Taking a break from the 9 to 5

Lessons from my year off


The first time I tried to take a break from the workforce, I failed. When I left my position as an economics professor (that’s a story for another day), my plan was to devote several months to recharging my batteries. But even before the last day of the academic year, an interesting freelance contract found me. And shortly after that, I was enticed back into full-time employment with a position in higher ed administration.

It’s not that surprising that I failed in my quest to rest. You see, I like to work. Plus, a sizeable portion of my identity comes from my professional accomplishments. It’s not natural for me to relax and kick back. In fact, my default setting is to work more than is actually good for me.

In opening my mind and reevaluating my instincts, I’d come to believe that work and rest need to be equal partners in one’s professional life. The importance of deliberate pauses, breaks, and timely rest cannot be overstated. (Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is an excellent and quick intro to the subject.) But it’s one thing to believe rest is important for work, it’s another to put that theory to the test.

So even though my last job was a good fit – ticking all the right BSPACE boxes for me – last year I decided to resign in order to take a “sabbatical” so to speak. I chose to make time for writing, to pursue passion projects, and to recharge fully from the hectic pace of the work world.

It was strange for me not to have a day job. The specific things I spent my time pursuing – creating a stress management app for use during the workday, volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children, increasing my skills as a home chef, earning a change leadership certificate, and co-authoring a draft of a book on mindfulness an personal finances to name a few – aren’t as important as the lessons I learned about my relationship to rest and time off.

Lesson 1: Taking breaks is hard.

I thought without the deadlines and accountability that are part of working for an employer it would be easier to pace myself and find a sustainable rhythm of work and rest. In reality, it’s just as much of a challenge to take breaks and to rest when working on self-directed projects. It takes the same concerted effort to incorporate rest into work on passion projects as it does to incorporate rest into a regular workday.

Lesson 2: There will be cycles of ups and downs.

I periodically oscillated between thinking “this is fantastic, I love spending my time on such a variety of interesting projects” and “what the hell was I thinking? I gave up my steady income to meander from project to project under the guise of recharging my creativity?” I’m fortunate to have a supportive spouse who would talk me through the lows and friends who would be so enthusiastic about my endeavors.

Lesson 3: It’s okay if your assumptions are wrong.

It’s natural to implicitly or explicitly make expectations about what life will be like without a full-time job. For example, I assumed after I resigned I’d do a lot more yoga and spend more time painting – two activities I enjoy immensely. Turns out after an initial burst of activity, I settled back into routines that were fairly similar to when I worked full time. At first it bothered me that I wasn’t “making time” for them, but then I realized there was no reason to beat myself up for not meeting what was an arbitrary expectation in the first place.

Perhaps most important of all, though, is the lesson I’ll take with me back into the full-time work world. I’m demonstrably more productive when I make adequate time for rest.  

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