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.