Between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, the longest period of time off I'd ever taken from work was three weeks. That's two decades during which I always had a job (if not more than one) and never more distance from it than three weeks. I don't share this with you to brag; it's not an achievement. In fact, not proactively arranging your life and work to support taking longer periods of time off is irresponsible and destructive, both to you and the people who depend upon you.
A career is not a feat of strength; it's not an endurance competition to be won. It's one thread of the cord of your life, and what binds these threads together is your energy. If you work without finding ways to replenish your energy, eventually that thread will weaken and break, which, in turn, will weaken the entire cord. This is true for everyone, no matter how much balance you think you have between your "work life" and your "home life" — whether you do a job that you believe has nothing to do with who you are, or if your calling defines your identity as much as anything else about you.
Burnout doesn't have to be the predictable pitfall of long-distance careering. There are things you can do to prevent it, most of which have been learned and identified as useful by those who have been through burnout already, and would rather not repeat the experience. If you have yet to burn-out yourself, I hope what I share here will permanently inoculate you. Realistically, I doubt it will — I suspect we Type-A, ambitious strivers will always find new ways of exhausting ourselves — but I still hold out hope.
I never would have called myself a workaholic, nor would I now, even in hindsight. But that doesn't mean there wasn't a problem brewing over those first twenty years of working. For the most part, I kept a typical 9-5 schedule, had the ability to unplug (though rarely did), took holidays off and even the occasional week of vacation, and generally was able to be at home when I was at home (more on this in a moment), and at work when I was at work. What I'm talking about here is not combatting workaholism, the way we typically think of it. It's more about managing your energy. Because even if you're happily trucking along with your neat and tidy 9-5, if you never get more distance from it than a typical work-week-long vacation, then eventually, you will find yourself running on empty. It's just a matter of time.
Oh, and about those three weeks. That happened once, in 2004. Well over a decade ago. Since then, the longest unbroken amount of time I had taken off from work was five business days. Yeah, it was bookended by two weekends. So, sure, it was actually 9 days; your standard week vacation. But consider this: What is the purpose of time off? It's to recharge; to get some distance; to get some perspective. Why? So that you can come back to work equipped with the energy and insight to do your best. The question is how much time do you need to recharge? The answer is more than 9 days. And that's especially the case if you don't have strict boundaries while you're out of the office.
Take my typical work-week-long vacations. During none of them was I completely unplugged. In hindsight, I realize I probably could have been. But at the time, I didn't think I could. That's the illusion of essentiality I think we all prefer over acknowledging that things can run along just fine without us for a while. In any case, I always had a device to connect me back to the constant stream of work communication, and I always found a way to give some of my attention to it, typically rationalizing that if I keep up with emails now, I won’t have to slog through hundreds later. But as I’m sure you know — because you’re wiser than I — recharging is an all-or-nothing kind of thing. All my bargaining to make a future re-entry to work easier only made my present resting from work harder. If you did already know that — and I mean really know it — you learned it the hard way, just like me.
Over time, I did get better about unplugging while I was away from work — particularly in the last few years — but I still never made as much time to be away from work as I should have, which means I was never able to prevent or reverse a low-level burnout from setting in. That was my fault; burnout wasn’t a product of the work, the conditions, or anything other than me and my habits. And still, I wouldn't have called myself a workaholic. I am sure this description sounds familiar to most everyone reading it, and I am equally sure that most wouldn't call themselves workaholics, either. Perhaps this is due to a culture that has normalized workaholism, but that's another article entirely. This one is about what I did to change my habits.
Work Detox, AKA "Sabbatical"
About halfway through 2015, my colleague Mark suggested I go on sabbatical. He was careful to do so in a way that emphasized my energy levels, not my performance, and I was grateful for that. I'd have reacted poorly to the idea that I might not be doing my job as well as I could, regardless of whether or not that was true. That's what happens when you're burned out: you're not as good at what you do and, most of the time, you're in denial about that. The denial can be especially toxic if it takes someone else to call out your burnout for what it is. But Mark took a more diplomatic approach. We happened to be making a bunch of operational changes to the firm, and as he pointed out, it was perfect timing to get some rest, and more importantly for me, get out of the weeds and think more broadly about what we can do as a company. He suggested a month. I found the idea both exhilarating and terrifying.
We discussed it several more times, working out how this could work and when to do it. I took the time between then and when we'd decided I'd take my month — mid-October through mid-November — to arrange things at work and prepare people so that my absence wouldn't grind things to a halt or leave anyone unequipped. It wasn't as hard to do this as I thought it would be.
The closer I got to mid-October, the more nervous I became. Not about potential problems that would emerge due to my absence, though. No, I "reasoned" that if I could take a month off from work and everything at work would be fine without me, then I must not be necessary anymore. I worried I'd return to the office, but not to relevance. Few things are as terrifying to a Type-A, ambitious striver than not being needed. But I also knew that I needed to do this. I needed the break, and, more importantly, I needed to face the fear of not being needed.
Day one came. The rules were simple. No work. No emails, phone calls, texts, status messages, or anything that could connect me to what was going on at the office. I was meant to be completely and totally cut off. I'd given some thought to what I might do with the time away, of course. I'd made lists and plans. Neither of which I should have done — to "manage" this sort of sabbatical is to undermine it. And day one made that clear. I ended up drinking coffee and cleaning my house.
Like day one, the first two weeks of my sabbatical weren't exactly peaceful. The days were often fraught with uncertainty, with discomfort, and with backsliding into bouts of busy-ness, both purposeful and not-so. Your basic existential struggle. Fleeting moments of “this is great” and “I should die.”
But then on Monday of the third week, everything changed.
Work is an incredible drug. They say it takes two weeks to come down from it. I’ve never been able to verify this because, as I've said, I’d only ever taken that long; by the time I’d theoretically be “coming down,” I’d be coming back. But I’ve also read that people who break through the quitter’s ceiling emerge into an almost euphoric experience. Their senses rediscover the world unencumbered by whatever substance had lied to them before. They see, hear, touch, smell, and taste anew. I’ve never experienced that before, either, but I imagine that on that third Monday — Day One of Week Three — was my emergence, perhaps no lighter on the physiology and lies. Because something happened in my brain, and I’ve got the TextEdit docs to prove it. It was like an explosion of ideas, of inspiration and fresh, clear thinking. And, boy, was that welcome. One sign of burnout had been the drying up of the idea tap, to the point where I wondered what, exactly, I had to offer. I’d lost the sense that opportunity is everywhere. That purposes evolve and offerings are invented. I was good to see things that way again.
I spent several hours on that Monday writing lots of things down. I did a little bit more of that over the next two weeks, but honestly, not much. I didn't need to. Those few hours of fresh ideation had produced more than I could possibly work through on my own, and, anyway, I didn't feel the need to. As exciting as some of those ideas were, they had waited for years to come to light. Another two weeks wouldn't make a lick of difference.
I relaxed and enjoyed the second half of my sabbatical.
When I returned to work, it was remarkable how little had changed. Everything was working as it should, and even though I'd worried that such a stability would be like a flashing neon sign reading "You're Not Needed Anymore," I realized how silly that was because it didn't take into account all the new stuff I'd brought back with me that only I could share with the team and integrate into our company — the stuff that would have remained buried in my sub-conscious by had I not been encouraged to get away. I didn't return to old patterns because I had new things to do. And I — and everyone else — was better for it.
May Time Be An Ally
I've written a regular newsletter for several years now. It's a place I can clear my head of all kinds of thoughts, mostly having to do with — as I describe it on the subscribe page — design, technology and being human.
Of the 150,000 words I’ve written in that newsletter so far, the word "time" has been 650 of them. The majority of those 150,000 words are mechanical — the cogs and switches and fasteners of "the," "and," "is," and "it." So "time" 600 times? That may not be even 1%, but for any noun to appear so often is a meaningful thing. Why time? Because we labor and toil and all the while, we yearn for more time so that we might find the meaning of it all. Why we are here. What we are working for. Because we are all working for different futures, and we just want to know that what we do matters.
That’s one reason I took a sabbatical. To get some distance from the noise that my day to day routine had so voluminously produced. To de-frag my life. To slow down time a bit. To remaster it, so that when I go back to work, I will use it more wisely. Of the many lovely experiences and epiphanies that have come from the last four weeks, may that one be the greatest: That Time can be an ally — not an enemy — of life. Though output and achievement were the opposite of my intent for that time away, everyone asked me what I did with it when I returned. What had I been up to? Did I make anything? Not much, and no, not really. That was a disappointing answer to a lot of people. It was true, in that I had little tangible evidence of time well spent. But it wasn't true, in that time well spent need not produce tangible evidence.
The better answer would have been that I spent my time in seven different ways:
Thoughtful time was time I spent practicing meditation, taking walks (without earbuds or phone and often with dog), and writing (with a pen in a journal). Practical time was filled with projects around the house that I hadn’t gotten to before, with cleaning and organizing and taking care of our animals, and cooking. I could easily make a case for how practical time is really just thoughtful time in disguise; while your critical mind is distracted by mundane labor, the rest of it can work in deep and unexpected ways. Relational time was spent being with, thinking about, and serving the people I care about. Physical time was spent trying new things to rescue my daily exercise routine of the last decade from monotony. Whimsical time, in the words of a friend of mine, was time spent doing things that are “un-Chris.” Which, honestly, have been very few, other than, of course, taking this sabbatical itself. I haven’t done many especially un-Chris things, which I’d say are things like jumping out of planes or sleeping in the woods or shooting guns or trekking deserts. I haven’t done anything like that. I’ve stayed put. But, I’ve done things like left my house without a purpose or destination and gone where my impulse has taken me. I’ve had spontaneous lunches and walks with friends. Afternoons at museums. That sort of thing. So not exactly Wonka-levels of whimsy, but things done on a whim, which is enough to break the mold of how I typically spend a day, and that’s enough for me. Educational time was spent reading books, listening to podcasts and watching the occasional talk online. And lastly, I spent that tiny bit of professional time, thinking through new ideas and new solutions to some of the thornier problems that I’ve wrestled with for years at the office.
Even now, almost two years after the unique and special privilege of taking four weeks entirely away from work, I still cherish what it yielded and still bask in the afterglow. I promised myself to be more intentional about making those seven kinds of time — thoughtful, practical, relational, physical, whimsical, educational, and professional — my time’s first principles. When I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” the best answer draws upon them. And when it doesn’t, then that is time I need to reclaim. This has made me a better colleague, friend, partner and parent. And to think, all it cost me was four weeks away from work.