In this “Ask HR” series, I answer questions about work and life. Have a question you want answered? Submit it here!
Our question today comes from a busy writer and mom of two. She has several books under contract that she’s in various phases of the writing process with (writing, editing, launching). She’s looking for advice on taking time off.
Question: I have an advice question for you. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by deadlines, and realizing that I’m pretty much always going to have a deadline for *something*. If I keep waiting for when I don’t have anything due to take time off, I’ll be working round the clock forever. So I want to plan a day off, but I'm not quite sure how to do it. I’m concerned about using a day with no appointments for fun (as opposed to heads-down work), and it’s hard to predict my schedule. Kids get sick, urgent work-related requests come in, and so it feels like planning time away is asking for a mini-emergency. I’m also not sure what I would do on the day off. What if I end up just feeling restless?
Answer: Oh, I love this question!
I'll start by saying ME TOO! I struggle with taking time away from work. I made some progress when I was in house as an HR executive, but I'm right back to working out what time off means for me as a consultant.
Here’s what has helped me the most: I align the need to take time off with my overall goals.
I want to be the best possible worker and human I can be, and I need rest to do that. We are not an endless resource. We need to be renewed. We can be renewed in a variety of ways, but rest and time away from work is an important part of that renewal. Work is a marathon, not a sprint. Athletes proactively take rest days -- they don't do the same workout or muscle building every day. The rest allows their muscles to renew. I like to think of my knowledge work in the same way - the time away from it makes me better at my work.
Want more proof? Lin-Manuel Miranda came up with the idea for Hamilton on vacation. It's no accident that when we give our brains and bodies pause, magic happens. The time away makes us stronger. It's an investment in you. It’s the smart thing to do.
I love this Harvard study (referenced clearly here by my friends at LifeLabs Learning!) that vacation can be a state of mind. The quick recap: even going into your weekend with the attitude of “I’m treating this weekend like a vacation” makes a huge difference in your state of mind come Monday morning.
This opens up possibilities -- we don't need tropical vacations and weeks away to access renewal. We need that "vacation mindset." I love this LifeLabs podcast too (Listen to it! It’s 10 minutes long and actionable! They take you through a "break audit") and it's helped me to think through these three types of breaks:
Micro breaks - 5-10 min break every 60-90 minutes of work
Meso breaks - 7-9 hours of sleep or taking a real rest on the weekend (aka no weekend work)
Macro breaks - ideally take 2-4 weeks of off time in a given year (doesn't have to be all at once)
Now that I’ve convinced you that you need time off, let's get tactical! I think it's wonderful you're planning to take a day off. Here's my recommendations:
Reduce the pressure on this one "day off." I believe the real goal is to build the habit and skill of taking time for yourself as a busy mom and writer. This day off will be one of many in your lifetime. It doesn't have to be perfect. You'll learn and adjust and get better at taking these days (or even just random mornings or afternoons) off.
Reframe days without appointments to opportunities for renewal. I hear that you need them for writing. But what if you took one of them in the next 4 weeks for pleasure? As stated above, this will make you a better writer. You need that break and headspace. Often when we get into that scarcity mindset, it's when we need the pause the most. Try to view a day without appointments spent for pleasure as an investment in your writing (it’s not a detractor from your writing, it’s in service to your writing).
Reduce fear of "what might happen" I get that there might be a kids emergency. I get that there might be an urgent email. But we do ourselves a disservice when we let those "what ifs" get in the way of our own plans and needs.
For the kids point -- won't you always prioritize your kids if an emergency happens and someone is sick or daycare is shut down? You'll do this. You know you'll do this. But I don't think it's an excuse to not schedule time for you. If something happens, you'll adjust (the same way you adjust when you have work plans and an emergency happens). I think the key is promising yourself that if a kids/life emergency gets in the way of your fun time for you that you will reschedule the fun time (the same way you would reschedule a work obligation).
For the "urgent work" question -- this is the fear, isn't it! I relate so hard to this point. Here's what helps me:
I reframe how "important" I am - I have an ego because I view myself as the leading lady in my life. But for my clients (and my boss/employees when I was in house), I'm just one person -- a supporting character. Even when something "urgent" happens, what does "urgent" really mean? Is it "drop everything" urgent? Or is it something that could be handled in a few hours when I see it? If I'm being honest, it's usually the latter. And I know I'm not some "unreachable black box" -- people have my cell phone. If a true work emergency happens, someone's going to find a way to reach me.
I set boundaries explicitly - when I was "in house," I loved an out of office away message for this. It clarified that I was unavailable and when I would be available. For my team, I made it clear what I was doing ("I'm taking a vacation day. I won't be checking email/slack because it won't be much of a vacation if I do. I'll be available via phone if you need me for something urgent. I hope you all take days like this too - it's important for mental health") I'm still anxious about how I make this work as a consultant -- but I'm committed to figuring it out!
What to do with your time! This is the fun part. You'll get better at this as you take more of these days. Here's my thoughts:
Make a list of all the fun things that would renew you. You'll get to them over time -- you don't have to hit them all the first day.
For your first day, kick off the day from the get-go with something that makes it special (breakfast out, bagel in bed) -- something luxurious to set the tone that this day is not like all the other days. For me, it helps to have a plan. I'll hold myself accountable by putting things in my to-do list, but they’re all delightful things like “Journal at a coffee shop, go for a walk, get a manicure.” I know myself - if I put pleasurable things on my to-do list, I’ll do them, whereas if I just think, “wouldn’t it be nice to do insert nice thing?” I’ll probably end up doing administrative life work instead.
It doesn't have to be ambitious when you start a habit of taking days off. I'd say start low in terms of expectations. For me, sometimes it's as simple as "read during the day, go for a walk, get lunch with my mom." That's a nice restful day for me!
What about feeling restless? If you feel restless - this is part of it too!! We LIKE to work. But sometimes we work SO much that it feels like a burden. Taking time away makes it something you "miss" a little bit. We're recovering workaholics! Don't expect perfection with this! I've been working at this for a while and I still get restless. I'm committed to improving. I try to remember that the more I do it, the better I'll get at it!
I’ll end by saying this is so much larger than us as individuals. The United States has an obsession with work and productivity. As people raised in a culture of constant work (which has been exacerbated by ever-constant access to email via smartphones), it is beyond challenging to re-examine what work/life balance looks like. If this feels hard, it’s because it is. That said, hard things reap great rewards. Even if it isn’t easy to unplug and take time for yourself, commit to working at it. It will make you stronger and better – in life and in your work. Talk about working smarter, not harder! :-)