When did you last have a real break?

This is a personal post – if you’re looking for something technical feel free to move along Winking smile

I wrote a post recently complaining of writers block. I wrote the post as a way of giving me a kick. It didn’t have the desired effect in the way I hoped it would but it did get me thinking in more general terms.

I mentioned in the post that it wasn’t just blog writing that was suffering, but writing in general. I realised that there was actually more to it than that.

My productivity has also been through the floor. Tasks that I should be getting through easily (personally and professionally) were dragging on and I’d been putting off anything that required extra effort. After a day at work I’d get home and my normal routine is to do something. It doesn’t matter what it was and could be reading, , gaming, spending time with Bryony, whatever – the point is it’s doing something with my time at home. Instead my routine was replaced with collapsing on the sofa and channel hopping for the whole evening which is something I rarely do as I usually only watch TV when there is something specifically I want to see (Dr Who being a current example!)

It was only on the run up to some time off work I realised I was burnt out.

I had two weeks off work organised for the start of August and I realised it was the only time I’d taken off all year. I then realised that babies and knee operations aside since the business started the most I’d ever had away from work was a week.

I’m dreadful at booking time off work and if my good wife didn’t give me the occasional reminder I probably wouldn’t have any! It’s not an intentional thing. I’ve usually got so much going on elsewhere I don’t think far enough ahead to next break.  

You do need to switch off some point though and I think I’d gotten to the point where I had nothing left and was “running on empty”.

One thing people talk about is work/life balance and while I know mine needs some improvement I thought I was doing ok.

A typical work day for me looks like this:

Get up between 6am-7am  (depending on how I’ve slept! A topic for another time.)

Arrive at the office between 7am-8am – getting to the office early generally means I get lots done while no-one is around.

Lunch – no fixed time. 99% of the time involves sandwiches at my desk

Leave work between 6pm-6.30pm

This is an average day. For example, If I have a BNI meeting I’m up around 5.30am and on AMITPRO nights I’m not home until much much later.  

That’s actually quite a long day when you write it down, especially since lunch usually means eating sandwiches at my desk. When I think about it there have been particularly busy days where I’ve not moved from my desk at all!

So that’s work – where is the life balance?

On an average day I make sure I’m home to put the children to bed as a minimum. We chat about their day while getting changed, brushing teeth, etc and always read bedtime stories together.

I rarely ever bring work home of an evening and ActiveSync (push email) is actually off on my phone by default. I don’t need it on when I’m in the office so I specifically turn it on during work hours when I’m doing something away from the office. This means I should the evenings to do whatever I want.

Again, just an average. There are some occasions where I do work at home but I do keep it to a minimum.

Weekends are also work free. This is family/personal time. Email rarely gets checked and it’s common for me to leave the office on a Friday and not check it again until Monday morning.

I thought I’d got a reasonable balance. I thought I’d got enough time away from work of an evening and weekend to keep me fresh and make sure I was splitting my time time between the business and my family.

I was wrong

We don’t really switch off properly during those evenings and weekends. Modern working life blurs the lines between where work starts and stops and while I may not be checking email of an evening and weekend that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about stuff I’ve got to do the following day, ideas to flesh out or solutions to problems. In the same way while I’m in the office I’ll be thinking about that dripping tap in the downstairs toilet when I’m supposed to do doing a quote or how much new school uniform is going to cost while I’m looking at a PC that won’t boot.

Both areas of our lives are fighting for attention and you need to make an effort to stop and have some time where you’re not thinking about your work or your home life.

As I mentioned earlier I had two weeks away from work arranged so made sure I used that time as well as I could on relaxing, spending real quality time with my family and taking a proper break.

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A week in Center Parcs followed by a couple of days in Wales was just what I needed.

It was great seeing so much of the girls and Bryony for an extended period of time and I came back refreshed.

I am a realist though. My phone wasn’t off the entire two weeks. For a start I’m a geek. I can’t do without my Internet connection – in my work life and my personal life but email stayed off and everyone in the office were told I was only contactable as a totally last resort. Everything else would have to wait.

 

 

However, I made one small adjustment that had the biggest impact.

I turned my “out of office” auto-reply on.

I’ve never turned it on before. Normally if an email comes in when I’ve been on holiday I’d either reply to it or delegate it to someone in the office.

This isn’t really switching off from work is it!

One of the main reasons I never use out of office is that I feel uneasy with email automatically responding for me. Susanne wrote a very good piece about it recently, she said

Having led a life in sales, I have always loved receiving out of office messages – they are typically a wealth of information such as mobile and landline numbers, job titles, and correct spellings of names that I can access should I be looking for ways to get a foot in the door to your business. You tell me that Janice Jones is in charge in your absence and hey presto, I have another contact to add into my CRM system… very useful if I’m being told I have to have at least 2-3 contacts per company on file.

And if I’m a spammer, well, all I need is your out of office to kick in and I know you’re there. Which suits me fine since I can sell on my data to someone else knowing that your email address is live. Maybe in this instance it would have been better to have not activated your out of office in the first place?

People always look me like I’m a lunatic when I say I consider out of office messages a security risk. What Susanne said feeds into that for me and have a look at some of the results of this search. I’ve always been sufficiently paranoid to leave them off.

However, I bit the bullet and made use of the out of office feature and it worked exactly as it should. I received several emails that didn’t need my specific attention. The auto responder let that person know I was away and they got their problem sorted by someone else in my absence.

I’ve been back in the office a couple of weeks now and I can report I’m feeling much better about things. Writing has come back to me (if you’re still here after the length of this it won’t be a surprise!) and the inclination to plonk myself in front of garbage TV has gone. I’ve gotten into some bad habits during my “rut” but I’ll get those kicked into touch soon enough.

I hadn’t placed enough value on taking a real break.

I was at a Comptia meeting recently and we were all invited to suggest a idea for “best practice”. Something we’ve done to improve our business.

Jat Mann from PC Pal simply said “take a holiday” – he told me afterwards he was joking as he couldn’t think of a suggestion but it’s no surprise that after the voting his suggestion came second!

Rob Franklln from JPT Solutions also wrote a post called “Downtime is good” which is about taking a break. Rob talks about making use of his network so that he can have that downtime.

It’s not just me then!

So after all that waffling my message in short is.

You can get more done by stopping once in a while.

Whether that’s taking two weeks off or getting away from your desk and having a proper lunch break it’s worth doing. 

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Andy Parkes is Technical Director at Coventry based IT support company IBIT Solutions. Formerly, coordinator of AMITPRO and Microsoft Partner Area Lead for 2012-2013. He also isn't a fan of describing himself in the third person.

Latest posts by Andy Parkes (see all)

8 thoughts on “When did you last have a real break?

  • Andy,

    A powerful blog, largely down to the amount of human/emotional honesty in it, so many congratulations first up for that.

    I agree with everything you’ve said and your analysis of it. I think there is a dangerous tendency for us to fall into the macho world of working crazy hours and always being available. And holidays – well aren’t they supposed to be for wimps?

    I just wanted to add one note of caution – the biggest pain I have to not being able to switch off at home is the equally blessed and cursed iPad.

    Its always with me – we could be sitting watching the TV and what do I find I’m doing? Yes, reaching for the iPad and doing “stuff”, none of which is remotely important. Yet I keep doing it and keep allowing it to intrude into my family time, time which should be the most important that I have.

    Why? I guess its addiction. Do I want to change? For sure. Have I changed so far? No way.

    BUT – tonight I’m going to, and this blog is what has inspired me to do that. Len goes away tomorrow morning on a cross-country weekend camp, and on Monday starts back at school. So tonight I’m going to concentrate on him, even if its watching England on Sky (sorry you can’t!)and ensure he gets my full attention.

    And next week, I’m going to try and do the same each evening. And so on…

    As a new TouchPad owner I thought I’d sound this note of caution to you – their portability is their addictive quality.

    And if I’m ever sat with my family trying to remember why I’m tech free, I can always reach for my iPad and read this blog post – just kidding (I hope)

  • Andy,

    First of all thsnks for mention, the bitter irony of that blog post is that it was written on my ipad from our lodge down here in Devon! The thing that I would say is that as a fellow geek, technology is so integral in our very nature that I believe that it is required to keep the internal balance that we need.

    I completely agree with Vaughan in all aspects. I am the same as you when it comes to taking holidays; I have not taken more than 1 week off work in a single session for over 10 years. That being said, I have made the commitment that work permitting next summer I intend to do just that. This holiday has been the first time in as long as I can remember that I actually would have like to stay longer. Not because I hate what I do, on the contrary I love it, but because I have enjoyed the time out which has been made much easier through the support I have through the SBSC community and through the contacts I have made a AMITPRO.

    It good to hear that we all face the same challenges in our work/life balances. Indeed some would say that it does not exist; I believe it does but it is a highly personal balance that can only be found by the individual rather than through a set of rules.

    Glad to hear that you are finding your balance, as I hope I am too, we just need to make sure that we don’t slip back to old habits…..that includes you Vaughan!

    – Rob

  • Andy – great post, for all the reasons Vaughan mentioned.

    I’ve always been an advocate of breaks, both in the day and getting away from it all for a long weekend or a full blown holiday. One thing I never did in those times was to say I’m unavailable though, and always did some triage on email during that time.

    Last week I took a proper break including a break from email. Guess what? I missed nothing important and the world kept turning.

    In the modern life we are always “on”. But I’m coming to the conclusion that’s only because we choose to be.

  • Andy I fully agree with all the comments.. Like the rest of people I found myself not taking a holiday for ages until August when I was in Scotland for a week, and on the first day of that holiday my laptop broke.. completely kaput.. which meant I had to rely on my phone.. we had no signal (most of the time) so I was forced to not do any work and was very glad it happend, becuase like you, for the first time in my life I actually enjoyed my holiday…

    As always mate, great post and very inspiring.. I think we can all learn from this.

  • And this is where I am buggered as a band of one… I know I’m burnt out and have been for years now…

    My business exit strategy is currently a heart attack.

    This blog I guess is both reinforcing and depressing.

    :-S

  • Andy, a wonderful and very personal insight. Enjoyed reading.

    Jules – As a independent consultant / engineer you have the opportunity to demonstrate to customers that your time is prioritised.

    By setting expectations very early when dealing with calls / emails / etc, combined with the technique of asking customers to gauge the priority of their call helps them appreciate your skills and demand for your time even further.

    I work everyday with many independent consultants and the best are those who are busy (no surprise of course), but I expect them to be busy!!

    I’m on twitter @GarethBrown

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