I Am the Worst at Taking Time Off From Work, but I'm Trying to Be Better

Vacations, how do they happen?
Publish date:
January 26, 2015
work, vacation, writing things, workaholism

One of the challenges of writing for a living is never being able to turn it off. Especially when the writing you do is of a personal, narrative turn. You can become a voyeur of your own life, and when things happen to you — a catcall, a car accident, a collapsed closet, a fall on the ice, a pleasant conversation with a stranger — you think, "Could I write about this?" Take it too far, and you realize you are doing the equivalent of walking through life looking at the world through the camera on your phone — you're seeing it all through an eye not your own.

This isn't a question of authenticity, although I now know a critical mass of people my age who've had at least one instance, while documenting an event for Facebook or Instagram, when they thought, Why am I watching this from a remove? Why am I saving this on a small screen instead of experiencing it right now? For me, it happened the first time a few years ago, when I noticed I had been mindlessly watching a fireworks display entirely on my phone’s tiny screen while it was exploding in real life right in front of me. Fireworks — even the best photographs never capture what it's like to be there.

I don't think our collective and obsessive need to document is a sign of the fall of civilization either, on its own. It's not much different from the days when I lugged a DSLR around; there are just fewer steps from the documentation to the sharing. If anything, today's technology is less intrusive; a heavy black camera is far from invisible — smartphones, in their omnipresent ubiquity, are.

But writing about your life adds another element. It’s not simply an issue of documentation — it’s rarely sufficient to just rattle off a list, in which this happened, and then this happened there ought to be context, background, a point. So when I’m wandering around inside my own life watching everything that happens like I’m a program on TV, I am also thinking, What do I have to say about this? How can I put this into words that make it mean something?

I’m doing it right now. To return to my original point: It's hard to turn that writer brain off. Words are money, and when you make your living off writing, you come to realize the heavy value of ideas. So it's nearly impossible ever to stop working — to really stop working, to close off that part of yourself because that part has become most of you, most of how you process the world, the constant question, What can I write about this later? Later is a nice place to visit, but a terrible place to live.

I've gotten really bad at taking vacations. I used to be better. I am still good at making plans and traveling, laptop in tow, taking notes notes notes about what I’ll write when I get there. Where I fall down is in actually removing myself from work, turning that part of my brain off, and putting myself into relaxation mode, which, is that even what you call that? Do I have one? How does it work? I am checking my work email from Walden Pond on my birthday. I don’t know. Not working, what is it?

Part of this is due to my parent company’s unlimited vacation policy, which sounds on the surface like a generous employee paradise but is secretly a trap (albeit an unintentional one) for those of us who incline toward workaholic behaviors. When your vacation days are unlimited and uncountable, they stop being worth that much to you. Anything loses value when you can get it in heaps and piles. It’s supply and demand. I'll take a day “off” and spend half of it dealing with email and not stress much about that, because eh, I have a bunch more days “off” where that came from. And then I wonder why I am so tired.

This attitude isn't forced on me; this happens in my own brain. No one expects or wants me to work when I’m supposed to be off. I have worked on days “off” in spite of support, encouragement, exhortations, direct orders, and sometimes all-caps yelling from my bosses, who genuinely WANT me to take real actual vacation time, because they recognize that time off is important and valuable; it keeps us all from burning too brightly and flaming out too quickly. I recognize this easily when it comes to other people; I cheerlead my friends' and colleagues' reluctant vacations while denying myself the same. (And, of course, there's the obvious fact that I am fortunate and grateful to have a job in the first place, let alone a job that affords me vacation time and bosses who encourage its use, which is far from a universal situation.)

Part of it is also that I spent so many years doing jobs about which I felt powerfully apathetic. Now that I am so passionate about my work, it’s hard to stop doing it, even when I really should.

I know: Dismiss this as the best kind of problem to have. It’s still a problem.

Anyway, I am going to challenge myself to take a real vacation. A legitimate, full-bodied, authentic vacation, like wise adults do. A vacation where I won’t be checking email, I won’t be looking at Facebook (which, let’s be honest, I do maybe once a week anyway), I won’t be scrolling scrolling scrolling through Twitter (this might be tough).

(I will allow myself Instagram, because I fucking love Instagram.)

I want to spend that time off pretending my work is a place I go for a certain number of hours each day, and not a newly installed supplemental internal organ I’m carrying with me everywhere, constantly checking on and tending to and touching gingerly to make sure it’s all right. Do I still think I don’t deserve it, that I’m not really worthy of it? I thought this way for a long time; I like to think I’m past it now. I want to believe that working for vacation is just an unnecessary habit, a lingering psychosomatic symptom of my own impostor syndrome. Wish me luck.