I had two full weeks off work over Christmas. An entire fortnight, completely switched off. I went from Christmas prep and cooking straight into lazy PJ days… got bored and took on a project to update my 10-year-old son’s room… realised that I was squandering precious holiday time in IKEA… and finally found the perfect balance (which involves pubs and walks, if you’re wondering!)
For the most part I didn’t think about work, attempt any work, plan any work, ‘just check’ anything, or try to get ahead on anything. And it was glorious!
The reason this is notable, I suppose, is there was a time I’d have slept with one eye open, a little bit of my brain still whirring away in the background thinking about work. I have been known for workaholic tendencies (I may be understating that one slightly). But I have an emerging understanding that taking proper breaks matters.
This post isn’t really an argument for taking time off at Christmas per se. If you’re newly self-employed, two solid weeks off may not be a luxury you can afford for a couple more years (three years in, it’s fairly new for me). You may not be able to get the time off. Or you may LOVE getting ahead on work on those in-between-Christmas-and-New-Year days, saving your holidays for spring.
But with my Christmas fortnight off fresh in my mind, I do want to make an argument for taking a break when you can. Whether that’s holidays, giving yourself a proper lunchbreak and stepping out into the sunshine, or switching fully OFF over the weekend.
Do I always practise what I preach? Erm…. A better question is, do you best teach the things you really need to learn yourself? Absolutely!
So, here are five reasons taking a break matters.
- Everything functions better when you’re well-rested. Yes, this is an obvious point – but most of us need reminding of it. When you’re tired, you slow down and lose focus. Work takes longer, so you end up getting to bed later and you’re even more tired the next day. The more this continues, the more you lose perspective – and your solution is to simply work harder, but you get diminishing returns (I know all of this because I’ve been there). But if you can take the time to rest properly you’ll get through your work in less time, produce better work more easily, and feel a whole lot better. That’s a pretty powerful combination.
- You sometimes need to step away from a problem to solve it. It’s often when you’re NOT thinking about something that your ideas and creative solutions arise. Most of my best ideas occur in the shower, or sometimes when washing up or walking – but it’s the not thinking about it that’s key. When you don’t fixate so firmly on the problem you’re trying to solve, your brain has a bit more space to try out different angles – and it feels like the solution is handed to you on a plate. I used to think this was peculiar to me, but I have seen this mentioned so many times that I am now completely convinced it’s a thing.
- You get to reassess your priorities. Yes, you may love your work. Yes, you need to earn a living. But your life is multifaceted: A tapestry of not just your work, but also your family, friends, pets, interests, anything you create outside of work, any good you do in the world. You can be passionate about your work and still thoroughly enjoy switching off each day – but it’s so easy to become swallowed up by work to the detriment of everything else.
- Doing things you love reminds you how good they make you feel. Whether it’s long walks or runs or yoga sessions, baking cakes, watching films with your kids, going out with friends – sometimes you end up so busy that the things you enjoy doing get squeezed out at the expense of things you have to do. There’s a good argument that you should ‘pay yourself first’ and that doesn’t just apply to money. Ideally you should schedule in the things that fill up your cup first, and fit in the rest around it. That can be really hard to do in practice, but doing these things when you have time to serves as a tangible reminder of how good they make you feel. And that’s a great motivator to pay yourself first in future.
- You can come back to your work with renewed enthusiasm. If by the end of December you feel tired and jaded, with a bit of luck, you’ll feel inspired to get back into your work chair in January. I find January a really good time for taking stock, getting clarity on what you want out of the year ahead, planning, getting your marketing done – before you get sucked back into the daily grind.
All of these benefits apply after a long break, but equally, they can kick in after a short one. And we have the ability to build breaks into our days, take evenings off, and make full use of the weekend. In many ways, I think regular shorter breaks could be more powerful than any fortnight off could be. It’s certainly something I want to experiment with more.
If you’re an independent researcher and you would love to have more time, so that you can build in more breaks and reap these benefits… as a research-specialist project manager and virtual assistant, I can definitely help you with that.