Pressing the Pause Button on Life

Lessons learned from three weeks of slowing down, tuning in, and turning off

Courtesy of Talaj / Getty Images
Courtesy of Talaj / Getty Images

Today is my last official night of my first-ever stay-cation. I just spent three glorious weeks at home, slowing down, tuning in, and turning off — I literally pressed the pause button on my life. And you know what? It was magnificent!

I’ve never taken a stay-cation. Truth be told, if I take time off, I’m usually trying to get as far away from home as possible. But this year was different. I spent much of the first half of the year in airport lounges, hotels, and different time zones. I traveled to El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, India, China, Korea, Orange County, San Francisco, and Boston. My body didn’t know whether to wake up, go to bed, or sit down for a meal.

And this was all before July.

Over the course of the six months that I traveled, I continued to manage the rest of my extensive portfolio, including writing remarks and talking points, managing an employee resilience and wellness program, and working with colleagues in Canada to plan an international conference for migration judges from around the world in Washington, DC, where I was responsible for overseeing logistics on the ground. Any one of these tasks taken on their own were all-consuming. Taken together on top of a full travel schedule, they were crushing. When I returned from my last work trip at the end of June, it was just two weeks before the conference. There was no time for jet lag or anything else.

By the time the conference ended I had accumulated 40 hours of comp time (this was capped at the maximum amount I could earn) on top of the 250+ hours of annual leave and a 40-hour time-off award I had waiting for me in my time and attendance record. When I told people that I was taking a three week stay-cation the general response was, “You are so lucky! I wish I could take that much time off.” While I agree that I was incredibly lucky to take this amount of time off at once, I think the point people were missing was that I had so much time built up because I hadn’t really taken any time off during the year.

And I know I’m not unique in this.

Many of my friends across various industries are incredibly passionate and talented individuals — they work long hours and push themselves to get things done, to just finish one last thing, to help just one more person. They worry about what will happen if they take some time off, or don’t answer an email, or don’t finish that report. And when they feel frustrated and upset and their bodies are exhausted and shutting down, they shove those unwanted feelings down and push through, because that’s what we’re taught strong people do — they push through.

But here’s the thing — simply pushing through only works for so long.

Eventually, you’ll find your body becomes achy and depleted and begins to go to extreme measures to get your attention. Suddenly it’s harder to concentrate and everyone around you just seems incompetent and annoying. You get irritated easily and are hyper-critical of those around you. You’re weighed down with anxiety and become cynical, falling deeper and deeper into a spiraling hole of negativity. You’re exhausted and no matter how much you sleep, it just never feels like enough. And one morning, you wake up, and there, staring you in the face, is burnout.

I experienced full-on burnout in 2015 when environmental factors coupled with high levels of stress resulted in my body attacking itself. I was living overseas at the time and while home for a visit with my family, my doctor told me I needed to come back now, or potentially not come home at all. It was devastating and I felt so much shame about having to curtail an assignment to come home early. But I had worked myself into this place and left myself no other choice. So I took a few weeks off to heal and then returned to the U.S. to start my new job.

I wasn’t totally at that point this time around, but I knew myself enough to know that I was heading in that direction. I knew I needed to pause — I needed time to breathe. I needed to just be.

I decided that this time I would simply listen to my body and have no set agenda. I turned off my work phone and stayed away from social media— and at first, it felt odd. For the first few days I slept until I woke up naturally. When I was hungry, I ate. I napped in the sun patch in my bedroom in the afternoons. I spent time meditating and writing. I cooked meals with wholesome foods and sat at the table to eat. I watched TV for hours and went to bed early. I quieted my mind and in turn my body followed.

At the end of week 1 I felt rested. My energy began to return. I started waking up earlier and the dark clouds that had been hovering began to lift. I had met an amazing group of people at a camp put on by Jonathan and Stephanie Fields of the Good Life Project the weekend before, and I began re-connecting with many of them. My creativity started to reappear, and suddenly, projects that had been stuck for months started moving forward. I was hopeful and energetic and most of all, I was happy.

By week 2 I found joy. I began to fill my schedule with things that I found interesting and stimulating. I interviewed a James Beard award-winning chef for a profile piece for my website, and met with people about collaborations on future projects. I caught up with old friends and made a few new ones. I daydreamed about the future and created a wall of sticky notes with action items for how I intended to get there.

By week 3 I found harmony. I continued to embrace the creativity that was flowing like water from an open tap. But I balanced the frenzied desire to create and work all the time with time to be quiet. I made time to meditate and read and sleep. I gave myself permission to breathe and to put away tasks that still needed more work. And I began to think about my re-entry back into the world outside of the walls of my home, and it no longer made me feel anxious.

The past three weeks have taught me that simply taking some time to tune in to ourselves and turn off from the external world is incredibly powerful. Pressing the pause button on my life re-energized me and fed my soul. It gave me perspective and allowed me to find gratitude again. We do this for others all the time. We listen to their needs and do what we can to fulfill them. So why not do the same for ourselves? Our bodies, our minds, our spirits — they tell us what they need every day. Instead of ignoring them, maybe it’s time to stop pushing through and to start listening. Maybe it’s time to give ourselves the grace to slow down and rest. Maybe it’s time to give ourselves permission to create a life that is fulfilling and in which each of us has the ability to thrive.

Originally published at medium.com

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