Life and the Web are funny at times.

At any given moment I’ve got from 5 to 20 posts in some kind of draft form. Usually that form is notes with a title. I keep these around for times when I’m at a creative low and have nothing to talk or write about. This post was one of those that had been lingering in my drafts for a few weeks.

But then I came across this article via Lifehacker and I knew I had to come back to this issue and get this post out to y’all.

It’s all about the work/life balance and how time spent away from work can make you a better worker.

h3. Breaks Are Good?

The WSJ article talks about how we need to take breaks throughout the day. As someone who is very bad at this and who is trying to get better I was interested. I mean I do take the pauses they talk about, but I feel I need to take more breaks. You know, the kind that force you to get up and get away. Walks and such. My back needs it — but that’s another story.

As bad as I am with daily breaks, I’ve always been someone who uses his vacation (and then some, ack!) and find that I need time away from my job to be productive and maintain a high level of creativity. But I know many, many people who don’t take advantage of their vacation and I’m of the mind that they’re not doing themselves, or anyone else, a service by working so much.

In fact, I’d hazard a guess that by not taking a break or getting away from your work, you’d be on a road to dissatisfaction and disengagement. Not a good long-term proposition. In effect you may be making yourself less valuable and actually hurting your resume and reputation by working too much.

h3. Breaks (Sometimes Long Ones) Are A Must

I’d like to illustrate why breaks are important with a true story.

I’ve got a friend who is a workaholic. He works over 60 hours a week and almost never takes a vacation. When he does get away he thinks about work and often has long phone conversations with his home office about things that seem very trivial to anyone who is with him. He constantly talks about work, again mostly trivial subjects, but it’s something he can’t seem to leave behind. It’s “work, work, work” all the time with this guy.

You’d think he likes his job, right? You’d think wrong. He hates his job and recently he’s having all sorts of on-the-job problems. I’ve often told him he should see about looking elsewhere but he’s so caught up in it all it’s very hard for him to separate his life from his work anymore. It’s scares him to think of leaving his job and now that his life is his job, he doesn’t know what to do but keep going. In the meantime he’s losing touch with his friends and family and missing out on all sorts of fun. It’s really, really sad.

(You might see how some jobs would be the kind to take over your life and how it might be worth it. I’m sure there are many out there. His job isn’t one of those. Trust me on this one.)

The last time I saw him he had gone through a kind of epiphany where he realized he needed to move on (although he’s not done so yet) and could look back somewhat objectively at how he got to this point. In talking with him we came to the realization that much of what led to his current situation was the simple fact that he didn’t take any time off, or separate in any way his life from his work. He liked his job so much at the beginning he wanted to spend time there and make it great. Nothing wrong with that but this led to working more and more hours, which led to being expected to work more hours. Then to cutting vacations short to get back to work. Then to being expected to cut his vacations short. Etc.

Since no one made him take time off he never did. Now when he asks for time off he feels a bit guilty. He’s so used to being there that he can’t get away even though he knows he needs to. As well, people expect him to be there all the time and expect him to be working long hours. Any deviation from this is strange to everyone involved.

In essence what he was doing was devaluing himself through a series of compromises he made with himself and to his employers. He began to feel like he had to work all the time as he had not only conditioned himself to this, he’d conditioned his coworkers and bosses as well.

I know all to many people who are in a similar boat and don’t need to be.

There is a reason why some companies make you take breaks and use your vacation. Too much work and no play can make you dull, sure, but it can also ruin your life. I love to work and I try in inject play into my work as I am able. Even then I don’t feel that’s enough. It’s about maintaining a balance and to do that you need time off.

Next time you’re thinking about cutting a vacation short or simply letting your vacation days go unused remember that you’ve got those days for a reason. Then think about your friends and family. Hell, think about your coworkers! Mightn’t they be sick of your ugly mug? Take time off. Then come back and work hard.

I know the phrase “work hard, play hard” is kind of cheesy but it’s also kind of true. The most productive, respected and valuable people I know all know when to take a break and relax.

h3. A Final Note

I want to point out that it’s a fine line to walk–this balance between work and life. If you find yourself either working too much or working too little it’s probably a good idea to take a step back and do a re-evaluation your job. Also, do a general check of your attitude towards your work. Are you excited about it? Does it make you feel good? Has it changed?

I’ve seen in my own work how something can start great and turn sour. Working too much, or too little, and not being happy about it can be a good indicator that you might not be in a good spot.

Sometimes a change can be good and sometimes you just need to take a break to see things as they are.

8 Comments on Take Time Off!

  1. Sarah says:

    This month I just started my first full-time job, which is in the UK. 38 days of paid leave (including public holidays, so really something like 32). There is such a culture of getting people to use their days off because you can only roll over five to the next year, and there’s also some sense of something being wrong if people go for long stretches without taking a break. It doesn’t increase the longer you stay with the employer, but with that deal, how much more time off could you realistically want? It’s so different comparing with friends in the US. I’m not sure I’d adapt well to the American system if I’m getting used to this.

  2. Yannick L. says:

    I am definitely guilty of not taking enough breaks during the day. I mean my job requires me to be infront of a computer and as soon as I reach home I am back infront of the computer till the wee hours of the morning (sometimes doing nothing productive or necessary, other times working again). I think I definitely just need to take a break and do something else apart from be infront of the computer.

  3. Ken says:

    Great post and comments here.

    Sarah, I wish I had 32 days off. In the US, it’s a ridiculous 15 or less depending on your job. We definitely work too much here to our detriment.

    Yannick, I am the same way. I just can’t seem to get off the damn computer, especially now that I’ve started blogging for the past 3 months.

  4. Steven says:

    Ironically I stumbled across this post whilst I was meant to be working. You see, I’ve been sitting here more or less since 9am and it is now 21.43 at time of writing. Lunch was at the computer catching up on correspondance with friends, dinner was at the computer reading film reviews and sports news. Once again I have reached that all too familiar state of stinging eyes and constant yawning, but still I continue to try and be productive.

    Listen. It doesn’t work. Period. What I have found over the past 6 years or so, is that if you decide “right, I am going to work really hard from say 9 til 12, take a 30/60 min break, work really hard again until 3 or 4, take another short break and finish up at 6pm”, then switch off the PC until next morning, you’ll be far more productive than doing 12 hours of constant slog. It’s the nature of the beast. The brain and the body will see to it eventually. Thing is, I never really believed it until recently. I was afraid to finish at a “reasonable time” each day. I stopped taking public holidays, only took 3 out of 4 weeks annual leave, never ever worked the required 8 hours…oh no…had to at least do 11+. And as you say, colleagues start to expect if from you, family/friends learn to live with it and before you know it, that’s what you do, that’s who you’ve become.

    It’s not too late to change things. Ask yourself honestly, have you been really productive today? Are you sure you are not simply filling 12 hours up with tasks that, if you are focussed and alert, you’d not manage to do in 8 hours anyway. Most times you will find that you may well have achieved your marathon days work within the confines of a 9 til 5 scenario.

    I work from home and therefore separating work from family life and personal interests (whatever they are!) is not always easy. But I am working on it, and reading this post has sparked my desire to tackle this whole work/life balance again head on.

    Recently I’ve been going for a lunchtime jog and taking the dog out for a proper walk for once. It’s doing us both the world of good. (ok, today has been a day example of my new approach to things, but one step at a time people). And, I’ve got to say I’m enjoying work again, refreshed each morning knowing that I’ll put in an honest days work until early evening then it’s time for some reading, movies, diy, visiting friends, going for a drink and a natter, walking the dog again etc. I think, and correct me if I am wrong, but I think it’s what they call living…

  5. breaks and vacations

    As I go to work, feeling stressed and overworked, having to cut my vacation time short, this series of articles really struck a cord.
    Bloggeropoly talks about why Taking a vacation is important.
    According to the study, Canadians have about 21 days o…

  6. I’m recommending that Paul Scrivens reads this article. :)

  7. Britt says:

    Timely post for me as well. Someone recently recommended to me that I need to make a real vacation the top priority in my life. I agreed but instantly discovered that I realistically won’t be able to do that until next summer. All my recent vacations have been work related (conferences, workshops, home repair projects).

    I have been planning on taking one day to do nothing, which is much more difficult than it seems. In the meantime, I have been making myself take breaks to walk outside at lunch, and at home I have a outdoor project to keep me away from staring at screens in the evening. It’s a start.

  8. Meggy says:

    Good article, thanks :) I think the story of your friend is interesting, and I’ve definately seen the reverse work effectively. I’ve worked as a contractor for many years so I’ve had a lot of different employers, and I always notice one thing with all of them – it happens right at the start of your employment, where something will come up that requires overtime, and they’ll push you to see if you’ll do it (for free, of course).

    After giving in out of a sense of obligation/politeness for many years, I finally got sick of working free overtime, and began to put my foot down. I’ve noticed, if you do this politely but firmly at the start of a new job, it’s very unlikely you’ll be asked to work overtime often, and it doesn’t damage your reputation, it actually makes your team leader (if they’re the decent sort) treat you with more respect because they know they can’t rely on you to pick up the pieces if they do sloppy work. So, in turn, they improve their own work standards. You benefit by being able to keep to a regular 8 hr day and be a better worker because of it.

    I’m sure this isn’t a universal thing, but I’ve definately seen enough evidence to think it’s fairly common. The key thing of course is to be a good worker – you can’t shirk overtime if you’ve been bludging half the day, but if you’ve worked hard for 8 hours why on earth should you stay at work unless something very urgent needs to be done (and those ‘somethings’ shouldn’t happen more than once every few months, if they are then someone along the chain of command is slacking, or procedures need to be examined).

    It’s also a fact that working too hard for too long can and will create the basis for chronic depression. Without getting too technical, high-concentration activities (reading, writing, coding, designing, etc) deplete seratonin levels fairly rapidly, and low seratonin levels leave you much less able to deal with stress. So if you work hard for 8 hours, then give your brain a break by doing stuff like watching movies or playing computer games, your seratonin levels will jump back to normal, especially if you add a good night’s sleep to the picture. But if you’re spending lots of time in ‘work mode’, doing high-concentration activities, eventually your stress system will kick in, and that in turn creates patterns of negative thinking which lower sleep quality, make you more susceptible to pain, and start a loop of depression that is really hard to get out of. And I’m talking from experience here ;). Sorry for the science lesson, but I thought this was relevant to the post. There’s a great site online actually that deals with this stuff –

    Thanks again for the article and the linked one too, both are very interesting :)

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