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Taking Time Off In Order to Succeed

The first summer I worked for a European company, my little American psyche was blown away.

“We’ll follow the Karakoram highway into Pakistan. It’s hot that time of year but you really need a month to do it properly so we’re going in August since everyone is on holiday then'', my colleague said. 

As he waxed on about Hunza Valley and Fairy Meadows, I interrupted,

“You take ALL of August off?”

You might as well have told me that Financial Times has an S&M dungeon in the basement. 

I would have believed it more. 

Granted, I had a newborn and it was a miracle to get us all to brunch without having a meltdown, let alone piling the family into a jeep to ply the old silk road route. 

“Oh, yes, most people just spend August with the extended family in Spain but we are adventurers!” 

He misinterpreted my awe. It wasn’t about adventure. It was the sheer quantity of time he would spend away from the office without, as every good American worker knows, EVERYTHING falling apart because you weren’t WATCHING.

I braced myself for August, waiting for the workpocalypse. 

August came. Things slowed. All of us still at work got more deep work done. Instead of nighttime conference calls we ventured out to find the best pizza and aperol spritzes in town. And by September everyone was ready to go at full throttle. 

The company didn’t collapse. 

What did collapse was my belief that working more (& more & more) hours is the singular cornerstone of success. 

In a similar way, the pandemic retrained us all to reconsider whether or not people (ourselves included) could be trusted to work from laptops on kitchen tables, pick kids up from school or have a mid-day walk and still get our work done. 

Moreover, can you have a break and actually be better at work? 

In many ways you can. 

But most of us still sort of suck at doing it. 

With that in mind, here are three breaks ranging from 5 minutes to 5 years to enhance your success and your sanity:

1. Mini breaks - How often have you taken a break at work to re-energize only to spend it mindlessly scrolling your emails and texts? You go back even more drained.

Blame it on dopamine. It entices you to distract yourself, eat that extra slice of chocolate cake and waste precious hours on short videos of emus.

Dopamine is the reward we get for engaging in certain activities. And with all of the overstimulation in our lives, work can’t compete. 

Here’s a trick: Take that time to just stare at the wall or take a few breaths. When you go back to work, it becomes the stimulation you crave. The report or spreadsheet you’ve been avoiding becomes the rewarding hit of stimulation accompanied by a squirt of dopamine on top. 

2. Medium breaks - You don’t have to take a four week vacation to benefit from a bit of a break.

Are you falling into the “I know I should take time off but I’m so busy!” trap? Not taking any holiday or working throughout? The longer you wait, the more you feel like the break should be really good and should solve all of your burnout, relationship rough bits and health woes. 

Try something as simple as a day away to play. Author Julia Cameron, calls them artist dates, a way to devote time to nourish your creative self. A hike or a visit to a museum and a nice lunch. Solo or with a friend. 

Add on a few days to a business trip or family visit. (A friend spent two days in Istanbul on her way back from family time and came home far more refreshed). 

Take a holiday but really think about what would serve you well. To come back with a new perspective? To immerse yourself in nature? To learn a new hobby like diving? 

New experiences, nature and social interactions can all improve our well-being, creativity and productivity. 

What would a few days off look like for you?

3. Mega breaks - Sometimes we have a life transition that requires a bigger break than a holiday can accommodate. Call it a sabbatical, garden leave, or an adult gap year. These larger breaks can be months or years, depending on the context. 

I took a sabbatical, then my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness just as I considered returning to work. My work priorities shifted to flexibility for what mattered most. But I also defined what would ensure this time yielded fruits for my work and life to come.

For those of you craving a bigger break or needing to do so for caregiving or creativity, “make the most of your transition" is one of my most popular blog posts collating the advice that I was given for my mega break and passing it on to you. 

So what kind of break will you give yourself?

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