How Much Time Off is Enough?

how much time off is enough
Photo by Jennifer Pyle on Unsplash

“Time off” has become something of a dirty word in the US. We pretend it isn’t, but when was the last time you really took any significant time off? And I don’t mean “workcations” where you’re still available for work even if you’re not technically at work.

A lot of companies, especially those that are fully distributed, have “unlimited” vacation time policies. But what often happens is that people take less time off under these policies. (Massive props to those companies that require a minimum amount of time off each year.)

Part of the reason for that is sometimes it creates way more work to take time off due to all the preparation required. We effectively have to do all of the work we’d get done during our vacation before we leave for vacation. So it’s easier to just not take time off.

But time off is vital to our mental health, creativity, and productivity. If you never take time off, you’ll burn out (or end up with major health problems). It’s an inevitability.

So how much time off is enough? It’s going to vary for everyone, but here are my general rules of thumb:

  • At least one day per week. Taking entire weekends off used to be the norm. But more and more people either work multiple jobs or have their own businesses, so taking Saturday and Sunday off every week can be a challenge. But it’s important to take at least one full day off every week. It doesn’t matter what day it is, just take a day.
  • One long weekend every month or two. Taking a long weekend here or there to really recharge is also vital. These are often easiest to schedule around holidays, but you can take them whenever you can fit them into your schedule. I once had a boss who liked to close the office on Good Friday because he said there needed to be a holiday sometime between Presidents’ Day and Memorial Day. (Pro tip: look for bosses with that kind of attitude, who understand that time off is important to the success of the overall business.)
  • At least a week off every 6 months. Depending on how much vacation time you have, you can take off more than a week at a time. But you need to take longer breaks like this to fully recharge.

Confession time: I’m really bad at taking time off. Like, I’ve taken one real vacation since 2006. And even then I didn’t go anywhere, just took a couple of weeks off. But I do value my weekends and try to take an extra day off every month or two. When I don’t take time off, I burn out way quicker, especially if my workload is high.

I’ve had bosses in the past who were super understanding about this and some who acted like taking time off was a sign of weakness (look, just because you choose to work 80 hours per week doesn’t mean your employees should all be doing so, especially if you’re not paying them to work 80 hours per week).

And here’s the thing: The United States is one of only 7 countries in the world that doesn’t have mandatory paid time off for employees. (The other seven are: Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Tonga—which is working on legislation for mandatory time off.) Even more surprising: there are a ton of countries that require at least 30 working days off per year (including paid holidays), and some that require 40 or more!

Take the time off that you need to keep your creativity and productivity high. Seek out jobs and companies that understand how vital this is for happy and productive employees, and if you’re starting your own company, make sure you create a culture that embraces taking time off.

Positive Thinking About the Process, Not the Result

Power of positive thinking
Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

Truth: I’m not a huge fan of the whole “power of positive thinking” thing (aka, manifestation, the “law” of attraction, or any of the myriad other names it goes by).

See, it’s not the idea of having positive thoughts, per se. It’s the fact that too many people use it as an excuse to not actually do anything. Or as a scapegoat when things don’t go well (“I failed because I had a negative thought last Tuesday” rather than “I failed because I half-assed this entire project”…).

But there’s a different kind of positive thinking/visualization technique you can use that does tend to work: and that’s visualizing the process you’ll use for success, rather than just the successful result. When you visualize the process, you’re more likely to actually take the steps necessary to achieve success. You’re effectively creating an action plan, rather than just daydreaming about success you may not actually be willing to work for.

It’s been well-documented that Olympic record-holder Michael Phelps has incorporated visualization techniques into his training regime since before he was a teenager. But he doesn’t just visualize winning a race. He visualizes every step along the way, from the moment he steps onto the starting block until he successfully finishes the race. He does this twice a day, every single day. And it’s led him to win more races than any other Olympian in history.

Visualizing the process you’ll use to reach success can be a key element to actually achieving that success. Take some time to figure out what it actually looks like to work toward your goals, and spend some time visualizing that process on a regular basis.

Learning to Say No

learning to say no
Photo by Daria Tumanova on Unsplash

A friend and I were talking about the Jim Carrey film Yes Man awhile back. In case you haven’t seen it, in the film Jim Carrey’s character says no to everything. But one day he decides to start saying yes to every opportunity that comes his way. And, of course, his life changes for the better.

But if you’re a woman, you’re probably used to saying yes to everything anyway. Society ingrains in us from an early age that we shouldn’t disappoint people. That we should try to make other people happy, even at the expense of our own happiness. We should be likable above all else. (Not that there aren’t men out there who hate saying no—there are plenty of them, but there don’t tend to be the same societal expectations.)

And so my friend and I joked that for women, you’d have to change the premise of the movie to the main character saying no to everything.

Imagine that: don’t want to do something? Just say no. Tired and want to stay in instead of heading out for a date? Say no. Rather not spend your entire savings attending a distant relative’s wedding? Nope, not gonna do it.

Your time is the most valuable thing you own. Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. Once you’ve wasted it, it’s gone forever. If you spend your time making everyone else happy, what time is left to make yourself happy?

As a creative, you have to get over the idea of being likable and making everyone else happy all the time if you want to have any time for your own pursuits. You have to learn to guard your time for the things that are important to you. That are important to your goals.

Why Saying No is So Hard

As human beings, we want to make connections with other people. And saying no when someone asks something of us feels like a dangerous proposition. What if that “no” ends up breaking whatever bond may be forming? We feel embarrassed if we say no, and often guilty for disappointing the other person.

Saying no can also impact our view of ourselves. If you think of yourself as someone who never lets people down, then saying no goes against that view.

Do It Anyway

Protecting your time is vital to being creative. If you’re constantly running around making everyone else happy, you won’t be able to make yourself happy. And pro tip: if you’re unhappy, you aren’t as good at taking care of things, including people.

Block out time in your schedule for the things that help you recharge. And block out time in your schedule for your creative pursuits, whether they’re hobbies or your livelihood.

When someone then asks you to do something that infringes on that time, simply tell them no. If you absolutely must offer an excuse, you have a legitimate one: you have something else scheduled then. Treat  your time with yourself like you would any appointment and safeguard it against intrusions.

Find a Routine That Feeds Your Creativity

find a routine for creativity Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Here’s the thing: I’m not good at routines. Or at least, that’s what I always told myself. I don’t like rigidity in my schedule. I’ve spent most of the last ten years freelancing specifically because I love having a flexible schedule. In fact, not being in charge of my own time was the #1 thing I hated at my last “real” job (which was still supposedly flexible-ish and remote).

But a couple of weeks ago, I decided I needed to get my business and freelancing back on track and get myself into a routine of sorts. And guess what? It worked. Because I created a routine that works for me.

Here’s what my daily routine looks like:

  • Get out of bed and dressed by 9am. I’m a night owl for sure, so trying to wake up and be functional earlier than this doesn’t really work for me on an ongoing basis. I can do it if necessary here or there, but why force it if I don’t have to?
  • Make coffee (French press + bulletproof), take care of my pets (dog and rabbit), and have a mini dance party to get the blood flowing. This usually happens from about 9 till about 9:20ish. Music makes me happy in the morning. Dancing around like an idiot also makes me happy, though sometimes it alarms my animals. And taking care of them in the morning means letting my dog out to go to the bathroom and letting my rabbit out of her cage, making sure they both have water and that the bunny has her breakfast.
  • Deal with email. I often do this while my coffee is steeping in the French Press, though sometimes I wait till I’ve actually poured a cup. I used to check email in bed but never really did anything with it. Now, I try to only keep important emails in my inbox and archive everything else. I also unsubscribe from things on a regular basis. This helps reduce my overall email volume. I don’t do a ton of work via email, so there’s usually little that needs reply. But if anything does need a reply, I take care of that. I’m pretty much always done with email before 10am.
  • Tackle quick, small tasks for a half hour. This includes checking social media accounts, making sure my social posts for the day have been queued, or doing any quick admin tasks that need to be done (like sending an invoice, balancing my checkbook, etc.).
  • Tackle my first big thing of the day. I start this by 10:30 every morning. This is the most important task of my day. It might be client work or it could be working on my own projects. In the past week it’s included writing a chapter for the re-release of Internet Famous, researching an article for a potential regular freelance gig, and outlining a presentation. These are the things where even if I get nothing else done on a given day, if I’ve completed this task, I consider it a success. And one thing they all have in common: they’re directly related to my creative work.
  • Break for lunch. My goal here is to actually get away from my desk, but that doesn’t always happen. I do take a break to fix lunch and relax a bit, though. Sometimes I’ll run to the post office or the book store during this time.
  • Tackle two other “big things”. These are less big than the first big thing, but still important tasks. They could include writing a blog post for Step Three Bliss (or Medium), filling up my social media queue with fresh content, running a particularly important errand, looking for new clients, or the like.
  • Check email again. This is generally my last email check of the day, where I clean out my inbox once again. I also look for anything that’s come into my email that will need to be added to my to do list.
  • Set up my to do list for the next day. This is my last task of the day. If I didn’t finish something from the current day I’ll move things to the next day and shuffle around the priority of tasks. This lets me relax once my work is “done” for the day and not worry about anything I’ve forgotten, since I know what’s been crossed off for that day and what needs to be done the next.

This routine has been working really well for me. I shuffle things around as necessary (Asana boards set up with the days of the week have been super helpful for managing my to do list).

So, how do you go about setting up your own routine? One that allows for creativity?

Here are my best tips:

  • Don’t try to force a schedule that doesn’t fit your natural rhythms. When I stopped trying to force myself to be a morning person, everything just sort of slipped into place.
  • Start with the big things. Make sure you fit them into your routine first, or you may find that you don’t have enough time to fit them in.
  • Build triggers into your day. For me, this means that when my coffee is ready, I know it’s time to get down to work. I know when my first big thing is done, it’s time for lunch.
  • Be realistic with how much you can do in a given day. It’s easy enough to add something extra to your to do list if you finish your work super early. But if you don’t finish your to do list, you may feel like a failure.
  • Schedule time for yourself to recharge every day. Burnout is the enemy of creativity. You can’t go at 100% for 16 hours a day. So schedule in breaks.
  • Cut yourself some slack. You aren’t perfect and some days you aren’t going to finish everything on your to do list. Sometimes something will come up that will interfere with your routine. That’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

If you have no idea where to start in creating your own routine, here’s a great process you can use:

  1. List everything you need to accomplish in a day.
  2. Identify the things that cause you stress each day and the things that become giant time sucks (*cough* Facebook *cough*).
  3. Figure out how to simplify the stressful things and cut back on the time sucks. This will free up more time and mental energy to focus on the creative things.
  4. Make creative time your priority. This should be scheduled in when you’re at your most productive.
  5. Be as rigid or as flexible as you need to be. For me, keeping flexibility in my schedule is important. But for other people, sometimes a more rigid routine is preferred. Do what works for you.

One of the best parts about a routine is that it frees up mental energy, which can make finding your creative spark a little easier every day. When you stop having to think about your schedule every day, you can get into a better flow. Keep tweaking your routine until you find one that works for you!

Your Work is Better When It’s Something You Love

finding work you love

I’m sure you’ve heard this old chestnut before:

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” — Confucius (maybe, anachronistically it doesn’t really make sense…)

I’m probably not the first person to say this, but that’s bullshit.

It doesn’t matter what career path or business you pursue, parts of it will most definitely feel like WORK. Welcome to adulthood.

It might be that the part that feels like work is the people (coworkers or customers) you have to deal with, answering emails, going to meetings, marketing yourself, handling customer service, or any of a multitude of other things. And yes, you can put systems in place to make those parts of the job less painful. But there are still going to be things that feel like work on at least some of the days.

Does that mean you shouldn’t try to find work you love? Absolutely not. A career path that you like 80% of the time is a whole lot better than one you dislike 80% of the time, no matter how you slice it.

And here’s the thing about doing something you love most of the time: the work you produce will be better. As in, noticeably better.

Think about it: if you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re probably only putting in the minimum effort to get it done as fast as you can. As long as it gets the job done, who cares?

But if you love the work, if you feel like it’s fulfilling and serves your purpose in life, then you’re going to keep trying to improve. You’ll take your time finishing things and aim to make each iteration better than the last one (even if you’re in a service business, you’ll continuously try to improve yourself).

Most days, you’re not sitting there watching the clock, waiting for the minutes to tick by until you can punch out and go home. You’re focused, instead, on the work at hand and making sure it’s the best you can produce.

And this SHOWS when your customers or clients or boss or whoever looks at the finished product. They might not be able to pinpoint that it’s because you loved what you were doing, but they’ll be able to tell that something about the finished product stands out.

If you’ve got to devote 6-12 hours/day, 4-6 days/week doing something to earn a living, wouldn’t it be better if those hours and days were spent doing something you enjoyed most of the time?

For me, that’s writing. I’ve loved writing since I was old enough to write (probably first grade or so). It’s always been my passion. But it’s really the storytelling aspect that I love. And I’ve found other ways to do that where I can earn a living that aren’t 100% based on writing: marketing, primarily. Any job where I can flex my storytelling muscles will make me happier than a job where I’m not contributing to the story of a company, person, or other entity.

Sit back and think about the kind of work you love. Figure out how to incorporate that into your current job, or the kind of career that might be able to better serve that purpose.

I’ll be covering more about how to find your true purpose (your bliss) in the coming weeks and months, so be sure to sign up below. And leave a comment if there’s something in particular you’d like me to cover!