a contract that’s been deeply interesting and rewarding. The work is challenging, the people are nice, the location is great, and there’s a lot to do (which is something my hyper personality requires). But it’s also been a hectic year with constant surprises and challenges, with a stream of unexpected projects and short deadlines. Because I was running a small team, I genuinely was afraid that if I took time off, I’d be responsible for balls dropping or delays, or…oh I don’t know. I had a vague sense of dread about being out of office that I couldn’t shake.

At a certain level this is fundamentally egotistical. The world spins on without you, and it’s important to be reminded of this fact.

Paradoxically, my feelings were also mixed with a sense of Imposter Syndrome because…the world spins on without you. Because I was managing a big contract and wanted so badly to do a good job, I think a part of me was strangely afraid that people would cope without me in a crisis, and what would that mean? Also, please note, fundamentally egotistical.

Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.

And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state. I had to expend more energy to focus and concentrate than I needed to. My anxiety was ratcheting up.
“I think…I need a holiday,” I mentioned tentatively to a coworker during a coffee break.
“YES, YOU ARE LONG OVERDUE,” was her disconcertingly swift and loud response.

Et voila. I booked two weeks off and we went to Prague for one of them. Ironically Jeff was summoned back to work this week due to some crises but we’re now looking at what mini breaks we can take through the rest of the year to get in the travel that we have been reminded we desperately need and thoroughly enjoy. In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying the surprisingly great summer weather, wandering through my favorite neighborhoods, and indulging in some vintage scouting. I’ve still be checking my work phone more than I should, but I’ve

There will always be a crisis you don’t expect, there will always be an unanticipated hiccup that your coworkers will need to deal with. They will. And your work will still be waiting for you when you get back. The world spins on, after all.


6 thoughts on “Taking Time”

  1. I think — now having been out of the States for several years — that American work culture might be less of an influence for you.

    The whole point (for me anyway) of living in Europe is longer holidays and easy access to so many great places to enjoy them! Within a 3-hour flight (unlike the 6-7 just to get across the Atlantic from N. America) you’ve got so many options.

    But I’m a hopeless lazy-bones. I’ve been working since I was 15, and am quite fed up with its demands — so also in a different place professionally. I work as little as possible to make the basic income we need because nothing matters as much to me as the leisure my labor buys me. Not the stuff. I do like nice stuff but all the $$ just means — OK, next trip! I only want to work to make enough to NOT work.

    But again, we’re OK for retirement and once that number is done, one can relax more.

    Some people are much happier being busy. That used to be me, perhaps. Not now.

    1. It’s less of an influence, but it’s still there. Jeff and I have never taken all the holiday time we are due in a year, not once in five years living here. I also have not been above to step away from the mindset (the idealization of the grind or hustle) that feels very American. Jeff deals with a similar mentality, without some of the unfortunately gendered aspects of female-specific Imposter Syndrome and socialization. He also likes to point out in my case, I’m a triple threat: American, military, AND Mormon–which are three separate, overlapping cultural backgrounds the long term effects of which I am STILL unpacking and will be for the rest of my life! All of these prize striving, seek a level of perfection or achievement that is probably unattainable, and put examples of “well, this other person accomplished XYZ, so you should be able to too,” in front of you in different ways. Two of them also really value the team unit and breaking that unit is seen as letting others down, which has stuck with me.

      Basically, I still need therapy!

      I was really taken by your last piece where you dove into the topic of your comment a bit more, especially about needing a lot of sleep and other things that were important to you being able to function well. I’m really starting to understand (and unapologetically own) similar things for myself. Some people are built to be able to function on four hours of sleep…I am not one of them. Some people are better equipped to handle certain stressors for longer periods of time than me. I don’t have to like this fact, but I can learn to be okay with it and try arrange my life around this truth as best I can. That’s kind of where my head’s at these days.

      1. I hear you…believe me.

        My father won the Palme D’Or (check it out) and my youngest brother was being wooed by biotech firms while still in high school and my other brother is a self-made millionaire.

        My father — no joke — used to say to me “All you need to do is win a Pulitzer”, not even understanding that you FIRST need for that is to: 1) get a very good American newspaper job; 2) keep it; 3) get assignments of that magnitude. NO PRESSURE.

        And I’m now earning far less than I did easily a decade ago, due to the utter implosion of my industry and my stubborn unwillingness to start at the bottom of a whole new career, let alone pay $$$$$ to retrain for one.

        So I feel like shit quite often. 🙂

        I do think — and this is possibly the toughest part — it’s simply saying EFF OFF to these crushing forces. 1) not in the States, so their rules don’t count now; 2) not a practicing Mormon (ditto).

        I love you to bits but I am shocked (SHOCKED) to hear you admit to Imposter Syndrome because…it’s such bullshit. Not that you don’t feel it but as long as you give it mental and emotional real estate, it WINS and you lose. Your well-earned pride at your many accomplishments, etc.

        I also think — being a military child — you’ve got some unhelpfully ingrained notions of hitting X rank at X velocity — which go OUT the damn window when (as you and I have) you trade every damned scrap of your social capital by moving to a new country and all its cultural norms, where they say…who? what? what school is that? It’s a much much more greasy pole for us than for the natives.

        But I do compare what I’ve done here with my U.S. born and educated peers and say, yup, I’m OK. The joke? I am SO much more grateful for what I’ve done here than the ENDLESS whining and pissing and moaning I hear from those who had the advantages of having attended multiple prep schools and Ivy schools and shout “it’s not FAIR!!!” when they can’t keep up with their hyper-competitive peers. UGH.

        In my early 20s, my mother warned me to NEVER get sleep-deprived. I say and do all the wrong things. Sleep is so so so restorative, as is rest. Just sitting and admiring your amazing view…

      2. Oh yes, the Imposter Syndrome IS ridiculous and takes up a ludicrous amount of head space that I would much rather give to other pursuits. I know it’s stupid, but it’s still there. It too is getting better over time. Believe me, I can’t wait for the day when I can tell a lot of these forces to EFF OFF, but at the moment, some of them are still so interwoven that I can’t cast them aside without tearing other bits of my brain in unhelpful ways. So I’m slowly unpicking them a seam at a time. It’s tedious work, but I’ve been able to FEEL myself becoming healthier as a result.

      3. It takes time — as one of my therapists once said to me — to get rid of old tapes. (now there’s a fogey reference!) But his point is a good one; just because it’s so familiar doesn’t mean it’s good for us, and maybe it once was but is no longer…

        It’s taken me years to get rid of some of my stuff, too.

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