Ah, just about perfectly timed, this one. I wish I could say I was some kind of blogging mastermind and actually planned this, scheduling this long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing to get right to this one the week before I leave for Las Vegas for my first proper vacation in five years.
But it just worked out that way.
If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here. This week, we’ll look at Henry Miller’s advice to:
7. Keep human! See people, go places,
drink if you feel like it.
Yes right now.
I’m not going to get into a whole whiny thing about not going on vacation often enough, or march out the same depressing statistics about how many vacation days American workers routinely leave on the table, or the generally probably more true than anyone wants to admit feeling that if you take a week off your boss will realize that everything was fine while you were gone and fire you when you get back . . . all those things plus the studies about how we’re murdering ourselves and each other with stress and people in Norway go on vacation every year and almost never shoot each other.
It’s especially difficult for me to take some kind of vacation-activist stance since I work for myself and get as many vacation days as I decide to give myself, there is no “team” doing my work when I’m gone or some other junior employee ready to back-stab his way into my job if I take a week off. And fortunately for me—and yes, I really do understand just how lucky this makes me—there are large portions of my job that entail doing things I’d probably be doing as a hobby on my time off anyway.
But still, even a really great job can back up on you after a certain amount of time, and though I edit happily, write (even ghostwrite, which has a package of joys all its own) blissfully, eventually any human has to stop doing the thing—whatever that thing is—and spend a week doing some other thing.
So next week, I’m off to fabulous Las Vegas where my wife and I will celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary seeing people, going places, and drinking if we feel like it (and I plan on feeling like it).
Still, I have this feeling that Henry Miller didn’t mean for me, or anyone, to “keep human” for four sun-filled days and three star-filled nights every five years then otherwise “work” if we can’t “create.” I’m willing to bet that when he wrote that he meant for us to keep human: see people, go places, drink if we feel like it, on a daily basis.
Though I often find myself in some very deadline-intensive weeks (or even months) and this week, sliding into that vacation, is one of those—when multiple projects all scream for immediate attention simultaneously—I hardly work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
I take at least partial days off fairly regularly.
Sometimes this makes me feel guilty, sitting on my butt watching Game of Thrones (again, but the new season starts this Sunday, so . . .) instead of working, but sometimes my brain just shuts down. Frankly, setting a project aside for a few hours while I’m out there being human (or in my living room being Dothraki) is better serving my clients (and my readers) than forcing my way through their projects while my brain is actively trying to push me elsewhere.
Binge watching TV shows aside, though, I do need to be more human than I have been lately. I need to leave the house more often.
One of the things they don’t tell you when you decide to work from home (or that decision is made for you) is how often that means you don’t actually walk outside. I’ve been afraid to track it and, y’know, observing it will alter the outcome, but there have been stretches of at least three days in a row where I have not stepped outside at all—even to take the dogs for a walk. Maybe five days. I might have gone a week in here, as if I were under house arrest.
I’m wearing pants right now, though, and drove my wife to work this morning, so good day so far!
Forbes contributor Sunday Steinkirchner touched on this in her article “The Pros and Cons of Working from Home”:
It can also be a personal issue, as most people view the separation of work and play as a good thing. A physical separation from your work can provide a mental or emotional separation. When spending long stretches at home without business trips, it’s our first inclination to spend every waking hour working. It can be hard to take a break and impose structured hours on ourselves, but sometimes the only way to relieve stress is to get out of our apartment.
I’ll say that Henry Miller is telling us, on a day to day basis, not to be mad, cloistered monks. To get out there and see people and function as something other than a Writer for a portion of every day. I’m adding that watching TV doesn’t really count.
My bad there.
Or, anyway . . . does it count?
In his Atlantic article “The Case for Vacation: Why Science Says Breaks are Good for Productivity,” Derek Thompson wrote:
The more we learn about human attention, the more limited it seems. Overtime binges lead to bursts of output that exert a hangover effect in later days. Study after study indicates that short bursts of attention punctuated with equally deliberate breaks are the surest way to harness our full capacity to be productive. Literature on teacher research at universities—a notoriously grueling enterprise—showed that faculty are more productive when they work in brief stints rather than all-consuming marathon sessions. Another study published in the journal Cognition found that short breaks allow people to maintain their focus on a task without the loss of quality that normally occurs over time.
And this after quoting a study that says some amount of “work time” spent poking around on the Internet (or, I’ll add myself, watching Game of Thrones) is actually good for you—is a version of “keeping human” Henry Miller couldn’t have foreseen.
How then, should I revise this for our new century?
7. Keep human! Interact with other humans everyday in whatever way you can, and from time to time, take a full week off.
I’m going to.
And we’ve also promised each other the next one will come before 2022!
P.S. And don’t be surprised or call me a liar or hypocrite if you see a post here next Tuesday. It means I wrote it this week and scheduled it to post on Tuesday the 18th. See how technology actually enables time off?