A New Project: Summer-Long Work-Less Challenge

In the age of Lean In, particularly where I live in California where the pace seems to keep increasing along with real estate values, it can feel nearly impossible to stop and take a breather. I’ll admit that this is a first world problem. I’m very lucky I have the option to take time off. A few years ago, I didn’t have that option. Over the past decade, I’ve been on a rollercoaster that began with the severe nerve injuries from pregnancy and delivering my daughter that I’ve written about at length here and elsewhere. I had planned to take off two months before my daughter was born, two months after she was born, and then work part-time until she was school-age. That didn’t happen.

I never got a maternity leave and as a result of these injuries, I was thrust into a world of caregiving 24×7 while I needed care myself and the first few years of motherhood that should have been full of joy were full of pain. They say the damage to the nervous system from ongoing severe pain can irreversibly alter your nervous system and take years off your life. I wouldn’t doubt that. Instead of spending extra moments basking in my daughter’s smiles, I was languishing in a pool of pain, counting the minutes, and sometimes even the seconds, until I would have relief from my husband or caregivers. I felt helpless and the pain paired up with its good friend, depression. Together, they were formidable enemies.

So I started blogging. I filled my time and as I became more adept at managing the pain and the work, I took on more digital strategy clients again. Then social networks came along in their present form – Twitter, Facebook… and I spent more time engaging through those. Just as I was beginning to emerge from the fog of pain, I was knocked into a stage of extreme grief with the sudden death of my father. Then more deaths in the family. It took me two years to feel normal again. I was still dealing with pain, but traveling more and facing less depression. Throughout this time, I was still working. I missed a few talks due to a concussion and other injuries, but in general I was able to continue doing my work. Ten years went by quickly.

Suddenly my daughter’s about to start fourth grade. I never got to work part-time and really pay attention to my daughter’s development. Of course I spent a lot of time with her – more than most full time working parents since I worked much of the time from home – but I wasn’t able to take road trips with her, take walks with her, or just sit down with her for several years. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed every special moment we had together – and we were able to do many wonderful things and go places together, but it always came with a painful price.

All this time, friends and colleagues would ask me “how do you do it all?” The truth is — we’ve been cutting corners for years. That’s how. We would eat watching TV, we’d get food delivered, we’d work on Saturday nights instead of going out, we’d combine work trips with vacations. We never really took time off. My husband had two sabbaticals from his work, but he spent most of that time working on house projects and visiting family. Our so-called “vacations” were exhausting endeavors taking care of our daughter and managing my pain. It took four days to relax and then we’d have to get ready to go home. We were pathetic at relaxing and enjoying ourselves.

This past winter, I hit a turning point. One day I felt good enough to go for a run. I was never a runner, but ten years without being able to run will make anyone want to run again. And it didn’t hurt. In fact, it felt great to get the cardiovascular exercise. Then we took a trip for the holidays and I skated on a big ice rink. Figure skating has always been my sport. I had skated a little with my daughter over the years, but that day was different. I stretched out and enjoyed the ice. I jumped, I spinned. I felt like myself again. I realized I was over the hump of the worst part of the pain. It was managed. I could start to live again.

Finally, I decided it was time to focus a little bit on myself – what I wanted to move forward vs. just what I needed to survive. I knew in order to get in shape again, I needed a motivator, so I decided to compete in the adult national figure skating championships (after eleven years not competing). It was grueling, but I made it to Salt Lake City, I competed in three events, and in my best event, I just missed the podium by one point. Honestly, that was just as good as getting a medal for me because it meant that my body was starting to feel like itself again. It was hard, but the hardest part was sitting on the sidelines – literally – because sitting is still painful.

I came home completely physically exhausted and drained from skating, sitting, and exercising at altitude. I decided I had to focus on my health again. This was not a revelation; it was something I had been thinking about for a year or so, focusing on my health and my family’s health. And not only that — it felt great training for competition. I had forgotten what endorphins were like. They also helped my pain. One of my doctors had told me that would be the case after I reached a certain point in my recovery. Here it was, and I felt like a totally different person. But it was so hard to even take that trip because I realized I don’t know how to take time off any more.

I don’t know how to take time for myself. I’m ridden with guilt. I felt like I didn’t deserve time away because I’d had to spend so much time away from my daughter dealing with pain and working. And I knew something needed to change. But I had two more business trips back-to-back a month later, and I also knew those would take a toll on my health since they were both several timezones away and required a lot of sitting. I love my work. I’m happy to endure some pain to do my work. I don’t want to just lie around the house. I don’t take highly potent painkillers because it turns me into a zombie and I want to be present for my family and my work.

I took two weeks off skating to rest and prepare for travel, then I skated one day. Just one day, and on what was probably my best layback spin in fifteen years, I did something to my inner ear, causing positional vertigo that continues to this day. Dizziness was not a part of my equation for recovering, getting in shape and more me-time. But I was able to suffer through it, get on the plane and participate in both business trips. We had several logistical mishaps and while I enjoyed every minute of my meetings and conference, I was trashed by the time I got home. Then, of course, I got sick — really sick. Not as bad as last year’s pneumonia (I told you I work too hard), but I had a virus that knocked me out for two weeks.

Then just as I thought I was turning the corner on that, I received three pieces of bad personal news. I can’t disclose the details because it involves friends and family and that’s their information to share, not mine, but it pushed me over the edge. The combination of pain, jet lag, illness, vertigo, exhaustion, work stress and depression was too much. I just stopped. I stopped everything. I was behind on work, I had to speak on a panel that weekend, but I just couldn’t do it. I was a wreck. I wasn’t in condition to see anyone, let alone drive an hour to put on a happy face, sit in pain and speak in front of an audience. So I sent my regrets and I made a commitment to myself that something and to change. It was time.

Researchers say it takes three to four weeks for a new habit to become ingrained. And most habits cannot fully be removed; they must instead be replaced or re-taught. In my case, I’ve been dealing with several issues: 1) saying yes too often when I should say no, 2) taking on way too many commitments at once, and 3) continuing to do work that no longer holds meaning for me just because I want to be there for friends and colleagues to asked for help. It’s a combination of not being able to create stable boundaries, being too “multi-passionate” as one friend described me, and ignoring my self-awareness that it’s time to let go of certain things.

Part of my challenge is to reset and to cut down on over-commitments, set rules for which projects I accept and which I reject (including all of the endless requests for “just 15 minutes of your time.”) I need to learn to be firm and to think of myself first, not always to put others’ wishes before mine. It’s hard to be a giver in today’s world and while I’m selfish in some ways, I put myself last in many more. One more thing happened during all of this soul-searching: I realized gradually over the past few years that I was burned out on digital strategy consulting. I still find the work interesting, but I’m tired of working with similar organizations doing similar things. I’ve moved into a more teacher-like phase. Now I’d rather teach a person to fish than do the fishing for them. And that was a difficult thing to recognize because consulting in many ways can be low-hanging fruit, and I’ve been working in this area for thirteen years and consulting for the better part of twenty years.

It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Luckily I’ve always been more of a cat person (but I do like dogs). I’m willing to learn and I’m ready. This week was my daughter’s last week of school. She just finished third grade. She’s full into tweenhood and everything that comes with it. The school district does everything they can to make it almost impossible for parents to get any work done on the last week of school, including half days, schedule changes, and finishing mid-week, so I decided it was a good enough excuse to get started on my quest to work less, to start it now, and to commit (loosely anyway) to the summer. I’m not good with regimen, so I would rather say “I’m working less” and keep it vague and see where it goes than make broad sweeping promises.

Here’s what I have decided so far (in no particular order):

  1. I’m not taking on any new paying consulting clients and I’m transitioning off existing consulting projects;
  2. I’m cutting my hours on pro bono / volunteer projects and only doing what I must for the next 2 months);
  3. I’m only speaking 1-2 times/month because the time for the events and the content creation always takes more time than I’d like;
  4. I’m going to write as much as I want because writing is the one thing that I haven’t been doing because I’ve been so busy with everything else;
  5. I’m going to spend more time with my daughter and be totally present with her, not checking work e-mail on my phone, for example;
  6. I’m going to focus first and foremost on my health and my family’s health;
  7. I’m going to finish the home projects that have been plaguing me for years;
  8. I’m going to take time for myself and my own personal interests;
  9. I’m going to take some day trips and impromptu adventures because I’ve forgotten how to enjoy spontaneity;
  10. I’m going to work really hard on not feeling guilty for any of this.

I started slowly. I took a weekend off. I know that sounds strange because weekends are supposed to be not working, but again, I live in Silicon Valley and my work day is 24×7, so I had to take a different approach. I didn’t check email, I didn’t spend the usual “extra” two hours on work that really needed to be done because of looming deadlines, and I stayed completely off Twitter. (Usually I sneak a peek a few times on the weekends to stay on top of news. This time, I didn’t.) Instead, I spent two full days organizing a room in my house that had been a thorn in my side for months. I also moved outdoor furniture and setup our yard for summer use.

The results felt great — having tangible visual results I can see every day. And I got a great workout. Then I decided I was ready for trying a half week. The first two days of this week, my daughter was still in school, so they didn’t really count. The last day of school was chaos. Yesterday, my first full day on the work-less challenge, I woke after 9 hours of sleep, took a 30 minute walk, swam in the pool, and read a tween parenting book for 45 minutes. I still got plenty of work done because I’m giving two presentations next week that needed attention, but I didn’t spend all day working, I avoided the abyss of e-mail, and I spent a lot more time being present with my daughter.

My second full day on the work-less challenge, I worked a bit on winding down a project and responded to some work e-mail, then I swam laps, caught up with a friend and allowed myself a glass of champagne at 5pm. I’m starting to feel something. Could it be relaxation? I could get used to this. But it’s not that simple. Did I mention I don’t know how to relax or put myself first or not feel guilt? I also spent all week working on laundry, dishes, paperwork, yard maintenance, feeling guilty for not following-up on e-mail, I started having another pain flare from overdoing the physical work, and I took on way too many tasks involving my daughter and her friends.

In short, I over-compensated in the wrong direction. There’s a reason I called this a challenge. I still have a lot to learn about how to work less, but I’m willing to give it a try. Everyone is justified to take on the work-less challenge. Everyone has good reason to take a summer off. No one has to go through what I did to feel like you’ve earned this. We all have problems in our lives. We all need a break. But this time, for me it feels different. I need more than a week off or a day to sleep in. I need a few months to recuperate.

I don’t even know if the summer will be enough. And that’s fine. We’ll see. But I’m also not going to set strict rules for myself. I’m not going to blog about it daily, I’m not going to jump back on the workaholic bandwagon the day school starts up again in August. I’m going to take things one day at a time, as I have the past ten years, and see how I feel, see how it goes. If life is what happens while you’re making other plans, I’m not making many. I’ve had way too many reasons to consider my own mortality recently and I’m not going to just sit back and do things that others tell me I should be doing.

Whether I’m half way through my life, two-thirds or more, I want the remaining days to count and I’m tired of doing work that mostly benefits others without any return, particularly when I actually pay a price in pain cost doing that work, and pay again in time I don’t have for other things while I have to recover, or time I lose with my family or time I have to pay for in childcare. I’m just tired. Life, work, and parenting are all hard enough without complicating them. So it may be ten years too late for maternity leave, but it’s not too late to slow down. I’ll report back on how it’s going, or I won’t. We’ll see. I will keep working and maybe no one will notice on the outside that I’m working less than I was, but that doesn’t matter. If I notice, and it helps my life, especially if I can help others regain a part of theirs, it’ll all be worth it.


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