Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Power of Leisure

I took a half day off work today. I left at lunchtime and drove to the mall. I had a nice lunch with two margaritas, and then I sat in a comfy chair at the mall and read. I did a little non-power shopping, then I bought a diet Coke and sat down and read some more.

In all, I spent four hours at the mall, with no one to answer to but myself, and it was delightful.

I have wanted to do this for several weeks, ever since a giant problem exploded the day after I got back from vacation and sucked away any vestiges of relaxation I'd accumulated. To be honest, I needed this half day even before the giant problem exploded at work. I genuinely love traveling with my family, but vacationing with kids is not the same as really taking a break. My vacations don't look like the recent Onion satire of a mother's vacation, but they are also not a break from responsibility. I know this, so I also try to take some true breaks. The weekends away that my husband and I take are one example of this, but I've discovered that a mall mini-break is pretty good, too.

I discovered the mini-break formula by chance, when my boss suggested I disappear for an afternoon to avoid a meeting that we both knew had a high probability of making me quit my job. He said I should go home, but I had promised Petunia I'd pick her up from day care that day. So I went to the mall instead. I happened to have my Kindle with me and I had an amazingly relaxing few hours reading.

I think we underestimate the importance of true leisure in this country. I will return to work tomorrow refreshed and better able to find solutions to problems and handle the annoyances of the corporate world. That a break from work makes me more effective and efficient when I return is so obvious to me that I struggle to understand why some people do not see it. But to be fair, even I don't always recognize when I need a break. That first time I took my mini-break at the mall? I was running on far too much stress, but had to be convinced to leave instead of steeling myself for an unpleasant and pointless meeting that was just going to add more stress and resolve no problems. I have written an eBook about how to keep your work hours at bay, and I still haven't managed to arrange my work and life to give me the amount of leisure time I think is optimal.

I came across an article by Sarah Jaffe that argues that true leisure time is the piece missing from all of our discussions around work-life balance for women. I think she has a point. When we talk about work-life balance, the "life" side of the equation often has a heck of a lot of labor in it, it is just unpaid. We need real leisure. Playing with my kids can rejuvenate me, but scrubbing the toilets never has, not even once. And sometimes, real leisure means being free from anyone else putting demands on me- it means time on my own, like I took today.

I look at my own life, and I have it better than most. But it is not what I really want. I don't want to quit working. I am glad I have children.  I don't want to opt out of any part of what I have except for our broken way of working. I want to opt out of the facetime culture around work. I want to opt out of a work culture that makes it hard for me to take a half day to sit and read even when it is abundantly clear that I would be more effective if I took a break. Even more scandalous: I want the freedom to work from a different location- maybe even a different country!- now and then. In short, I want to be treated like the responsible adult that I am, free to optimize my time across all of the different things I want to do with it.

And you know what? I'll probably find a way to get what I want eventually. I'm close to seeing the path to my goal now. I'm lucky. But what I really want is for this not to be something reserved for the privileged few who manage to engineer an escape. I want to tear down how we organize work and build up a better system. I am not a policy wonk, so I really have no idea how to do that. Anyway, grand campaigns aren't really my thing. But maybe, just maybe, I can find a way to build a company that that shows work doesn't have to be the way it is now. Maybe I can provide an example of another way.

Or maybe I can't... but I think I would have a lot of fun trying.

26 comments:

  1. Like I said before, from the business side, the important thing is how to measure productivity. Once you figure that out, you're in business. And if you can sell that measurement technique, you have another highly lucrative business.

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    1. I don't know how to scale it, but... I absolutely know (1) if I'm being productive and (2) if my direct reports are being productive. My metric is "we're getting shit done."

      But yeah, how to turn that into a management technique that can be taught and scales across a large organization is the big question.

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    2. IIRC from Malcolm Gladwell, there's a big literature on scalability for organizations. So long as your empire stays below 100some people, it's easier to manage because social cues still work.

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  2. I love that your boss told you to leave rather than attend a meeting that would push you over the edge. Smart boss!

    The upside of self-employment is the capacity to build leisure time into your life (provided you've figured out ways to hit your income goals, but that's a different can of worms). The work comes and goes in waves, but I've been learning to enjoy the productivity dividend that comes from gaining more expertise and connections in something.

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    1. He's a pretty darn good boss.

      I think figuring out how to be comfortable with the financial aspect of self-employment/entrepreneurship is one of the biggest things keeping me in my current job. That and the fact that my boss is a pretty darn good boss!

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  3. Anonymous6:57 AM

    Long-time anonymous lurker over here...just wanted to say that this post was big eureka moment for me. I too am usually happy with my work + kid situation, but have been very grumpy recently about my work/life balance and I realize now it's that all my "leisure" time has taken a hit. My almost 2.5yr old is going through some separation anxiety, such that only mama can do things, and bedtimes are 2-3hr ordeals, leaving not much time for fun (for anyone right now).

    It's so draining that it's put a hold on any plans for kidlet #2. I'm hoping it'll pass soon (but all the stories about 3 on AskMoxie aren't helping), otherwise I'm going to take your examples and propose some work flex-time in the short term.

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    1. Anonymous, I'm feeling the same right now...both of my boys (3.5, 1.5) are in "mama-only" phases, and while I do LOVE soaking them up, I really don't have any true leisure time other than that one exhausted hour between kids both asleep and myself asleep. I don't know the answer---I've taken occasional half-days off work to just walk around town, shop, relax but I would like a more regular dose. Because, yes, its making me grumpy! As for the parental preference, our older was actually daddy-only for SO LONG I never thought he'd do a 180, but here he is! I think part of it was that during my pregnancy and the newborn stage with #2, he by default got more daddy time and got really attached. It made it pretty easy for me to focus on the baby when I needed to, though.

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    2. Have you tried scheduling a night out? Both my kids have gone through intense "only Mommy can get me to bed at night" phases, but they always let Daddy do bedtime just fine if I am not actually in the house.

      I don't have a good answer for the "it is my bedtime once the kids are in bed" problem. I struggle with that, too. I'm just waiting, because I know it gets better. My 6 year old has super easy bedtimes right now!

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    3. Anonymous7:13 AM

      I think I will try and schedule a night out again - my parents had only minor issues getting her to bed last week when we were at a wedding (you know you're a parent when wedding = date night :). Though the trick might be being out of the house for significant amounts of time - leaving 1.5 hrs before bedtime was not successful.

      A helpful coping strategy I discovered last night was taking an e-reader with me - secretly reading away made the hour of 'please no leave mama, i sad' almost enjoyable.

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  4. I feel exactly like you do re: work. It's not the idea of having or wanting to work that is the problem; it's our old-fashioned notions of productivity, face-time etc.. We have so much technology at our fingertips that could make flexibility a real possibility without taking away from productivity. I've read studies that show employees in many European companies are just as productive if not more, yet get longer vacations. Maybe longer vacations is the way to start!

    Also agree that I wish there were policies that encouraged better leisure time for all, not just for privileged few.

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    1. I have seriously considered just moving somewhere with a saner approach to work. But that comes with its own set of problems, so I think I'll stay here and work to convince my fellow Americans to fix our system. Or anyway, just try to be sane myself in our broken system.

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  5. I always tell people that you have work/life balance after you have a kid, it's just that life = kid. Monday night my mother took my 1.5 month old for a couple of hours so that I could get some reading done. For work. But at least I went to a bar and had a beer while I did it.

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    1. Good for you for going to a bar to get your reading done! An excellent plan.

      I have found that there is more room for life that is not just mothering as my kids get older. They play on their own, they go to bed easier... it has just gotten easier.

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  6. Alexicographer7:39 PM

    This is exactly it. Thanks for the link to the Jaffe article, I had a total facepalm moment.

    I find my work so much less stressful than my family, and just to be clear, my family life's not "stressful." It's somewhere between "normal" and "blissfully easy" -- I do very little housecleaning (because eh, who cares), I've only got one kid, my DH is out of the workforce (by choice) and available to do stuff (and likes the house cleaner than I do). But family/household: unpredictable, there is always something to be done and usually someone trying to talk to me while I'm doing it, and performance review standards remain hazy.

    Work: quiet, clear goals, predictable schedule, reasonable time off (yes, I, too, am writing from a position of privilege).

    I'm actually really good both about staking out leisure time for myself and understanding that my husband needs it (that his being out of the paid workforce isn't the same as getting to relax, particularly in contexts, like summer vacations, where his childcare responsibilities are high). But you (and Jaffe) are exactly right that this is significantly and unfortunately missing from our conversations about work/life balance (though I prefer to think of it as life balance, because -- hello, my work is just another part of my life, not something I need to balance against it).

    I'm OK with @Laura's point above mine that 1.5 months after you have a kid, life = kid because, yeah, when they're that little it's pretty darned difficult. But I'm not OK with that being an accepted norm for all of motherhood.

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    1. I'd say that our issue with leisure for mothers comes from our Pilgrim heritage... but we don't have the same issue with leisure for fathers. So I guess we have no choice but to blame the patriarchy on this one.

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  7. Honestly, I agree with you. However, even thinking about how I am entitled to leisure time crosses a guilt threshold for me and I start beating myself up: I am so fortunate to do a well-paid, flexible, secure job that provides for my family; I start thinking of all those poor women who work two jobs and still cannot make ends meet, and I want leisure? This makes me feel horribly spoiled and just rotten. Even though I really do want leisure and have none of it, it seems that deep down I don't think I am allowed to have it, because it feels like such luxury, such decadence. How effed up is that?

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    1. Fight the guilt! Maybe start small and build up your tolerance for leisure?

      I am in complete agreement that I have it so much easier than many, many women in this country (and around the world). But me not taking the leisure time won't give it to them- so I am going with the plan of trying to normalize leisure time as something we all deserve, and then working for policy changes that make that actually possible. I'm definitely playing a long game on that one, but I'm not sure what else to do.

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  8. Envious of your mini-mall break, Cloud! I am not working (outside the home or for pay) this summer, but as you know, spending the days with kids is not exactly leisure! Yes, once kids appear on the scene I think true leisure is lost for most women, whatever the balance between work and childcare is. . . I hope to have more time to myself once school starts, even as I try to make a go of some new career paths. Good luck to you on getting what you want out of your career/life path!

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    1. Thanks! And good luck on yours. I keep meaning to come comment on your recent post. It sounds like such a nice summer... but as you say, nice doesn't necessarily mean relaxing when the kids are around.

      I wish you good luck on your new career path, too. I hope you'll find a way to keep writing. I really enjoy reading what you write. (And I still think you should try self-publishing a short story or two... but that is easy for me to say when I don't have to do the work the entails!)

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    2. Thank you for the kind words. I will definitely keep writing! (and maybe one day I will self-publish something beyond a blog post!)

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  9. I'm in the opposite situation, Cloud. Due to my father's extended hospital stay and some bad child care choices, I spent a lot of time in the past four months *not* working or working half days. And now I've returned to the bliss of the full day at work. But generally, I am an up with leisure type of person, and I'm never afraid to take leisure. I'm hoping one day to have a very high powered career and be able to tell young women seriously - I take days off, I take vacations, I spend a lot of time with my family, it's possible.

    As for kid = life, I think myself = my life, so whatever I'm doing at the moment is my life simply because I'm involved. Does that make sense? That includes both work (which I adore) and my kids (whom I adore).

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  10. One of the reasons I'm working on building up my data base of time logs from women who have high-paying jobs and who also have kids is that I'm curious about the leisure question. Leisure time does figure in these logs. There is down time. There may not be as much as people want, but that's a different question vs. whether it exists. Also, what I see in time logs frequently is that leisure time is available, but people don't necessarily plan for what to do with it, or figure out ways to optimize it.

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    1. THIS is huge. I think a lot of us waste our leisure time on watching less-than-satisfactory TV, surfing the web, Facebooking, flipping through personal email, Pinterest, etc. And then it's time to go to bed and start a new day.

      Having a hobby I adore (finally!) was what cemented leisure time for me. I MADE time for that hobby (at first, jewelry making, then paper crafting). Time I waste online or watching TV is time away from that hobby, which is in short supply already.

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    2. I think that's true, Anandi, but I also think people sometimes have trouble prioritizing, so they end up doing something that doesn't need to be done right then instead of resting, or they fuss too much over something because they want it done perfectly. Having a busy career + kids is all about the art of "good enough and moving on". I'm an introvert in an extrovert's career plus I suffered from depression when younger, so for me leisure time is an essential feature of my overall health. It's made me good at finding opportunities.

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  11. Replies
    1. Ha! I have it on good intelligence that you took a long lunch just last week. WHO'S THE SLACKER NOW?????

      Oh. right. I was at that lunch, too.

      I win! I out-slackered you!

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