Thoughts on my Imminent Vacation

What are the emotions at play that make us want to stay connected to work and our normal everyday routine when we're supposed to be on vacation? Why do we seem to be unable to separate ourselves from this often stress-inducing expectation to operate as we always do while on vacation? Why do we feel the urge to check in with email, Slack, Twitter, and the other tools of our normal day-to-day life when we've explicitly traveled to another location ostensibly to remove ourselves from our day-to-day reality?

Part of it is that we like this stuff. At least, I know I do. A notification represents a positive (even a microscopically positive) change in my equilibrium. Somebody likes a thing I did, somebody posted an article I'm interested in reading, there's a nice photo, here's a new opportunity, there's a positive update on a project. We are all buried under an avalanche of nearly imperceptibly positive inanity.

That's not to say there aren't overtly negative aspects to our biggest online time wasters, too. In my own life, though, these are far outweighed by the positive (and if they weren't then I probably wouldn't have as hard a time as I do shutting them off). Does this onslaught of mildly positive affect dilute us or maybe distract us from something worth experiencing?

I think so.

An unrelenting haze of micro-positive interruptions and outlets may take the place of boredom, curiosity, and the uninterrupted time they used to come out and play together – with potentially powerful results. I wonder if my vaguely positive but usually entirely dull digital life prevents me from having insights, ideas, and emotions that never get to see the light of day? What areas of my life requires a recipe more refined than unrelenting mild positivity, interruption, and constant stimulus? What might be hiding under the warm and admittedly comfortable blanket of my mundane usage of modern technology?

Self-awareness? Creativity? Deeper relationships? Mental clarity? A willingness to dive deeper into a single subject or experience?

I don't have any answers but I do often wonder I might be giving up to support my addiction to the steady stream of retweets, text messages, listicles, faves, likes, gifs, and faux antique digital photos I allow into nearly every moment of my waking life. Why not use this vacation to peel back that familiar layer of my life and poke around beneath it?

When I wake up Monday morning to get on the train that will take me to the bus that will take me to the plane that will take me to a beach across the country I will be trying to live by a couple rules:

  • No email. I am not an important enough person doing important enough work for anything to break, blow up, or die if I don't respond to email for a week (most of us aren't -- we just like to think we are). 
  • No Slack. See above. The world will go on without me.
  • No Twitter. Twitter is both a pleasant distraction and a useful work tool. I need neither of these during my vacation. Tweetbot (along with Mailbox and Slack) will be removed from my first page of apps and all notifications will be turned off.
  • No Facebook. No Instagram. I will be in the midst of my own relaxing and rejuvenating experience. I don't need to see others' good times'. I will try to take some pictures but they will be for my own creative expression.
  • No RSS feeds. RSS is a normal part of my work day routine. I have no interest in propagating my normal work day routine to my vacation location. All the interesting articles will be waiting for me when I return.
  • No podcasts. While I have nothing against podcasts I view them almost as audio candy. They are nice to ingest during the busy times of a typical work week but I'm looking to make this vacation a rejuvenation experience. I have no room for candy in this rejuvenation attempt.
  • The same logic applies to what I have saved in Instapaper. This vacation is a time for me to dive into something longer and meatier – not blast through a series of articles about tech, psychology, and everything else I read and write about everyday.
  • Needless to say, no Mendeley or Evernote or Things or anything else that helps me run my hectic and productive life. Hectic and productive are not my buzzwords for this vacation.

That's a whole lot of things that I'm NOT going to do. Almost makes you wonder what I AM going to be doing, right?

  • Reading on my Kindle. I'm not sure what, yet, but I will be reading copiously. I'll probably read some kind of fiction because that's what I'd be most likely not to do during my everyday life.
  • Writing in Day One. Each day (or whenever the mood strikes me) I want to pull out my iPad and write in Day One. This won't be a log of what I'm doing but simply a place for me to do any stream of consciousness writing that seems appropriate.
  • Listening to an audiobook.
  • Nothing. About three days in to this weeklong vacation I will probably hit a point where the first twinges of boredom will arrive. My hope is that I'm successfully able to do nothing instead of looking for some mental stimulus in the form of one of my no-nos from above.
  • Walking/wandering.
  • Conversing with loved ones, strangers, sea gulls – who knows.
  • Taking pictures.
  • Writing in my analog notebook whenever writing in Day One doesn't seem appealing.
  • Thinking.
  • Simply being outside as much as possible.
  • Meditating.

Hopefully I come back rejuvenated and ready to conquer another couple months of doing meaningful and challenging work. At the very least, I know I'll at least have a tan and an overflowing inbox. 

I'm okay with both.

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Relaxation in Work

I recently received some flash cards that contain short quotes about GTD. I've been selecting one at random each week and posting it on the wall near my desk. A couple weeks ago I came across a card that read, “Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.” GTD aficionados will recognize this concept from David Allen talking about martial arts and the ability of seemingly physically slight people to accomplish impressive feats of strength. This quote came to me at the right time because it seemed like my work life was quickly spiraling out of control to the point of pretty serious imbalance. I was feeling burnt out, run down, and generally exhausted from trying to move forward many projects and meet all the responsibilities I had accepted into my life.

The first time I read the quote it made me think about the importance of taking breaks and allowing myself to rejuvenate. This is important on both a micro and more macro scale. Small breaks throughout the day that allow me to recharge (ala Tony Schwarz and The Power of Full Engagement), having clearly delineated starting and ending points to my day, and even stepping away from work for days or weeks at a time. I was missing all of these components.

The more I reflected on the quote, however, the more I realized that it's actually about more than just taking time away from work to relax and recharge. It's also about the ability to relax while doing work. The state of mental relaxation doesn't have to be separate from the experience of actually being productive. In fact, true productivity may be inextricably connected to approaching work with a relaxed mindset.

I thought about what I'm like when I'm at my best and I realized I never feel like I'm rushing to complete tasks or even feeling heavily emotionally invested in what I'm doing. In fact, my biggest battles with procrastination usually take place when I care about the work I'm doing to such an extent that I can't bring myself to even begin because I care so much about the outcome. However, when I approach my work with a relaxed mindset I'm able to see the experience for what it is -- usually just sitting in a climate controlled room and moving my fingers across a keyboard. When I'm relaxed I can separate myself from the longer-term outcomes of a project and instead focus on the experience of just completing this next task.

For example, I'm currently writing a thesis proposal that is 30+ pages of highly researched and extremely academic writing. I've been working on it for nine months and it has gone through greater than 10 revisions. I care deeply about the subject I'm writing about and I want nothing more than for my advisor to be impressed with the caliber of my thinking and writing and for the research project to be successful. However, sometimes I can get stuck in a rut of not being able to bring myself to read through the next round of comments I receive from my advisor for weeks on end. I get too wound up in both thinking about how much time I've already spent on it and how much more time I have yet to spend. I'm not relaxed and thus I'm generating no power.

Ever since contemplating the quote that opened this article I've been trying to adjust the way I approach giant projects like this. I've been focused on 30-45 minutes blocks of work that in and of themselves do not seem terribly important. Instead of sitting down to "work on my thesis" and wrestling with all the feelings that evokes I sit down to work on "revising the first paragraph of the Introduction" or "rethink the logic supporting hypothesis 1." I don't get all hyped up when I break off a discrete chunk of a project -- I'm able to bring a relaxed mindset to what I'm doing and am thus able to generate more power (i.e. get more done) than I would otherwise.

It's a given that we could all probably use more time away from work, more true relaxation in our lives. While we're working toward that, let's see how much relaxation we can build into our working lives as well.

Photo by Retrofresh!