The Wisdom of a Day Off

This Monday brought us Columbus Day, a hotly contested federal holiday. As a fairly new business owner, I spent sometime wrestling with whether or not our office should be closed for the day. As I do every year, I wrestled with the reality of Columbus’ legacy and the pain he caused. But a tiny, exhausted voice called out from inside me, “Please? We’re exhausted!” The more I talked to other entrepreneurs, the more I realized that this tension was not uncommon.

American busy-ness has become the stuff of legend. A recent poll shows that the average person with a typical full-time job now actually puts in 47 hours a week.  Add to that an average of 25.4 minutes of commute time and your typical full time worker is away from home more than 51 hours a week.  Another shows that 40% of working individuals report that they frequently work after hours via technology.

Despite claims in the 2000’s that leisure time was on the rise, current research shows that the time we can switch into Off-Mode has decreased, especially for parents. And this is a critical problem. For one thing, those workers who check their work email in their off hours are more likely to report that the previous day was stressful.  A lack of psychological detachment from the work environment and exhaustion are inextricably linked.  

This is especially hard to hear when your work is truly important to you and others around you, as is so often the case among my clients of startup nonprofits and small businesses. Our culture seems to consider being psychologically out-of-breath as a sign of being committed. But the irony of this resistance to rest is that when we remove ourselves from work, we become better at doing that big incredible thing that catches our heart. As New York Times columnist Tim Kreider puts it, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” 

 Your brain, in times of leisure, is an amazing place. You refine motor learning, increase problem solving, and access innate creativity.  And that decent sleep you get when you can put your phone down early and deeply exhale? It also supports these elements.  A recent Harvard Business School experiment enrolled a consulting firm to test a model of predictable and required time off. Consultants were required to take specific days and evening completely off- email and phone call included. Initial resistance eventually gave way to something that surprised everyone: an increase in productivity, a reduction in stress, and a more cooperative office culture. And the data on national productivity seems to support these claims; developed nations who prioritize downtime and home life are among some of the most productive nations in spite of a smaller share of hours at work. 

Our office decided that we would take a half-day and work from home as needed. I wound up having a very productive four or five hours, instead of my typical, exhausted eight or ten. But I have a feeling that the difference would become even more obvious if I were to insist upon regular day dreaming, naps, or book reading.

The bottom line? Close your computer, turn the phone off, take a nap, read a book, get a hobby. Your brain and the cause you have committed so much to both need you to do it.