Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.
And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state.
It’s not easy to take a proper holiday when you live far away from your family, losing a day each way to travel, (driving or flights, usually), plus cost.
You only get so many paid vacation days and then…they’re gone!
It’s also difficult if you’re burdened with debt, have multiple children and/or a very tight budget.
A holiday doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it does mean time for farniente — literally do nothing.
People like Jose and I work freelance, which means that every day we don’t work we don’t get paid — and our bills don’t magically drop in size and volume. (Our health insurance alone is $1,400 every month, more than our mortgage payment.)
Even so, I usually take at least six weeks every year to not work, even if it’s just sitting at home.
American work culture isn’t as bad as Japan’s where karoshi — death from overwork — is real. But its savage demands of low wages, a thin social safety net, precarious employment, almost no unions — plus the insane costs of a university education — combine to keep too many Americans working with few breaks.
The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.
Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn.
I still enjoy writing, but I’ve been doing it for a living for decades and no longer seek the career-boosting thrill of a Big Magazine byline.
I’d love to write a few more books, but this year has been dis-spiriting — both of my book proposals, (which cost unpaid time to produce), have each been rejected by more than three agents. Not sure if I’ll keep trying with the second one.
On my last day of work at the American ad agency, something strange happened: I was smiling. A weight had been lifted, and I felt like a prisoner about to be freed. And despite my fear that no one would hire me, I soon found a job in Zurich doing exactly what I had been doing in the United States: copywriting for an ad agency.
My job title was the same, but I worked part time — and for a higher salary than I had received working full time in the United States. When I was politely asked to work additional days beyond the ones specifically mentioned in my contract, the agency paid me for that extra work.
Not only that, but instead of two weeks of vacation, I had five. And I was encouraged to use every single day of it, guilt-free. Once, when I went to Spain for “only” 10 days, my Swiss colleagues chastised me for not going away long enough.
Instead of worrying about working weekends and holidays the way I had in the United States, I planned trips like the rest of my colleagues: Paris. Prague. Zermatt. For the first time in my working life, I was living, too. Because of this, my creativity flourished. I had both time and money, and because I had real time off, I was more productive when I was at work. In my spare time I wrote blogs and essays and I swam in the lake.
I’m firmly and decidedly out of step with American values in this regard.
In 2015, I’ve spent 3 weeks in Europe in January, another three weeks in June in Ireland, 10 days in Maine and 10 days in Ontario.
Because my husband and I are, as of this year, now both full-time freelancers, (he’s a photo editor and photographer, I write for a living), we can work from anywhere there’s wi-fi and can take as much time off as we can afford.
We’re not wealthy and we live a fairly frugal life, with a small apartment and a 14-year-old car. Nor do we have the financial responsibilities of children or other dependents.
We’ve had terrific careers and won awards and the respect of our peers and while we still need to work for income…it’s time for us.
I’m not fond of the word “self-care” but it’s a concept I believe in strongly, especially for women who are socially encouraged to give everyone else their time, energy and attention — but often feel conflicted or guilty when they stop long enough to take equally thoughtful care of themselves.
Self care can take many forms:
— massage, manicures, pedicures, facials
— dressing well
— a barbershop trim or shave
— regular medical and dental checkups
–– cooking or baking something delicious, especially “just” for yourself
— a pot of tea in the afternoon, possibly with a biscuit or two (no sad little teabag in a cup!)
— drawing, painting, taking photos, nurturing your creative self
Button up your overcoat
When the wind is free
Take good care of yourself
You belong to me
Eat an apple every day
Get to bed by three
Oh, take good care of yourself
You belong to me
You get the idea…If you love someone, you want them to stay safe and healthy!
But what if that weary, worn-out, frazzled person is you?
It’s an interesting challenge in an era of economic fear and anxiety, a time when people who actually have paid work are terrified to be seen as slow, lazy — worst of all, disposable.
Here’s a recent post by Small Dog Syndrome, a 27-year-old who recently moved from the U.S. to London, about her struggle to find time for self-care:
I’m starting to feel a bit depleted and stress is taking a very real toll on my health. Even if it’s for a job or in a field you love, doing work without pay is grueling, on the soul as well as the body. And spending time working on those projects has the very real potential to impact my freelancing work negatively – no one’s at the top of their game when chronically sleep deprived.
Many American workers, those who even get paid vacations, are too scared to actually take the time off, or too broke to go anywhere.
So they keep driving their exhausted minds, spirits and bodies like machines at a vicious, speeded-up industrial pace. We’re all becoming Charlie Chaplin movie out-takes.
But it’s no comedy.
I recently did something that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. I had three deadlines to meet and editors driving me insane with endless demands. Instead of staying glued to the computer, fed up and resentful at their insatiability, I snagged a cheap ticket to a show I’d been wanting to see for years, the musical “Once.”
I went to a Wednesday matinee.
It was heaven. I came home refreshed by pleasure.
Good thing too, since the next two days proved to be completely hellish and the week ended with an editor killing my story — after weeks of work, costing me $750 in lost income.
In response? I made a pot of tea, put some chocolates on a tray and ended my crappy Friday with a pile of glossy fashion magazines.
It takes effort to make time to care for yourself.
Here are some of my favorite ways to do so:
— a pedicure
— a pot of hot tea every day at 4 or 5:00 p.m.: hydrating, comforting and fragrant
— a massage
— having fresh flowers and/or plants in every room
— going for a walk
— calling a friend
— taking dance class two to four times a week
— listening to music
If we don’t make time for pleasure, what on earth are we doing?
Are you taking good care of yourself these days?
If not, why not?
If so, what are some of the things you do to stay healthy and happy?
Here’s a smart story from the Washington Post about why we all really do need to take vacations:
The image that stands out most in my mind during the broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics? The Cadillac commercial with a boxy, middle-aged white guy in a fancy house striding purposefully from his luxurious swimming pool to his $75,000 luxury Cadillac ELR parked out front while extolling the virtues of hard work, American style.
“Why do we work so hard? For stuff?” actor Neal McDonough asks in the commercial that has been playing without cease. “Other countries work. They stroll home. They stop by a café. They take the entire month of August off. “Off,” he says again, to reinforce the point….
Americans are caught up in what economist Juliet Schor calls a vicious cycle of “work-and-spend” – caught on a time-sucking treadmill of more spending, more stuff, more debt, stagnant wages, higher costs and more work to pay for it all…
American leisure? Don’t let the averages fool you, he could say. While it looks like leisure time has gone up, time diaries show that leisure and sleep time have gone up steeply since 1985 for those with less than a high school degree. Why? They’re becoming unemployed or underemployed. And leisure and sleep time for the college educated, the ones working those crazy extreme hours, has fallen steeply.
One of the weird things about Americans is their endless obsession with being productive.
A woman I know — who at 33, has already produced three children and three books — has turned this obsession with spending every minute usefully into a thriving career, suggesting multiple ways for us to be more efficient with our time.
I get her exhortatory emails, but just reading them makes me want to take a nose-thumbing nap, or an 8-week beach vacation.
You know what they call the sort of cough that horks up a ton of phlegm?
But visible professional success is seductive — here’s White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett:
She’s out the door at 5:15 a.m. She arrives at the White House at 5:22 a.m. and hits the gym (where she assures me she watches Morning Joe!) before meeting with the rest of the White House senior staff at 7:45 a.m. on the dot. She tries to get home before 10 p.m.
“I have to force myself to go to bed and I jump out of bed in the morning, which is a good sign, I think,” she said. “You always have to pursue a career that you care passionately about so that it will not burn you out.”
Would you be willing to work her 13-14-hour day?
I grew up in Canada, and left when I was 30. I moved to the U.S., eager to taste a new country and its culture.
The first major difference? Two weeks’ vacation a year, if you’re lucky enough to even get paid vacation.
In Canada, I felt American — too aggressive, too ambitious, too direct in my speech. But in the U.S., because I also want to take off four to six weeks’ off a year — to travel, to read, to rest, to recharge — I’m wayyyyyy too European. i.e. soft, flabby, lacking the requisite drive to get ahead, gain even more social and professional status and buy tons of more/bigger/newer stuff.
Working hard 24/7 isn’t the best way to spend my life. I’ve been working for pay since I started life-guarding part-time in high school. It’s essential to earn and save money, of course. And it’s pleasant to have enough to enjoy life beyond the basic necessities.
But after a certain point….meh.
I work my ass off when I am working. But I bring an equal hunger for leisure and downtime — like many people, I just get stupid and bitchy when I’m exhausted and haven’t had enough time for myself.
I also love to travel, whether back to familiar and well-loved places like Paris, or the many places I still haven’t seen yet, some of them a $1,000+ long-haul flight away: Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Argentina.
A four-day weekend — which many worn-out Americans answering emails 24/7 now consider a vacation — just isn’t enough.
Here’s my friend and colleague Minda Zetlin on 10 dangers of overwork, from Inc.:
3. You suck when it counts.
I can tell you from experience that going into a meeting tired and distracted means you will suck in that meeting. You’ll be bad at generating new ideas, finding creative solutions to problems, and worst of all you’ll suck at listening attentively to the people around you. That disrespects them and wastes their time as well as yours.
4. Your mood is a buzzkill.
The kind of irritability and impatience that goes with being overworked and behind schedule will cast a black cloud over the people around you both at work and at home. If you’re an employee, it will damage your career. If you’re a small business owner, it will harm your business.
5. Your judgment is impaired.
The research is conclusive: sleep deprivation impairs decision-making. As a leader, poor judgment is something you can’t afford. Crossing some tasks off your to-do list, handing them to someone else, or finishing some things late is well worth it if it means you bring your full concentration and intelligence to the tough decisions your job requires.
When you have downtime, how do you relax and recharge?
If you live or work in the United States, vacation is a taboo word for many people — their employers don’t offer paid time off and/or they just can’t afford to take any.
Or they’re such workaholics they can’t bear the thought of missing a call/email/client meeting.
The typical American workplace offers a measly two weeks off each year. As someone who runs at a very high speed, and who loves to travel, taking time off whenever I want and can afford to is one of the reasons I stay self-employed.
I tend to work at a pretty intense pace. The harder/faster I run, the more downtime I need to recharge and come back at it, hard, with gusto — not weary resentment.
The two-martini lunch may be extinct, but another perk common to yesteryear’s workplace, the two-week vacation, is making a comeback. No longer limited to students, honeymooners and retirees, drawn-out holidays are finding converts in overachieving professionals.
“It used to be that Americans did the drive-by vacation,” breezing through major tourist attractions, said Anne Morgan Scully, president of McCabe World Travel, an upscale travel agency in McLean, Va. “They’re not doing that anymore.” Her company has seen a 25% to 30% increase in longer holiday bookings over the last year, she said.
Plenty of Americans have a hard time taking vacation at all. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about a quarter of private-industry workers didn’t get any paid time off in 2012. And some who have holiday packages are loath to max them out, for fear of seeming dispensable in a still-shaky economy.
The lack of American vacation time strikes people living in many other nations — Australia, Canada, much of Europe — as weird indeed. But here, where affordable health insurance is tied to your job, and you’re scared to lose both, going anywhere for very long feels too risky to many people. (Talk about a capitalist culture!)
I try to take off six weeks a year, or more, if possible. My trips are rarely exotic or costly, but I desperately need to get out of our apartment, where I work alone all day, and our (lovely) town where I’ve lived for 24 years.
I need new scenery, new experiences, foreign accents, adventure!
Our recent two-week trip to Arizona was perfect, even with temperatures that could soar to 100 by noon. I saw old friends, made new ones, did a bit of work, bought some pretty new clothes, took lots of photos, read for pleasure, lay by the hotel pool, did a long road trip, stayed in a funky hotel, stayed in nature for five days.
The best part?
No computer. I didn’t touch my laptop for five full days, which made me feel like I’d been gone for a month, not merely five days off the net.
I came home blessedly and gratefully refreshed, ready to pick up the traces again.
Our next vacation is planned for two weeks mid-September.
We had hoped for Newfoundland, but are doing some planned, costly renovations instead. Luckily, we now have a tent and sleeping pads and a car that will accommodate our sports gear, so even a two or three-hour drive in any direction can take us to somewhere fun and new — the shore of Long Island Sound in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, even as far as Delaware.
Here’s an unlikely essay, in yesterday’s The New York Times, from an American employer who actually gives his first-year employees four weeks off. Hire me, dude!
More than ever, we live in a culture that overvalues the ethic of “more, bigger, faster” and undervalues the importance of rest, renewal and reflection. I preach this lesson for a living, but I, too, can get so passionately immersed in my work that I intermittently forget to apply the lesson to myself.
A growing body of evidence suggests that more overall vacation time – intense effort offset regularly by real renewal — fuels greater productivity and more sustainable performance…If you’re in any sort of demanding job, it makes sense to take at least a week of true vacation every three months…
The United States is the only developed country that doesn’t mandate employers to provide vacation time. Most companies do provide it, but often stingily and insufficiently.
To my fellow leaders: Two weeks isn’t enough if what you’re seeking from your people is their best. Is there any doubt, for example, that the greater the demand, the more frequent our need to replenish and rejuvenate? Demand in our lives is rising so relentlessly that I’m beginning to believe even four weeks of vacation a year isn’t enough.
The most basic aim of a vacation ought to be restoration – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
A recent national survey of 977 people, published in Vanity Fair magazine offered some funny, and not so funny, statistics about Americans on vacation:
— 90 percent said they’d try to help a lost tourist
— but 21 percent (cheap bastards!) never leave a tip for the daily maid service for their room; luckily 29 percent said they leave $3 to $5 a day
— not at all surprising, only 1 percent said they prefer to travel by bus; 50 percent said car and 39 percent by plane. Only 5 percent (!), which is very American, chose the train — by far my favorite! But American train service is costly and atrocious compared to that of many other nations.
This evening, in D.C., I’ll be receiving an award for my cover story — ooooh, glamorous! — in Arthritis Today, about what it was like to stay active and athletic, despite 2.5 years of constant left hip pain, before I had it replaced in February 2012. Here it is, if you’re interested.
We’ll stay with friends in the area and I have a business meeting and then we drive to coastal Virginia to stay with friends of my husband, from when he was a photographer in the White House Press Corps for eight years. Jose is the photo editor of the New York Times business section, with six meetings every day, responsible for finding photographers all over the world to shoot assignments for the section’s stories. So he, too, is very ready for a break.
Eat, sleep, read, repeat! The only writing I plan to do is blogging and working (a bit) on my book proposal, hoping to finish the damn thing so I can send it to my agent.
It’s been an insane few months, and while I’m grateful indeed for a steady freelance income, I’m fried. Last week I had four stories due in four days and attended two all-day conferences, where I learned a lot, especially about social media.
In addition to which, I’m pitching ideas to people almost every single day and following up those pitches — and chasing payments that are always late.
I did get a terrific email from someone I met recently, introducing me to a potentially hungry new market, the BBC’s website, which actually pays well. Yay! So I have that to look forward to when we get back.
The challenge of working for yourself is that no one ever gives you a raise or a bonus. They almost never say “Good job. Thanks!” because they’re too busy and our business just isn’t one for a lot of back-slapping. So I asked one regular client for a raise, and she’s giving me a 20% boost. It’s only an extra $200 per story, but I’m damn glad to have it, since so many places simply refuse — even after decades at the same rates — to offer more.
The good part of working for myself is that I can take off whenever and wherever I choose, as long as the bills are paid. So I’ll have these 10 days, come back to New York for a week, then head to Tucson, Arizona for two weeks, where Jose is teaching The New York Times Student Journalism Institute. If you’re a college student studying journalism, join the Hispanic Journalists Association, stat! You do not have to be Hispanic…if you are chosen for the Institute, you’ll get two weeks’ working with NYT staff, a stipend and an all expense paid trip to Tucson.
Vacation is over and we’re heading home to New York today. I’ve been gone from my home for an entire month, and alone for the past two weeks.
Some things I enjoyed most:
— Watching a minor-league baseball game. My ticket was $8, for one of the best seats in the stadium.
— Attending the 9:30 a.m. service at the local Episcopal church. It was a tiny A-frame, whose screened windows faced the grass of the Champlain exhibition grounds. Seagulls squawked. A man played banjo for Amazing Grace. The peace — the part of the service when everyone greets one another — went on, charmingly, forever.
— Eating at the bar of a dive-y pub a very good cup of home-made corn chowder and a cold local ale. Watching the NBA draft and a baseball game on two TVs at the same time.
— Not turning on the television once in two weeks of house-sitting. Didn’t miss it a bit.
— Reading fiction, which I almost never do. Loved “The Art of Fielding”, a new first novel by Chad Harbach and “Cannery Row”, the 1945 classic by John Steinbeck. Harbach’s book has sold 250,000 copies and he was paid $650,000 for it, after a decade working on it in broke obscurity. I really liked his book, despite the hype.
— A phenomenal blood orange martini and salmon with chive risotto on a splurge night.
— Washing my car with a hose in the driveway, (forbidden at our co-op.)
— Watching two hot-air balloons soaring over my head at dusk, the roaring of the gas flames audible and mysterious. Even the little dog was impressed.
— Meeting someone at a party on a farm in Vermont whose grandparents came from the same small tiny Breton town, Concarneau, where my mentor is buried.
— Having a small, playful, cuddly dog to accompany me on road trips, to hog the bed at night and whose silky ears I will miss terribly. On the car trip home from Montpelier, in the dark, she laid her head on my shoulder.
— Lying in the sunshine reading.
— My first few Zumba classes. Ouch! Now I get why people so enjoy it. Planning to continue them at home.
— Playing endless games of Scrabble on the Ipad.
— Missing the hell out of my husband, with three weeks apart to remember all the things I love and none of the stuff that annoys me.
— Driving up to the ice-cream stand for a huge cup of very good ice cream, for $2.60.
— The Friday farmer’s market, with wood-oven-fired pizza, luscious tomatoes, crusty baguettes and live music.
— The astonishing mist and cloud over the green hills as I drove southeast through rain to an outdoor party.
— Meeting new people who were welcoming and kind and offered amazing barbecue ribs at that party.
— Scoring some great, cheap-o antique finds, like four silver-plate knives for $7 and a lovely transferware cup for $10.
— Snagging some CDs, including the new Patti Smith.
— Introducing myself to local indie book-sellers and asking if they’d stock my book.
— Seeing the Camel’s Hump, a 4,800-foot high mountain southeast of where I stayed, in all sorts of light and weather conditions.
— The river at the end of our street. When I went to its edge, I found a tarp/tent and a very deep large hole dug at the edge of a cornfield. Shriek. Fled…quickly.
— Taking lots of cellphone photos for future visual reference, mostly of anything with patina.
— Going dancing with Jose, shaking my tail feather for 90 minutes, with kids half our age coming up to say “You’re a terrific dancer!” That new left hip works just fine.
I love glam trips to Paris and London, but the past month, doing the rural/small town thing, has been a wonderful and relaxing change. I’ve really enjoyed it.
What are some of the simple pleasures you’ve been enjoying lately?
My favorite weekly read is the weekend FT, and its columnists. One, a 48-year-old executive named Mrs. Moneypenny, bristling with an MBA and Phd, a woman who refers to her three children in print as Cost Centres #1, #2 and #3, says every hour of her business time — and is there any other for the high-flying exec? — is worth 3,000 pounds — about $4,440. She dares not waste a minute and never takes vacation.
But a recent 360 review by her staff suggests she should “waste” some time posthaste:
The general consensus is that the pace at which I work and the number of things I take on alarms my colleagues, who believe it has the potential to be counterproductive. Above all, they fear for my health – and that is a commonly held view, not merely one aired by two or three people. So yes, perhaps I ought to slow down a little. And to show how willing I am to change, the very same week I was presented with these comments I had lunch at the Wolseley with a former Master of the Universe.
Normally, I hate lunch appointments, believing them to be a mammoth waste of time. If you include travelling time, it is likely to take up two hours, or a £6,000 opportunity cost to my business. But this MOTU was too charming to refuse. He pointed me in the direction of John Updike’s poem “Midpoint”, written at the end of his 35th year. I only ever read fiction and poetry when I’m on holiday – doing so at any other time is an extravagance (especially at £3,000 an hour). But after an hour with this guy, I would have tackled Plato in the original had he suggested it. The final lines of the poem read: “Born laughing, I’ve believed in the Absurd, / Which brought me this far; henceforth, if I can, / I must impersonate a serious man.”
I am 48, not 35, and maybe it is time to start being serious.
Laura Vanderkam, another driven urban woman — mother of two small children, sings in a choir, attends church, runs every day — has written a new book called 168 Hours, the number of hours every fresh week offers us, if we would just stop wasting it.
I have mixed feelings about this notion of “wasted” time. I love the Italian phrase farniente –– literally — “do nothing” and aspire to a life with far more undirected time. I also love the British expression for day-dreaming — wool-gathering. We all need time to fantasize and imagine, to stare into the sky and let our weary, overcaffeinated brains….chill.
Last week, the sweetie and I took a vacation and drove to Quebec where we stay at a lovely, small, quiet lakeside hotel. Our plan of “action”? Eat, sleep, read, take photos, repeat. Plus a little antiquing — where the local shopowner remembered me from our last visit 3.5 years ago — and an hour’s canoeing.
This morning, (and it’s 9:11 as I write this on a glorious sunny June Saturday), I’ve: read 1.5 newspapers, watered the plants, made and consumed coffee and toast, blogged, washed the kitchen floor, discussed what paint we need to paint our terrace door. That’s in less than two hours. Yesterday, racing to finish my book, I worked at the computer for about 10 hours — I thought my eyeballs would melt.
I’m whipped and already ready for a nap. (And, no, I have no pets or kids, so my time is my own.)
Rest. Relax. Recharge. Restore. Revive. I think we all need more of it, and less of this boot-camp, finger-wagging instruction in efficiency. I plan to make highly efficient carefully-monitored use of my time when I am dead. I’ll have so much more of it anyway.
Do you waste time? What do you do with it? Do you think we should all be productive and organized all the time?