I’ve always considered myself highly organised. Systems oriented. Generally good at getting things done. But in the past year or so a pattern emerged. Turns out I’m a plate spinner. You know how I know that? Because I struggled to take a vacation. When I tried to take a break, things fell apart. Something went wrong that no one but I could fix. Or someone urgently needed access to minutiae that only exists in my brain. Chaos ensued. The phone rang. My vacation was over.
Work-life balance is one of my main goals, so this realisation was devastating. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting not only on how to do better, but also how I got here in the first place. To what extent can the problem can be solved by improving systems, and how much hinges on my overall attitude to work?
These are big questions that need addressing if I’m ever to wake up in an oversized hotel bed and focus solely on my next big adventure, and not my bulging inbox.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far. I’m sharing this thought process mainly as a reminder for myself, but perhaps it will be useful to others who share plate spinning tendencies. I’d also welcome further suggestions in the comments.
This is one of the most patent ways to avoid an interruption to your precious holiday. I know this, yet in the past I’ve been slapdash about arranging cover for various tasks and responsibilities. I’ve taken it for granted that someone will be around, and left it until a week before I leave to start calling in the favours.
Even if colleagues are available to take the reins, a few days just isn’t long enough to prepare an effective handover. There are so many moving parts, and you need enough lead time to loop the necessary people in — to relationships, processes, etc. — so they can manage in your absence.
Another obvious one. I’m not going to go into detail about how to delegate here. Just the importance of doing it. Knowledge management is an underrated skill. Sharing all you know with a colleague can take a very long time, especially if you’ve been running a one-person show for years. But once you’ve got someone up to speed, it should be an ongoing process, not a one-off chore. Do it patiently, diligently and constantly. Setup systems that allow you to impart intelligence efficiently, using one or more of the many platforms designed specifically for this purpose.
Delegation requires a huge investment of time and effort, but one that pays rich dividends when it comes to taking a break.
I’ve been asking myself a difficult question lately:
How much of my inability to take a vacation stems from an egotistical belief that I’m indispensable?
Does my self-worth revolve around my job? And if so, is that a problem?Clearly, a job that gives you a sense of purpose is an essential part of a healthy emotional lifestyle. What are we, without our goals? Meaningful employment should provide (some of) these goals, driving us forward in a productive cycle of challenges and rewards. Yet social psychology 101 tells us that such reward systems can become addictive, so how do we step outside of them, temporarily?
Could it be that the same forces that make us highly productive when we work, are the ones that stop us from enjoying the time when we don’t?
Questions, questions. I don’t have any answers. But there’s one sentence (from a recent meditation course) that has perhaps had more of a profound influence on my life than any other:
The deep stillness we seek does not arise because the world is still, or the mind is quiet. Stillness is nourished when we allow things to be just as they are for now, in this moment, breath by breath.
In other words: plan, delegate and systematise to the nth degree — you’ll still wake up in a cold sweat on vacation. You’ll feel a compulsion to check in with work. But the cold hard truth is this: the world will never be still. There will always be unread emails. People will always be waiting.
Your work will never be done.
Mindfulness is a constant journey, and, sure, I still fret about the past and the future. About what I’ve done and (more often) what I’ve forgotten to do. But now, more than ever, I’m able to appreciate the present. To recognise that this moment is really all I have; it’s up to me whether I spend it anxious or content. Meditation has helped me to relinquish control. To manage the compulsion. Ironically, in doing so, I’ve become more aware of how to make positive and lasting changes to my vacation planning — and to my work-life balance in general.