Ever since my daughter was born last year, I've been more or less my own boss, juggling four to five part-time or freelance jobs at any given time to make ends meet. As bosses go, I'm the toughest I've ever had: no hour is off-limits. So with the holidays looming, I decided to give myself something most bosses give from time to time, and to enforce it in my usual unforgiving manner. I decided to give myself a day off.
Depending on your perspective, this might seem really obvious or really pathetic. A few years ago, I would probably have thought someone who had to make a special effort to avoid any work for 24hours was either a poor time manager or a masochist. But I've now learned that, while working from home is an unbelievable privilege I truly don't take for granted, it isn't the endless pajama party I'd imagined back in my office days. When you copyedit diplomatic documents with one eye on the screen and one eye on your stirring newborn; read speeches aloud on a conference call while breastfeeding; and write grant proposals at 3 a.m. next to a teething toddler, you lose your sense of boundaries. There's no weekend, no end of the day. And if your jobs require you to use social media, the time you spend online for fun and the time you spend online for professional reasons overlap almost completely -- creating an enjoyable and devilish time suck.
Trust me: I'm not complaining. Flexibility and freedom in exchange for working late at night or during Peppa Pig is a tradeoff I'll make any day of the week. I was the problem, not my work. I had lost the discipline and structure that this life requires. I was increasingly frazzled, exhausted and inefficient. My multitasking brain couldn't focus on anything. And while one of my jobs requires daily online editing, meaning that I can't take off a full calendar day, I suddenly realized I could take off another 24-hour-period -- noon Saturday to noon Sunday, for example.
The rules were simple. My computer, iPad, dog-eared agenda and giant sheaf of to-do-lists went into a bag and couldn't be touched until the 24 hours had elapsed. No Internet and no tasks of any kind related to any of my professional commitments, which also meant no writing whatsoever; if I thought of something important, I could jot it down on a single sheet of white paper on the kitchen table, and that was it.
What followed can be divided into three phases.
1. Total failure. When the designated hour arrived, something "urgent" came up, then something else. Then my daughter took a nap -- and how could I NOT take advantage of that precious hour to crank out some work? As I emailed, sorted and listed, I thought, This just goes to show how much I need this. My new day off would start at 3 p.m.
2. Panic. When I finally packed away my work gear and settled down next to my baby to wake her up, my mind was racing. I felt jittery and caffeinated. It's not that I thought that anyone out there would miss me for 24 hours, that translation or editing clients would run screaming through the streets. I just felt like I did during my failed attempts at meditation. The sudden space in my brain made room for all kinds of forgotten to-dos and urgent tasks that scrolled across like a news ticker, and the fact that I felt that way two minutes into a single day off made me feel like a nutcase. I forced myself to ride it out, knowing I could write down these crucial forgotten projects once I got up. Of course, by the time I did that, I'd forgotten what they were. I still can't remember, and you know what? They clearly didn't matter very much.
3. Bliss. This part is predictable, but was still really mind-blowing to me. I had a hunch that my day off would do me good, but I had no idea just how deeply it would affect me. I hadn't realized how much quieter and slower our house would seem just because the computer was locked away. I hadn't realized what a huge difference there is between a day in which you end up doing hardly any work by happenstance, and a day you intentionally dedicate to other things. I hadn't realized just how tirelessly my mind chased its mental to-do lists. A quiet moment would come along and my mental tic would twitch -- Go take care of business! But for this day only, I got to resist it, and stay where I was, chopping carrots or sorting socks or building a Lego tower. Something inside me really did relax.
As the end of my day off approached, I started dreading the little work kit that crouched in the spare bedroom, menacing. I had that Sunday-night, please-don't-let-the-weekend-end feeling I hadn't experienced for years, and I started looking forward to my next day off before the first one even ended. That's when I realized something: we need that Sunday-night feeling in our lives. We need a pull between our work and our free time. Even if we love our jobs (a category I'm lucky to fall into), and even if we hit that sweet spot where work and fun truly blend, we need some space and structure. At least, I do.
When I finally did open up my computer and my agenda again, I did so with a certain long-lost glee. And I did so knowing that without any doubt, this 24-hour Christmas gift is one I'll keep on giving myself all year long.