In this work-obsessed society, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of feeling that you have to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of your day. We all do it: driven self-employed entrepreneurs like myself, harried parents and caregivers tearing their hair out trying to balance work and family, and of course office cubicle denizens trying to impress the boss and garner that next big promotion.
We chuckle at cultural icons like Ferris Bueller from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, who’s gamed the system, and the Dude from The Big Lebowski, who breezes through life’s chaos with his White Russian in hand, but then privately stew to ourselves and others that we “just can’t afford” to take a break. To justify that damaging viewpoint, we throw shade at people who do—calling them slackers and writing them off entirely. The unhealthy culture we create as a result makes it that much harder for us all to simply admit when we need a mental health day off from work because we fear the professional and social consequences of doing so.
We’re stressed out, overwhelmed, often addicted to our digital advices and parched for a moment of peace and tranquility. This has become the new normal, a state of psychological and spiritual impoverishment that is constantly validated by the people, media, and institutions around us. We are afraid to be bored because we worry what that might say about us as people, so we keep tapping away at our devices even when we’re running on fumes and badly in need of a time out. We keep checking that work email, even after hours and on the weekends, to get another hit of self-worth even when we could find profoundly greater joy by taking a long walk in the park and returning to a state of natural calm.
I suspect that this twenty-first century phenomenon is linked to a large-scale sense of anxiety and need for security in an uncertain world. When the ground beneath us feels less than solid and people around us are struggling to make ends meet or losing their jobs, we may feel irresponsible for taking a day simply to play and enjoy life. Some of us may also believe that we are obligated to excel in our careers due to subconscious attitudes we absorbed from our parents as children, having taken away the message that what you do as a profession is of paramount importance in life and determines who you are as a human being.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Particularly if you are self-employed, you can and should arrange your work schedule (by setting boundaries, managing your time well, and communicating thoughtfully with your clients) to take a day off now and then. It’s not a “nice to have” as far as I’m concerned—it’s an imperative. Now that I work for myself, I view productivity simultaneously from the standpoint of an employee and the business. And I’ve quickly learned that taking time off is essential for avoiding burnout, which results in lower morale and a work product that doesn’t meet my standards. It’s precisely because I am serious about my work that I know it’s just as important to be intentional and strategic about not working as it is to keep aiming for greater achievements in my professional life and fuller self-realization as a person.
You never know what you will discover when you give yourself the time and space to simply exist. The last time I took a day off, I ended up appreciating a deeply meaningful exhibition on the Japanese-American internment at the Isamu Noguchi Museum in Queens followed by a contemplative journal writing session in the museum’s garden. Later that evening, I witnessed a powerful, thought-provoking performance of Julius Caesar in Central Park. Both shows provided me with creative inspiration and generative fuel to pursue new ideas and expand my thinking beyond the boundaries of my day-to-day activities. And they blessed me with a welcome reminder of just how closely my work life and personal interests are aligned in a way that they never were before until now.
There’s an implied sense of virtue in the phrase “keep your nose to the grindstone,” but it also indicates a limited range of view and possibility. The further I advance along my path as a self-employed writer, the more I realize just how intimately our work selves and our play selves are intertwined—and how they can support and sustain one another if we will just let them. If we want to shine and experience our lives rather then passively observing them as spectators, we should all take a day off and thoroughly revel in it every now and then. We’ll be taking better care of our whole selves and setting a positive example for others to do so. This is one way in which we will build a healthier and more honest work culture for all.