Taking a Break

Few things in life feel as nice as simply relaxing, and this is especially true if you have just been busy doing something. Maybe you’re running around work, putting out small fires, dealing with minor crisis after minor crisis, and then glorious lunchtime arrives. You grab your sandwich, you sit down and ahhhhhhh, you let out a deep breath. The weight falls from your shoulders and all your tight muscles relax. Right now, no worries. Why can’t it be lunch time all the time?

I think changing my clock should change every clock.

This little break is absolutely critical. Can you imagine going through a full work day without any breaks, or a school day without recess or free time? You’d go insane in a week if not a day. The constant nagging pressure would do you in, sooner rather than later. I think we all realize this, but we perhaps don’t realize this is true for the big picture as well.

In general, we undervalue rest and recovery as a society. We want to go go go, even when we start to wear down. In the world of fitness, we know that working out every single day is bad. Your progress will slow and even regress, as you are not allowing adequate recovery. We understand this with our body, but we largely ignore it with the rest of our lives.

Work and school come naturally to mind. On one hand, most people get natural breaks every weekend; we work Monday to Friday and then get two days off. This is a good approach, but we also have the tendency to take our work home with us. We’ll stay late, working overtime on the weekends to get a project done. It’s almost ubiquitous for a student to spend all Sunday writing an essay that’s due Monday. By doing this, we never get a chance to rest and recover, and sooner or later our batteries will run dry.

We sometimes think we can’t take a break, that if we don’t do something right now then it won’t get done and everything will fall apart. We have to be busy busy busy. This is the same logic that people use to not get in shape. As the saying goes, if you don’t make time to be healthy then you will have to make time when you get sick. The same is true for life, school and work: if you don’t make time to rest and recover, then you’ll have to make time when you burn out.

I’ve recently rediscovered this … for about the eighteenth time. It’s not a lesson I’m eager to learn, apparently. Here’s my problem: I have some lofty goals spanning diverse fields. I’m willing to put time and effort to reach said goals, and I know it will take years to do everything. I’m fine with this … but I also realize if I work every other day, then it will take twice as long as if I work every day. With long-term goals that might take years, twice as long doesn’t sound very good.

This is the trap. I want to get to the end goal as fast as possible, and so I push myself hard. If I take a day off, then that’s an extra day I have to wait to reach my dreams. Better to just suck it up and keep going. I can rest when there’s nothing left to accomplish. That’s the idea, and it has a certain appeal. It’s also completely unrealistic. Sooner or later, rest is required, whether I like it or not.

But it’s so hard….

It took me years to understand this in terms of physical conditioning. Yes, I ‘know’ that the body needs time to recover, sure thing, no problem… and I then went and trained martial arts for three hours virtually every single day. Even the days I didn’t train hard I still trained. I put my body through the ringer, and the only reason I made it out was because I was a teenager and nothing could stop me.

Interestingly, once I took a more modest approach to training, allowing myself to adequately recover between workouts, my results improved tremendously. I busted out of plateaus, I had more energy for each workout and, coincidence or not, I was more mentally focused for each class as well. In other words, I was going faster and doing more by doing less. I went from ‘knowing’ about rest and recovery to fully and truly knowing about rest and recovery.

The same was true for school. I liked school for the most part, especially the first semester. I like learning, and I can push myself for a long time, constantly reading and studying more. I have very high standards for myself, and I demand excellence on every test, every project, every exam. For the first semester, this is fine. By the second semester, though, I’m starting to burn out, and I was always so happy to see summer vacation heading my way. I needed that break.

Interestingly, though, my marks were routinely better in that second semester. That might seem strange, but it really isn’t. During the summer I do no schooling, and I thus fall out of practice. Thinking, studying, writing, everything is a touch slower. It takes a bit to get it back into high gear. By the second semester, I’m already running at maximum efficiency. The semester then ends right before the burnout fully hits, and that’s how I escape with full marks.

This shows the balancing act required. On the one hand, I desperately need a break, something longer than a weekend. On the other hand, summer vacation is too long, as I’m rusty when I do go back. Performance-wise, having too long of a break is the same as not taking one at all. The challenge is to find that perfect time, just enough to feel refreshed, not enough to lose anything. By and large, I have failed in my attempts here.

I have never found that porridge that was just right. I always go too far in one extreme and fall back the other way. Perhaps the best example is with writing. At one point I wanted to write a novel, and I wrote nearly 3,000 words every single day. Seriously, I wrote over 100,000 words in 34 days. It was insane. I have never come close to matching that output … but it only lasted 34 days, because I then burned out. In the six months that followed I wrote less than 20,000 words, because I had worn myself out. Even the thought of writing was painful.

Empty pages. Yup, seems right.

Another time I was working on a different novel, and I wrote every single day for 78 days. Those last few days became tougher and tougher, so I decided to take a few days off to recharge my batteries. Those few days turned into over a year. Opps.

This really highlights how strange my current writing project is, historically speaking. I’ve currently written a new blog post every single for over 300 days (closing in on my one year anniversary in June!). I feel no burnout, no desire to stop, no anything. Sure, some days are a struggle, as is everything in life, but by and large it’s fun, and a neutral at worst. Considering my writing history, I wonder what the difference is.

In a way, I compare it to videogames. I can play videogames every day, but I almost certainly couldn’t play the same game all the time. Even during my Dota addiction, for instance, I played different games every now and then. Having that little bit of variety is perhaps enough to recharge my batteries, so to speak. Similarly, every blog post is a different topic, which perhaps prevents writing burnout. It’s as good an answer as I’ve got.

Anyway, this whole post has been, in a roundabout way, an attempt to justify my recent ‘slacking’. I’ve done absolutely no poi and very little chess for the last two weeks. Until now I’ve done both virtually every day this year. The pressure of keeping that streak going, as well as my writing and my near daily workouts and everything else I do everyday, began to feel too much. I thus took a step back. I let myself relax. The only thing I forced myself to do was write, as I was not about to lose that streak.

I feel better now, more refreshed. It also helps, no doubt, that the weather has greatly improved. My little break in life is over, I think, but I greatly enjoyed it.

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