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The sweet and sour peace of unstructured time
"I hate vacations. I hate them. I have no fun on them. I get nothing done. People sit and relax, but I don’t want to relax. I want to see something. Sit down and have a massage, have a spa, have a cupcake—I go nuts. If I want to relax, I go home.” - Travel writer Paul Theroux, 2013

Sing it, Paul.  

If you’re like me, you were the kid who had recess planned down to the minute. (Get in on the playground’s ongoing Big Dig to China project. Follow that up with some monkey bars and then hit the swings. Bake some mud pies if there’s time. Obviously.) You also forced your parents to spend hours and hours during summer break watching you run, skate, jump, swim and bike all … day … long. 

You were the kid who read through the entire World History text book -- the summer before school. No, it was not assigned reading, thank you very much. 

Unstructured time is unbearable for some people, and I am one of those people. There’s a very real pleasure that comes from productivity and activity. (The flow state is real, people.) Yet, time spent doing nothing can also be incredibly healing. I would argue, it’s essential.    

Here’s why I’ve come to that conclusion: I’ve taken a payout for more unused vacation days than I care to think about. I still find myself twitching at the idea of taking a vacation where I have to travel somewhere and pay for lodging. Cruises, all-inclusives, ski trips and yoga retreats all strike me as a colossal waste of time and money. Conferences are overpriced, and executive courses feel a lot like I’m being assigned work and paying for the so-called privilege of doing it. If I’m going to work, I'm going to get paid.  

That said, staying at home for major holidays or going on the same trips to see family every year, leave me feeling antsy — like I missed out on some big opportunity to change my life. Each year, I have a haunting suspicion I played my cards wrong. I know I can’t work all year ‘round. Years of recovering from burnout taught me that the hard way. So, what’s one to do?

The past few months, I have largely been in control of my own time, and let me tell you, I am one hell of a task master. I would willingly wake up at 5:15am to go to a 90- or 60-minute yoga class, then I would return, make a high-protein breakfast, journal, tackle my inbox, schedule calls with prospective clients, pay bills, do laundry. I was a machine. When I received the offer for the job I have now, I finally let my body relax, and I found myself in bed, exhausted and bingeing on "Last Week Tonight” episodes into the wee hours of the morning. I was overtired, and I hadn’t even moved across the country yet.  

Though the period I spent self-employed was under a year, I’m proud of what I accomplished. I managed to curate enough work to pay for my apartment and expenses in DC and have a little spending money. I accumulated some runway debt only because running the company full-time lasted a bit longer than I anticipated. (It’s a long story.) But I was starting to get more and more calls and requests to do business. It was great, and I could have gladly continued building my little shop, but I realize I never even gave the idea of a vacation an iota of space in my mind. 

Today, I am in a lovely office job with smart people doing interesting things. I basically entered a time warp, leaping from what I was launching to my desired finished product. The only trade-off was not being the founder of it all.  

After months of hunting and pecking for work, the predictability and reliability of daily work that is challenging and fascinating feels like I’ve hit an oasis. My entire body was so relieved it immediately gave in to the worst virus I have experienced in probably a decade.  

That being said, excelling at a great job is a marathon, not a sprint. I know from experience that burnout is a real threat. So, I need to plan for downtime even though the idea of it makes me anxious. In researching my conundrum, I came across this from Nancy Colier in Psychology Today: Embrace your anxiety.  

"We remove the primary cause of suffering when we stop criticizing and trying to change our experience as it actually is. We find equanimity when we surrender to the chaos. We find peace and self-love when we agree to meet and welcome the parts of ourselves that we enjoy and even more importantly, the parts we don’t.” 

Here’s another useful tidbit: take short vacations, not long ones. Research indicates this might actually improve overall happiness:  

“The practical lesson for an individual is that you derive most of your happiness from anticipating the holiday trip. ... What you can do is try to increase that by taking more trips per year. If you have a two week holiday you can split it up and have two one week holidays. You could try to increase the anticipation effect by talking about it more and maybe discussing it online.” 

I can do three- and four-day weekends. This change in approach does one of two things: It reduces the amount of risk with each vacation. I define “risk" as being four-fold:  

  1. The stress of missing out on day-to-day work
  2. Being ripped out of your routine
  3. The difficulty of re-entry (the work waiting for you when you get back)
  4. The amount of money and time spent on something you may or may not enjoy

This also increases the time I can spend anticipating my vacations, which should, it seems, make me happy (I always get excited about flying to new places). The fact of the matter is taking time off, like anything, is a learned skill. It is a skill, however, that I have spent too little time cultivating. That’s going to have to change.  

So, if you have any good long-weekend vacation ideas (or you know Richard Branson) please hit ‘reply’. I’ll share what I get from folks next week, so please indicate in your message if you would like me to share your name. 

Happy resting.

(Photo source)


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Hi, Richard.
Emi Kolawole · E is for Everything HQ · San Jose 95134 · United States of America
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