Recently, I experienced something of a miracle. I managed to go an entire week of vacation without checking my work email.
OK, that may not sound that impressive, and yes, of course, I still thought a bit (all right, a lot) about the upcoming semester, but I managed to restrain my itchy fingers and not click “log in.” It was the first time ever since beginning my professional career that I took a vacation without checking in with my job.
It felt amazing.
Well, and a little scary, too.
Since having a child, I’ve started to slowly understand the importance of taking breaks. Whereas before, I would keep pushing through my to-do list without listening to my exhausted body or panicked heartbeat, now I have to remember that there’s someone else counting on me, someone who needs me to be healthy, alert, and refreshed.
Sometimes my 2-year-old daughter shows me what I need to do. For example, I was working in my office at home while she and my wife were dancing to the radio in the kitchen. My daughter came running into my office and grabbed my hands. “Dance, Mama!” she ordered. For a moment, I wavered; after all, I had work to do. But she pulled me out of my chair and giggled. “Dance!” she said again. So of course I went and danced. And I felt much happier for it. I went back to my work later feeling relaxed and ready to tackle my mountain of tasks.
Most of the time, though, I have to take responsibility for my own mental and physical well-being. So I’ve been learning to take breaks. These can be little or big.
The big breaks have meant actually using my vacation allowance (which I rarely did before our daughter was born) and setting an out-of-office message on my email. Also, I no longer work through the weekend anymore; to me, that’s now precious family time, and even if I have to do a few things, I won’t sit at my computer for long when I could be having fun with my wife and daughter.
The smaller breaks have in some ways been harder to incorporate, because I was used to working non-stop when in my office. This always included eating lunch while at my desk, answering emails and reading student work in between rushed bites of food. So I feel guilty and a bit puzzled by the concept of slowly eating instead of wolfing it down, and by doing pleasure reading or looking out the window instead of staring at my screen.
But I’m getting better. As I’ve written before on Kveller, I’ve learned to use my time pumping milk for my daughter as a chance to calm down and recharge. And recently, I’ve added short walks to my repertoire of break activities. I’ve actually left my office building and walked around the lake on campus; to my delight, I not only have less back pain and feel more alert, but I also find that the walk gives me time to think through some of the work I have to do. Every time I’ve taken a walk during the work day, I’ve come back to my office with new ideas and I’ve been excited to start work again.
On my last walk, I went a little further than before and I got lost. That’s right, I got lost on the campus where I’ve worked for seven years, which is clear evidence that I hadn’t left my office often enough before now.
So while I still work hard, I’ve come to understand something people have been telling me for years: You can work better and more efficiently and feel better physically and emotionally if you take breaks. I just needed my daughter to show me what’s important and to lead by example. So let’s dance.