Practicing Time Off

The gorgeous Chicago River Walk
The gorgeous Chicago River Walk

I hope you all (well, all U.S. readers, anyway) had a lovely Labor Day weekend! I certainly did, visiting a friend in Chicago and eating some delicious food and reveling in not working. This post is not a day late; I simply chose to celebrate Labor Day as it should be – by not laboring. It was also fun being around so many families and tourists and such, all enjoying the beautiful weather and sights. People really seemed to be enjoying the time off – which is kind of a weird thing to say, until you think of it as: here is a place where we can turn time off, at least for a while.

My parents lied.

For most of my life – well into my adulthood, in fact – I “celebrated” Labor Day the way my parents taught me: This is a day when you get to Labor! Time to work and catch up on things that you haven’t had time to work on before. So our Labor Days were things like painting the porch, or cleaning out the garage, or some major project like that. Sometimes we’d also do a cookout as well, but I really don’t remember much of those. I understand why they did it, I think – equal parts “free child labor” and “instill a work ethic in this lazy boy” – but it got me some weird looks from friends when they’d ask what I was going to do on Labor Day Weekend.

“Labor, of course,” I’d say.

It wasn’t until much later that I looked up the true history of Labor Day, and the fact that it celebrated unions. Regardless of how you feel about labor unions today, it’s pretty universally agreed that the way things “used to be” – child labor, working six days (at least) a week for ten to sixteen hours a day under unsafe conditions (which is actually redundant, as there isn’t a way to work six sixteen hour days in a row “safely”) was pretty horrible on individuals, on families, on communities, and on society. Unions were (and in many instances still are) a force behind changing that, and people gave their lives literally to facilitate change.

For those who fall more on the “management” side of the debate about unions, keep in mind that it was Henry Ford himself – no friend of the unions – who mandated a 40-hour work week and championed the idea of weekend traveling. He reasoned – quite accurately – that he needed to give his workers an opportunity to realize they wanted one of the cars he had them building. That’s also why he paid them higher wages, as well. It’s apparently a concept that many current captains of industry have forgotten (and work hard to make sure the rest of America chooses to forget, too) but it’s possible to give ourselves the benefit without their help.

Mandatory Time Off

In this hyper-connected and always-on world, it’s hard to find time off. This morning I was working online, using my happy pebble pomodoro app, and it signaled a five-minute “rest” period. I was in the tail end of an email, so I thought “Oh, I’ll just finish it and then rest.”

The next thing I knew my watch was signaling a return to “work” mode – I had let the email go into another email into a calendar scheduling into…until my “rest” time was done. I’d worked right through it. Could that have been a matter of “flow”? No, not at all, because I didn’t feel enervated and elated at the end – I just felt more tired. Flow states are when you do the work because you want to, not because you think it should be done. If the break time comes, and you look longingly at it – that’s a signal that it’s time to take a break.

Study after study after study after book after book after book reinforces: pushing through gives less accurate, less effective, and less productive results. If you take time off – if you make yourself create these little havens where your attention can go wherever it wants – you will get more done, you’ll be more happy when it is done, and you’ll be able to do it longer.

Make sure you remember that today, this “pseudo-Monday” as my friend called it. Yes, it’s time to get back to work – but you, and many people before you, have earned the right to a break, so don’t overdo it.

Take some time off, for all our sakes.

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