It’s a bank holiday in the UK - the last public holiday until Christmas (sigh) - which means that we should all be resting, or trying to barbecue under an umbrella. But if you’re like me, you’re probably finding yourself rather restless, as we’ve become attuned to being “always on”, especially with remote working clouding our personal and work boundaries.

There’s no getting away from the fact that work will consume your life if you allow it. For people who are very task-oriented and goal-driven - where the simple act of completing an activity, and moving onto the next one, gives a short-term endorphin boost - the trap is very real, and before you know it, you’re twitchy and burned out.

Ideally, we should all look to effortlessly create buffers in our lives which help us to protect our personal time, and to actively encourage recovery and reflection. Yet this is often easier said than done, so I’ll begin by sharing where the past few months has taken me personally.

You could take the nuclear approach…

To continue the buffer analogy, I took this to the extreme when I decided to leave my last job. I was feeling overwhelmed by home commitments, and balancing them with an extremely demanding role, and I had the distinct impression that I wasn’t performing to my best in either (although my boss insisted that he was very pleased with my contributions). Regardless, it had reached the point where a simple buffer in my daily routine wasn’t going to fix it - I needed to pursue more of a firebreak option.

I took the unusual decision to walk away from my job without having anything else lined-up. And more than that, I deliberately opted to not search for a new role for at least a couple of months. In the ensuing period, I would allow myself to take time to rest, pursue my hobbies, and have a deeper think about my career direction. It was an approach which was only possible because of a healthy savings pot, and I appreciate that I’m incredibly privileged to have had the option available to me. (Eerily, we recorded an episode of the Tech Team Weekly podcast back in February, titled Thinking about quitting tech?, in which I was already audibly mulling over this idea.)

Looking back on my firebreak, it worked wonderfully. Ironically there was a major family health drama during the first few weeks, which - for all its intensity - would have been much harder to handle if I was trying to work full-time as well. I went into the break with an idea of how long I wanted it to last (in essence, for how long I was willing to “pay myself” from my savings), with a goal of finding income again after that time, and it’s fallen perfectly into place. The biggest personal challenge was the desire to “make it count”: if I’m burning through my savings, don’t I owe it to myself to optimise my time and use it to the fullest? But the reason for making this decision was to give myself a break, so I had to also balance up the importance of actually recuperating.

…Or try smaller, more manageable adaptations

By far the hardest part of my firebreak was what it meant for me as a manager. Telling my team of direct reports about my decision was one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever had to do, not least because I appreciated that there were people in my team who felt that they wanted to do the same, but didn’t necessarily have the same level of financial security.

For that reason, I put together a few key pieces of advice for anybody who might find themselves needing to create a buffer for themselves:

  • I can’t stress this one enough: talk to somebody at work. If you need time off to regain your physical or mental health, it’s the company’s duty to make that happen. Ideally, you’ll have a good enough relationship with manager, but if that’s not a conversation that you’re comfortable with having, would it be easier to have it with a Mental Health First Aider or someone from your HR/People team?
  • As an important addendum to the above, assuming you’re able to take some recovery time, make sure you also seek to address the underlying problem. (Is your overall workload too demanding? Are there particular commitments that you’re struggling to keep?) Otherwise, the benefits of any time off will quickly be reversed when your regular work resumes.
  • Be strict with the boundaries that you set, especially when it comes to expectations around out-of-hours input. Snooze your notifications outside your working hours; don’t even look at your email or Slack. By all means, ensure that the company has a way to contact you in an ACTUAL emergency, but unless they’re paying you to be on-call 24/7, don’t do it.
  • Make appointments with yourself specifically for wellbeing-related activities, for instance meditation, or anything else that helps you to unwind, such as watching a film on Netflix. Protect these appointments in the same way as you’d protect meetings with people - don’t just cancel your restful plans when something more effortful comes along.
  • But also, if you’re somebody who lives and breathes their calendar, book yourself some time to “do nothing”. You don’t need to “consume” every free moment, and a reminder of this might be helpful.
  • Look for opportunities to combine activities to create more time. For instance, I’m a big consumer of podcasts, but I make a point of trying to do something else while I’m listening to one, such as going for a walk, taking a scenic ride on my Peloton bike, or deliberately holding-back some household chores so that I can complete them while absorbing the podcast.
  • If you really need the endorphin rush of completing activities, create mechanisms which allow for your activity list to include self-care. Check out my earlier blog post, Beating burnout with rewards.

In tomorrow’s article, I’m going to pull together a collection of learnings from the past couple of months of blogging (the ordering of them hasn’t been entirely random!) to share more about how I combined all of the above to ensure that my career break has been both rewarding and restful - and how it directly led to the creation of Mojovation Consulting.

Key takeaways 📝

  • Make sure that your company understands where your boundaries lie.
  • Make sure that you understand where your boundaries lie - and take responsibility for enforcing them.
  • If necessary, formalise your downtime (for instance, with calendar appointments) and stick to it.