Do less, slowly, and take more breaks — but can you?

Now there’s an un-American sentiment!

A 2011 poll found that Americans had left 9.2 unused vacation days that year.

Time Selector
Time Selector (Photo credit: Telstar Logistics)

With a recession still in play for millions who would like nothing more than the chance to work 40 or more paid hours per week, working less is a privileged notion, a message meant for those of us lucky enough to have jobs, or freelance work.

It’s also a difficult-to-impossible luxury for people whose jobs come in shifts that require seven to 12 hours of non-stop work: cops, nurses, public transit workers, cabbies and firefighters, to name a few. One taxi driver I spoke to in Montreal, a man of 42, this week told me he works 70 hours a week — and barely makes $700 for his trouble.

From The New York Times:

THINK for a moment about your typical workday. Do you wake up tired? Check your e-mail before you get out of bed? Skip breakfast or grab something on the run that’s not particularly nutritious? Rarely get away from your desk for lunch? Run from meeting to meeting with no time in between? Find it nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of e-mail you receive? Leave work later than you’d like, and still feel compelled to check e-mail in the evenings?

 More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace. Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.

I admit, I heartily agree. I do all of these:

daytime workouts

short afternoon naps

longer sleep hours

more time away from the office

longer, more frequent vacations

while also being very aware that many people — like the millions working retail jobs, for example — enjoy zero flexibility in when and how they schedule their time. When I worked the 1-9pm shift during my time as a sales associate at The North Face, (the subject of my book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail), our “dinner” break might be ordered at 4 or 5pm.

And, with job security a hopeless fantasy, many office workers are simply too busy, or too scared to be seen “slacking off”, to even leave their desk for a meal, let alone head out for a walk, bike ride, yoga class or the gym during their workday.

I’ve stayed freelance for the control it gives me over my daily schedule and yearly activities. I just took two weeks away from my home/office in New York to visit Ontario and Montreal, and spent three of those days working.

Thanks to wi-fi and my laptop, and my work, I can basically work almost anywhere. After a grueling full day of interviewing people for a Times story on Wednesday, I came home and finished up an email interview, a quick turnaround of 500 words for a new client, at 10:30 that night. So much for Montreal nightlife!

I’ll be in D.C. for a few days in early May, and probably visit Jose in Tucson in late May where he’ll be teaching. We’ve planned a two-week trip to Newfoundland in September. That’s already 5 to 6 weeks’ vacation planned for 2013, with a break for me every three months or less. Whenever I pull in a decent income, the first impulse I have — paradoxically perhaps — is to take some time off, to travel, to see some art or ballet or theater to re-boot my creative juices and simply enjoy life.
Time me
Time me (Photo credit: mrlins)

Also from the Times article:

Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance. Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward. For one of the breaks, I ran.

I’ve noticed this in my breaks as well — even a full 24 hours fully devoted to one’s own schedule of amusement can prove extremely restorative.

My final day in Montreal could have been a frenzy of rushed shopping or sight-seeing. Instead a friend from the 1980s when I worked there at the Gazette joined us for lunch. We reminisced for more than 3 hours. I then went for an exfoliation, an hour of bliss and eucalyptus-scented steam, and Jose and I went to a terrific and lively new restaurant, Hotel Herman, for dinner. The joint was jumping. We sat at the central bar and bumped elbows with fellow diners, one of whom was a museum curator from Chantilly who showed me a photo on her cellphone of her horse, Kalinka.
Our Montreal meals usually lasted 1.5 to three hours. Just not rushing was a great relief and deep, unaccustomed pleasure for two journalists who have been working to deadline since our undergrad years at college.
We’re back home now, a little broke but sated and refreshed.
How often during your day do you take a break?
What do you do to recharge?
Do you take vacations?

35 thoughts on “Do less, slowly, and take more breaks — but can you?

  1. So true. Coming to the same realization, my life has been transitioning into more creative work, which also seems to attract a bit of freelance and contract projects I hadn’t expected. My husband is considering how he can join me on the other side of sane, leaving his hectic worklife to make room for the young folk who need a start. Our goal is simply to love life and show our children what real happiness can look like… it certainly won’t be sparkling with jewlery or driving any fancy cars, but who cares about that if the house is warm and there is food for dinner? Thanks for your posts–they are a pleasure to read.

  2. It’s interesting – I come from Australia, where (thanks to strong union representation and a national predisposition to enjoying the outdoors), workers have long enjoyed four weeks annual vacation, plus the intense luxury of three months ‘long service’ leave after ten years with an employer. Still, I remember the pressure toward non-stop work during the ‘regular’ work week, and the unfeasibly long hours those weeks demanded. I for one rarely had ‘unused’ vacation time owing at the end of the year, though I knew many who did – for whom squeezing a few days or a week off for a bit of fun seemed impossible. Back to my point … it’s interesting, now I’m ‘retired’ I still feel the necessity to have those breaks – breaks in the day, in one’s routine, mini or longer breaks away from ‘home’ to explore the world and myself, to refresh.

      1. You need to work on the changeover because otherwise you can ‘waste’ your time just lotus eating, I agree. But it’s such a delight having the time to really get into the things that turn me on, learning new things, and lucky you two – doing and experiencing so many of these things together. You’ll work it out!

      2. Thanks, WG. It sound as though you’re really enjoying your life and that’s inspirational.

        Here’s the odd irony. Jose and I both really enjoy what we do for a living, (and would miss it) so it’s not hating work but the truly exhausting pace our work increasingly demands. But I feel sure, if we’re blessed with good health, we’ll have fun.

  3. It’s funny to me that we work for money, yet usually end up working so much that we rarely remember/allow ourselves to actually put that money toward any kind of enjoyable experience. Shouldn’t that be the point?

    I think it should be a crime for companies to only give their employees two weeks of vacation per year. And, like your article mentions, companies aren’t doing themselves any favors by limiting vacations since its causing employees to burn out. I am lucky to have a job that started me on 21 vacay days per year, and I plan to never let a single one of them go unused!

    1. I agree completely. I moved to the U.S. in 1992 and have been struck/horrified by the way employees suck up 2 weeks a year and consider that acceptable — but it is when it’s the norm here. Jose, thanks to many years at his job, gets five weeks a year and has had them since we met in the year 2000….so we have been very fortunate in this respect. That has really allowed us to enjoy traveling together.

      In my own life, I would certainly enjoy a higher income. I could have it if I worked more hours (and, which I am working hard on, on much higher value projects.) But I do burn out and know how completely recharged I am after even one full day totally to myself.

  4. Even if you are a part-time employee in the UK working five days a week, (say 3 hours a day) you are entitled to 28 days of PAID vacation. That’s right, a part-time low wage earner still gets paid time off from their part-time job. They may also receive sick pay if they’re too ill to work.

    I’m more productive when rested and more creative when I have time to get away from my regular activities even if it’s just a long walk by the sea. Glad you managed some playtime even if you still did a bit of work on your vacation.

    1. Sign me up! This must be a welcome relief after the all-American notion that work is the best thing you can possibly do with all your waking hours. NOT!

      It seems logical that a rested, refreshed human being has more to offer, yet we run (hideously) on a 19th c. industrial model that treats us like machinery.

  5. WDP

    As as US expat now permanently settled in the UK I’ve definitely noticed the difference in how I feel about work knowing I have 23 days to take each year plus bank holidays. Saying that, however, having worked in private sector all of my life prior to coming to the UK, it’s definitely a mindset you develop around not daring to take too much time off for fear of being labelled a slacker. I’ve been fascinated by the difference in working styles and priorities between the two countries.

    1. Thanks much for this…One of the things I most value about Broadside’s readers is this multi-cultural, international perspective.

      I wonder how many countries, besides the U.S (Japan, certainly) make workers feel guilty for simply taking care of themselves.

  6. As a US expat now settled in the UK this is one of the biggest adjustments (albeit a positive one) I have had to make to my working outlook. Having worked in private sector all of my life prior to the moving to the UK I can remember my old mindset being that if you took any more than the allotted two weeks holiday per year you risked being labelled a slacker. It was just the norm and I can’t really recall giving it much thought at the time. Whereas here in the UK my experience has been that there is a higher value placed on health and well being and now I couldn’t imagine going back to the former system very easily. It’s been a fascinating experience overall.

  7. I’m retiring from my present work in July, taking a couple of months to a year off to pursue some projects, and am then working overseas. I am fortunate enough to have a “mobile” career that also allows me to take a healthier approach to life.

  8. It is always difficult to grab the time for breaks, but I agree whole heartedly that as a manager you should encourage the breaks, to increase the product quality. No matter what the product is. So many people think more is better, and this is just not the case.

    I am at the moment stuck recovering from an operation on my shoulder, the rehab is going to be so much longer and harder than I expected. More so because I do physical work. The enforced sitting about is difficult, and even after 5 weeks I need help with simple tasks, my right arm is crap. This time is great for my writing you would think. But the lack of physical output makes me twitchy. So coming back to your point, getting up and doing something physical also makes people deal better with the stress of work, there is less sickness and a happier workplace, this can only be good for the company.


    1. Ouch!!! Sorry to hear it….sounds like rotator cuff, which is a long and painful one, as you know. I’ve done so much PT over the years so I know the pain and energy it demands.

      If only all managers thought as you do.

      I hope you feel better soon…good to hear from you again!

  9. No longer a manager, except of our own business. And we try hard to be kind to ourselves. But we had to plan for two years to get to the point of being able to have this op. Probably twelve months before I can lift heavy things again. 😦

  10. Lovely! I just posted today about how slowing down can lead to better work and higher productivity for the hours you are clocked in. The world, I think, needs to slow down and breathe from time to time.

  11. My alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m and I am on a schedule until 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. M-F. Tuesday and Thursday I go to the gym from work so I don’t get home until close to 7. I am in charge of dinner as my husband doesn’t get home until 7 most evenings. I don’t take breaks and usually eat lunch at my desk or on the run. I covet Saturdays. I usually sleep in until…7 a.m or 7:30 ish. I have a BIG ass breakfast and do whatever I feel like that day. Sunday is my “get stuff done around the house” day. My vacations are around a school administrator’s calendar. I get extended time around Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring Break. I have three weeks in July.

    I am a night owl living in a “crack of the dawn” world. I recharge by taking every stinkin’ opportunity I can to stay in my pajamas past 8 a.m. and drink an extra cup of green tea. I know…rebel.

  12. In New Zealand, the standard is 20 days paid leave per annum, plus 9-11 days of statutory holidays (two are fixed dates and if they fall on a weekend, we don’t get an additional day off). We also have sick days (normally 5) and carers days (normally 5- these are great for sick kids). We also have (gasp!) paid maternity leave (14 weeks). We are encouraged to use our leave days, and as Christmas falls in the middle of summer for us, NZ pretty much shuts down from Dec 24th through to the second week of January, and is then kinda slow moving throughout January. That encourages people to take a good chunk of time off, as there are 4 public holiday days in amongst that.

    I think it’s all about balance isn’t it? And learning that putting ourselves and our needs first isn’t being selfish, it’s being sensible. I juggle a lot of disparate things (full time employment, a pile of kids, community work and so on) and I’ve become an expert at short refreshment breaks: half an hour of sitting outside under a tree reading a book; 45 minutes of a monthly pedicure – not answering the phone or looking at emails, just shutting off and being pampered; a nice cup of tea and reading the paper for a little while on a Sunday; sitting outside in the rain on a warm summer’s night; doing yoga as the sun sets or stopping to listen to music.

    I really like the saying “you will never FIND time for anything. If you want time, you must make it” (Charles Buxton) and think this is so true in our busy, busy lives. Great post, and has made me think about the last time I revitalised!

    1. The single greatest flaw, for me, of living in the U.S. is its ugly insistence that being “productive” is the highest possible goal for everyone. It’s the heart of free-market capitalism and if you don’t buy in…sayonara!

      It’s what keeps me working freelance. Very few American employers care a whit for “balance” so trying to carve it out for yourself becomes a lonely and almost impossible battle for many — and the lack of fantastic policies like “carers days” or paid maternity leave make clear the industrial mindset.

      When I arrived in NY at 30, fresh from Canada, I had a job interview to replace, temporarily, a woman going out on “disability leave”…she was pregnant. It had ever occurred to me that pregnancy could be classified as a disability.

  13. Pingback: Broken Penguin Returns | Broken Penguins

  14. I live in the U.K. where four weeks holiday a year is usually the minimum you have to take, so I make the most of frequent vacations – I absolutely love to travel! I think it’s healthy to take time out from work, even if it’s only for a long weekend, so you can return with a fresh mindset and positive attitude.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s