Confession: Toward the end of my second week off, I had a nightmare.
This isn’t common. I’m the kind of sleeper that goes away at night, comes back in the morning, and has absolutely no idea where I spent seven hours.
Not this time. This time I nodded off and appeared in my office, obediently seated in my cubicle, sifting through the accumulated pile of emails in my Outlook inbox: status updates, requests for bits of information, documents, company events, personnel news, technical issues. As I read through the hundreds of little digital memos, I categorized: deleting some, storing others to be available for searching later, flagging a few that will need research and response, adding items to my task list.
In my dream, I’ve been doing this for an indeterminate amount of time — maybe hours, maybe days — and that list of Important Stuff To Do is growing into an unmanageable mess. When I have too much on my plate, physical manifestations of stress appear: tightness in my stomach, a clenched jaw, rapid blinking. My chest feels like someone is sitting on it. I’m perhaps half-way through the stack of mail when my manager shows up.
He informs me that I’ve been assigned as the lead technical resource on two new projects with deadlines a month out and walks away without another word.
I wake up, damp with sweat, relieved there’s another full week before my nightmare becomes reality again.
Perspective and Production
Being out for a long stretch has provided some distance between myself and my job, making it easier to separate parts of my life that I expect to continue from the parts that I want to go away. I realize that I need to stay busy, to exercise, to cook and see friends, to work on projects and help family. Most of us feel better when we’re productive for at least a portion of every day and I’m no different.
The key is that the production can be virtually anything, as long as I attach personal value to it. I made strawberry scones one evening, cleaned up my yard and mulched the next day, exercised, put up shutters on our windows, installed tile and a pedestal sink in one of our bathrooms, practiced hours of guitar, and continued with standard house-maintenance tasks.
I initially felt bad that I was being so busy. Most people consider vacation to be a time when you try to do as little as possible, and here I am in constant motion. I mean, shouldn’t I be toning it down?
In short, no. The conclusion I’ve reached is that the whole point of not working is that you’re allowed to do whatever you want. If you’re happy exercising for an hour and then working on a bathroom renovation for the next ten straight, because that seems like energy worth expending, then that is exactly what you should be doing.
On the other hand, I never, ever, ever want to open Outlook again. Or a corporate IM platform. I don’t want to be asked to do a write-up about my co-worker Rufus’ strengths and weaknesses. Attend an inclusion/exclusion conference on Treating Everyone The Same. Join a conference call to investigate problem X that is costing the company dollar amount Y per hour. These parts of my life can go away forever and I’m pretty sure it’ll be OK.
The sooner I separate the disgustingly productive parts out (read: office junk) from the fun stuff that also happens to be useful and productive, the better.
- Every day seems too short. One of the most common questions people have when you tell them that you want to retire early is What are you going to do with all of those hours? The tone of voice used here is similar to an elementary school teacher addressing her class — there seems to be an assumption that having so much free time can only lead to trouble, pigtails doused into inkwells, showing you mine if you show me yours, etc.. Well, when you have lots of interests, hobbies, friends, and a house to manage, the hours just disappear. An incomplete list: hiking, cooking, reading (fiction, nonfiction, news, comic books), listening to music, playing guitar, visiting folks, home projects, drawing, journaling and blogging, spending time with family, watching movies, snacking, playing video games, runs to the market and library, biking, strength training, and last but not least, power-napping. Just how exactly did I ever fit an office job into my life in the first place?
- Taking care of errands off-peak is much more enjoyable. I went to Costco on a Tuesday and there was virtually no line — a stark contrast to the Saturday trip pictured in the previous post in the series. This substantiates MMM’s remarks . I also gave blood in the middle of the day and — same thing — faster. Not only that, but the employees are relaxed, making socialization possible — they’re not just frantically scurrying to get A, B, and C done so they can move on to D, E and F, because dammit, there’s just too much blood to suck out of all of these humans and not enough needles stuck in arms yet to do it.
- Overall I’m calmer, feeling less anxiety and more peace, cycled with occasional bursts of excitement when I think of something I want to do and realize, hey, yeah — I can do that. Nothing is going to stop me from spending half an hour reading an issue of Mister Miracle from the mid-80s.
- I don’t miss any of my co-workers. Not even a little bit. Prior to the break, I thought there might be an off chance I might be looking forward to saying hi to a few that I’m friendly with, but as it turns out, I was wrong. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like these people — it just means that I don’t need social contact with them in my life to make me feel good in the slightest.
Not every day is perfect. I think we build up this fantasy that life without being tethered to formal work is going to be peaches and cream 24/7, just an endless parade of awesome. Although it’s pretty terrific, and much preferred to the office-drone type of drudgery, non-work-related challenges in life remain. I still have difficult conversations with my aging parents, unpleasant chores (laundry, anyone?), and relationships with others that require effort. There are still days when the weather sucks. Let me be clear: it’s not like I expected every day to be lollipops and rainbows. I just can’t blame work as being any part of the equation anymore when I hit a bad one.
- I found myself unintentionally planning out what to do the next day the night before. This generates some excitement in the morning to get started. It seems bad in one way that I’m doing this, because it’s as though I’m eliminating freedom and possibility from the following day by mapping it out in advance. But in another way, it’s great — I think that some planning is healthy and is part of respecting yourself and the hours you have allocated to exist on this planet. Last night I decided to do the blog post for the week and here I am banging it out. Good times.
- That nightmare aside, I’m sleeping better overall. I hadn’t considered how much the relentless work grind affects the restfulness of sleep. I’m waking up alert and ready to start the day instead of groggy, under a cloud of dread.
- I’ve changed. When I was in my early 20s, mapping out my RE path with Your Money or Your Life by my side, I actively sought hedonistic pleasures. Back then, I would think: What do I want to do? And then, if there was any possible way, I would go and do it. Have a few beers with friends. Play video games until my eyes were bloodshot and the clock read 4AM. Leave work at 4:45 on days my manager wasn’t around and go to a movie. I’m unexpectedly different now, though. The same habits that have brought me to the brink of RE — consistency, responsibility, a better work ethic and drive to do “useful” work — have made it difficult to derive pleasure from seeking instant-gratification-type pleasure, if that makes sense. Put another way, instead of thinking What do I want to do now? — I think What should I be doing now? Sometimes the want is the same as the should, like when I’m cooking dinner for myself and my wife, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes I want to be playing Dark Souls but I should be mowing the lawn. I find I pick the should over the want almost every time nowadays. I’m hesitant to assign a value judgement to the change in personality — it’s safer to simply note that it’s there, an interesting by-product of being closer to forty than twenty. For the record, back in the day, I’d pick sit-on-my-ass leisure activities over body or home maintenance every time. I thought that maybe I’d get back to being a lazy dude over the three weeks off work, but it just hasn’t happened, which has really underscored the internal change that has taken place. I suspect this is going to be true for many people who go down this path, but could be wrong. Everybody’s different.
Geeking It Up
Just keep going. A little further now. Keep banging away at your job. Do what you’re told for a while longer. It seems like you can’t go on, but you will go on. You must go on. There’s a terrific reward at the end if only you grind it out for the duration. You can make it.
It sounds like I’m describing work, but actually I’m talking about Portal. (If you don’t catch the following reference, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It’s 2.49 on steam for a couple of days, easily meeting frugality standards for gaming).
In Portal, you’ll solve puzzle after puzzle to escape from a network of sterile-looking rooms where it appears that nothing much is happening. A voice on the PA urges you on: Just one more puzzle. There’s a party at the end if you can complete all of the work. The voice promises cake.
Toward the end of the game, there’s a plot twist: No cake. You’ve been doing all of this work for nothing.
Luckily, playing Portal is, in and of itself, fun.
Less fortunately, going to work every day still feels like hell for most people. One of the things that helps folks to cope is the anticipation of the end — hoping that there will be something good, maybe sweet, sweet cake or some other reward for all of your troubles. The only problem is that by the time you arrive at your destination, the forty five years of marching to work and slaving away is likely going to have taken its toll. Worst case scenario, you don’t make it at all. A close second: You’ve changed so much that you can no longer enjoy the cake — assuming there even is any.
So be sure to take care of yourself. Keep your heath up. Exercise, eat right, rediscover old interests and work on hobbies. That way, when you do finally cross that finish line and give your job the finger, you’ll have plenty of mental and physical energy left to enjoy your new life — the one without offices and all related hassles.
Then you can bake your own damned cake.