Monday, July 6, 2009

The one about not working...

After far too long a hiatus, I have returned. There is a good explanation for my absence that has to do with new domains, websites, etc., but ultimately I needed some time, so I took it. During this interregnum, I thought a bit about the ways that not working seems to help working... just like not blogging was supposed to help my blog. Today's post is about not working.

First, you should know that for years, we have know that rats engage in a behavior known as "play fighting" in which juvenile rats tussle and spar with one another. Likewise, it seems that most, if not all, mammals do this. If rats are prevented from play-fighting, they typically suffer from serious deficits in social behavior, have more stress-related problems and appear... well, depressed or anxious. (For the record, males play-fight more than females, but I will let someone else carry that standard forward.) As the rats mature, they play fight less and less, I suppose because the grind of the old ratty 8 to 5 begins to squeeze out play time. In a over-simplification of hundreds of articles, it would appear that playing (and play-fighting in particular) as a juvenile makes a more stress-resistant and social adult rat and makes it more likely that the adult rat will engage in playful behavior which inhibits stress.

Everybody needs a Saturday... even on Wednesday.
I am sure that many people are like me with regard to the weekend experience. Friday evening is a time of rapid decompression. Almost like someone has let the air out of a balloon. Saturday begins with virtually no thought of work or work-related issues. We have projects or destinations or uber-naps to undertake. By mid-day Saturday, there is no work, there is only Saturday. At some point in the afternoon, work begins to creep back into our consciousness and by Sunday evening, we are beginning to mentally rehearse our schedule for the coming week. Imagine life without a weekend. Brrrr. I don't even want to go there. The simple fact, however, is that many folks have that condition. Intriguingly, when I was a college professor I lived life without a weekend. One of the disadvantages of having a flexible schedule is that it seldom contains specified, sacred time off and I believe that expectation of time off is as important as the time off itself. One of the tricks that I learned was that I had to "designate" a day off... even if it was Wednesday. I measured time between Wednesdays and sometimes when I was grading a stack of papers and tests on Sunday, I knew that Wednesday was only two days away. Set aside a day. Make it inviolable.

Sleeping is not playing.
A few years ago, I said to my wife, "My sleep thing is broken."

She looked at me a bit quizzically and I added, "You know, that part of your brain that lets you sleep until 11 or 12 on Saturday. I can't do that anymore."

She smiled and agreed that, indeed, her sleep thing was broken, too. I assumed that this was a normal function of aging, until I began to discover that there were people who managed to stay in bed well past mid-morning on their days off. When I questioned them about it, they generally indicated that they were "recharging" their batteries. I'm pretty sure this doesn't work. First, sleep is not cumulative, so there is only so much sleep that one can get in a specified amount of time. It is not restorative to live on five hours of sleep a night Monday through Friday and then try to jam in an extra eight hours on Saturday and Sunday. Likewise, sleeping through the morning erodes the amount of time that one has left to play. Get up. Do something.

Working is not playing.
I know what you are thinking, but this has to be said. This past weekend, I put together a kayak to store my boats outside, I built a lattice screen to protect me from the prying eyes of my neighbors (or them from me), I designed a raised bed for strawberries, made a huge pot of gumbo, and cleaned out the garage. The only part of this that I considered work was the cleaning the garage part. The rest was recreative and restorative. The first thing that I did this morning was to go to the patio to look at my lattice screen. These days email and other electronic tendrils can creep into your weekend and create stealth work. You barely know you are working until the project has consumed your whole weekend. Do not work. Ever.

Scheduling inhibits playing.
Simply put, you gotta have down time. Most of us run by wire from Monday through Friday. I will be the first to admit that I have zero idea where I am supposed to be an hour from now without consulting one of the three electronic calendars that contain my schedule. It is not unusual for me to be sitting in a meeting and have my cellphone gently buzz in my pocket alerting me that I need to be somewhere else in 15 minutes. When I set up my electronic calendar a few years ago, I selected the preference choice for "Start Week on Monday" and "Do Not Show Saturday and Sunday." Part of this was to make the days larger so that I could see them without my glasses, but part of it was philosophical. Saturday and Sunday are my MY days and if someone if silly enough to schedule work on those days, I don't even want to see it.

In one of the little ironies that life supplies from time to time, I broke my watchband on a business trip and have yet to have it fixed. I have discovered that during the week, I am pretty tuned in to the time, but on the weekend, not only do I lose track quickly, but the days seem to be a little longer. The clear message to me is that being on the clock is working and not fun, while being off the clock is playing and (usually) fun. Don't schedule anything. Except restaurant reservations.

Playing hooky is not playing.
In my rather lengthy work history there have been only a small handful of times that I have used the infamous "mental health holiday." It's not that I am particularly ethical and honest, rather I think that I had judiciously used my time off on weekends and vacations to recharge and recreate. Generally speaking, when I am supposed to be at work, I am at work. When we "play hooky" we spend most of the time we are away from work thinking about how much work sucks. Contrast this with meaningful, productive planned time off, during which we seldom even think about work... let alone think about it with dread and dismay. If you are routinely using sick leave to sneak away from work, you should reconsider your vocational choice.

There's little else to add here. Let work get on without you for a more than just a weekend. Don't "hang out" at the pad. If you cannot afford to get a cabin at the mountains or a condo at the beach, then go to a museum, travel to another city for lunch or dinner. Order a Pawley's Island Hammock, go to Home Depot and buy some concrete mix, a precast footing, and a couple of 4x4's. Plant those suckers in the ground and string up your new hammock. Buy a used bicycle from Craislist and spend the week rehabbing it and actually ride it somewhere. Google "state historical markers" and the name of your home state. Guess what? Almost every state has an official site and there are dozens of unofficial ones. Put together a day tour that takes in three or four markers and lunch at an out of the way bistro or tavern. (Turns out that there are 24 within 30 miles of my home!) If you haven't taken an extended vacation, do it.

Go away and play, so that work is palatable.