My wife and I recently took our honeymoon a year and a half after we got married. It was the longest vacation I’ve ever taken, and probably the first one I can remember where I didn’t bring my laptop.
And wow, did I learn a lot about burn-out, my relationship with technology, and my own personal reserve levels. (in addition to being the best trip of our lives of course!)
I wanted to share these thoughts because they were revelatory for me, and I want this reminder for the future.
What I realized
- My idea of what my baseline was for emotional reserves was completely off. For the longest time, I thought that in terms of “emotional reserves”, I was operating near 90%, or 80% on tough weeks. That was probably closer to 50% on good days. It wasn’t until I stepped away that I saw how years of stress across multiple jobs had eroded my idea of what normal is. It felt phenomenal to actually feel back to normal, vs what I had previously considered normal. It immediately spurred me to write this to capture the feeling.
- I struggle a lot more with context switching than I thought. When on vacation, being in the moment and not checking a gazillion things, I realized that each of the contexts I operate in requires “context vigilance”. That’s background work that’s happening all the time. I thought that I had these contexts managed – and on the surface, I did – but it turns out that all of that background noise was diminishing my quality of life way more than I’d realized.
- Focus is a joy and being present should be a minimum requirement. Being fully present – as opposed to what I previously thought of as being present – was so uplifting. Calming my background thoughts showed me how much my wife appreciated my presence, and how much better I felt being able to take things in without my brain constantly hijacking me to worry about other contexts.
- I don’t often recognize that I put myself in the positions that I do. Having some space made me realize that I do a lot of things because I think I have to do them, but a lot of times nobody put me in that position except me. Other people exist who can do those things, and not everything needs to get done immediately.
- My anxieties cause me to be selfish, which leads to several bad habits. I deserve that drink! I don’t have time to plan to cook a meal! I don’t want to do that chore/errand! I need to unwind even if it means not sleeping until 1:30am! I can show up on less sleep! These are all kinds of things that I’ve said to myself after long days of switching contexts and being low-key anxious in the background when I didn’t even realize it. Enough of those together form some nasty cycles with some bad repercussions.
- Caffeine is enabling the worst of me rather than allowing me to get by. Caffeine makes me more aggressive. It makes my sleep less effective. It leads me to kneejerk responses in conversations and decisions. And while I was able to do generally well despite those things, it was so clear after cutting back on coffee, drinking more water, and sleeping that “coffee as a need” is a bad indicator for me, rather than just a way of doing business.
- One week is not enough time off for me to reset. It’s a great privilege to be able to take any amount of time off, and I’ve never taken a 2-week trip in my life I don’t think. My wife and I both realized halfway through our trip that we felt anxious to get back, because our brains are programmed for a week of time off when we take vacations. After another day, it was like a deeper relaxation unlocked and things really started to feel different. That was eye-opening for me.
- I never define what space I have, and so all sorts of things bleed into it. I do a lot of work and work-related stuff outside of work hours, because I genuinely do enjoy it and I like my company and team. But, I don’t define what those time periods are. That leads to less boundaries, which leads to me always being on my laptop, half-present during the evenings. I didn’t realize how much happier my wife is to have me fully present, even if we’re just watching some TV. And because I didn’t set time boxes, I didn’t have a good sense of what I was using the time for, and it often wasn’t as focused as it could be. A lousy cycle.
- I like myself better when I’m calmer and present. I feel better about myself as a person, a spouse, and as a leader/coworker when I’m in this space. Things affect me less, I’m less reactionary, I am able to more deeply think through what someone is saying in the present situation, and I’m more self-aware of how my actions are affecting others. It feels good to be present.
- Notifications are a big trigger for me. Hoo-boy, am I interrupt driven. I had built this into a sort of personal brand – the person who’s always responsive, always able to answer. I know this is bad, I read that it was bad, but I hadn’t felt the good effects of not being that way yet. Experiencing life without those things was waaay better. I don’t need to be the guy with the real-time response. I liked that part of my identity and felt strongly about it. I think I might kill it off now.
- Sleep is so crucial to me, and I neglect it all the time. Again, a point of pride for me was that I operated pretty well on less sleep. In hindsight, I operated abysmally and I didn’t see it until I finally got some actual, good sleep for several weeks. What the hell had I been doing to myself all this time?
What I’m Doing About It
- Deleting lots of apps. If I don’t need it, I probably can do without it or load it later. This reduces the interruptions, desire to check a gazillion apps, etc.
- Notifications are going away for all that ping me the most. I check Twitter, Slack, and E-mail enough. No reason for them to also ping me when I check them so regularly.
- Drink more water. It’s easy, but doing so has been great. We drank a lot of water on vacation and keeping that up has been really nice.
- One cup of coffee per weekday, and only in the morning. I love the taste of coffee, so on weekends I’m allowing myself a little more, but in general on workdays I’ve had one cup of coffee in the morning. The rest of the time I’ve had water. My sleep is better, and I feel better.
- Be aware of when I feel I “need” or “deserve” something. That’s not the beginning of me being anxious or overloaded, that means I’m way past that point already and need to take corrective action. That means I’m coping to just try to get by.
- Re-connecting with my Essentialism. I need to find the joy in saying no to things that aren’t hugely impactful for me or those I’m hoping to make an impact for. I need to focus on what is vital, on what only I can do to deliver for myself and others. This doesn’t mean saying yes to all the things, it means being careful to say yes to the right things.
I know these things, but now it’s time to put them into practice. I have seen the other side of what this can look like, and I have no intention of going back to that bad place.
I needed to write this down before too much time allowed me to forget it. Now, back to the weekend!