Courage to Step Away from the Work

I wish that I could say every morning I make time for prayer, quiet, and reflection, but I don’t. This morning, however, I did and a phrase popped into my head that had never been there before – Courage to step away from the work.

The context of this phrase came as I was thinking about, and praying for, my brother and several friends who are going through periods of intense work pressure or work-related stress in their lives. While each situation is very different, all seem to be wading through an overwhelming stream of work, an uncertainty about a work future, or a dissatisfaction with their current work that they can’t seem to escape. As I asked a blessing for strength on them, it dawned on me that they probably don’t have the strength to endure these situations.

Work can be both intoxicating and addicting, leading us to feel like if we just put in 30 more minutes tonight or return 5 more emails or complete one more report we’ll feel really good. I know this to be true because I’ve been there. I’ve sent emails to colleagues at 8 o’clock on a Friday night when I should be enjoying a movie with my family. I’ve texted my wife that I won’t make dinner because I have to finish a project. I’ve returned to my desk before bed for a few hours of “uninterrupted work” only to find that I can’t sleep because I got my mind racing with the things I have left undone. And I still do these things on occasion.

So today, my prayer for myself, my brother, these particular friends I have in mind, and anyone else that thinks they have too much work to do to relax is this: I pray that we will have the courage to step away from the work because the work is not worthy of our worship and it is robbing us of our peace and joy.

I fully appreciate that hard work is necessary and I even believe that work can be an act of worship and praise. However, our culture has placed an undue value on “putting in time” at work. My technology makes me completely accessible to my colleagues in Portland, OR, Australia and Europe any time I allow it. If you look at the time zone map, you’ll see that as a worker in the American East, working for a company based in the American West, with colleagues and projects going on in both Australia and Europe, I could, theoretically, work 24 hours a day and be engaged during someone’s work day that needs me. I choose not to do that.

Instead, I choose to focus on engaging with my far flung colleagues only in thoughtful and meaningful ways. This sometimes demands that I hop on a call with Australia at 11 o’clock at night or support a conference call with European clients at 6 in the morning. Last night it meant an important phone call with a team member in Portland, OR at 8:30p my time as he drove home from work. The key is that I focus on MEANINGFUL interactions. Rather than respond to every email from every time zone every time, I select ones where I can add value. Instead of making myself available to anyone who wants me at any time, I define my availability based on when I can be attentive and engaged. And often, I spend time during my typical workday here in the Eastern Time Zone doing things that are personal tasks, family obligations, self-improvement, or just fun.

It takes courage to step away from work, but it is wholly necessary. The word courage is defined by Oxford as “the ability to do something that frightens one.” Walking away from the work definitely frightens me. It can be terrifying to think about what Monday might be like if I don’t check off everything on my Friday list, or what my boss might think if I don’t respond to his email within 5 minutes on a Sunday night (which is Monday morning in Australia), or how a client might react if I don’t pick up their phone call from California at 6pm Eastern time as we are sitting down for family dinner. Still, we must act in the face of that fear and walk away, hit ignore on the phone, or shut down the email.

You see, while we all inherently know that we need space in our lives for fun, family, friends, hobbies, or relaxing, we somehow give these things second class status to work. So we press on, trying to squeeze work into every nook and cranny of our lives. All the while, we are missing out on the joy that comes with allowing space and time into our days.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your volume of work today, stressed out about your work situation, or just looking at a to do list that seems insurmountable, have the courage to step away from the work. Unless you are a surgeon, it is unlikely that anyone will die from you not getting back to them or not attending to their need (want). Don’t fill your time away with anything that even feels like work. Instead read a book, go for a walk, sit at a bar, talk to your spouse, enjoy your backyard, or just sit quietly. You’ll find that not only will the work still be there, but you will be refreshed and re-energized when you return to it after your courageous hiatus.

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A Case for Downshifting

chair

I have an amazing job, which I love.

I have some really great clients who are passionate about what they do and some amazingly talented colleagues who are some of the most professional and fun people I’ve ever worked with in my life. I work hard, and I have fun working. Over the past 4 weeks I’ve been gone from home 12 nights and kicked off 5 new projects. But I’ve also had the opportunity to attend 2 Division 1 college basketball games, 2 MLS Soccer games, a NHL hockey game, and an NBA game during that same stretch that were all ‘work related.’ It has been a blast, and I have been running at high speed for a month straight.

This morning, as I was sitting in my chair in my office (pictured above), enjoying a cup of coffee, reading, and reflecting I came across a quote from John Ortberg’s book Soul Keeping that really spoke to me:

“The main thing you bring home from work is not a paycheck. The main thing you bring home from work is a soul.”

Now, more than ever in my life, I feel like I’m bringing home soul from work. I am energized and inspired by the work I do and while the travel can be tiring, it is exciting and fun for me most of the time. I am engaged on some fun projects that stimulate my creativity. If I’m not careful, I can find myself WANTING to work so much that I can wear down and start to miss out on bringing home a healthy soul from work.

So I am going to downshift to a period of rest. This rest is not particularly because I’m exhausted or run down right now, but because it is the right and healthy thing to do. I’m not intending to lay around in my pajamas until noon for the next two weeks or sit cross legged in a dark room chanting “ohm.” Instead, I’m going to downshift. My motor has been revving pretty high for the past 4 weeks and serving me well. For the next two weeks, I’m going to slow down the engine and be more deliberate about both work and life. I’ll be in the office for the next 4 week days and I intend to be productive. I have things to do. But I’m not going to worrying about starting or ending at a certain time, I’m just going to do what I need to do and be done.

Then, next week, I’ll shift down again. At the end of the week, I’m taking the last two days off and taking the family camping with some good friends for a long weekend. For four days there will be no agendas, no meal times, no to do lists, and most importantly no cell phones with texts, emails, tweets, or Facebook posts to interrupt. We’ll enjoy the company of people we love and our kids will play with friends they’ve known their whole lives.

By the end of this stretch of down shifting, not only will I look forward to jumping back into work, but I will have relaxed my engine without strain. When most people take vacation, they spend the 2-3 days before the vacation trying to work like crazy and jam in 5 days of work into 3 so that they can feel better about taking the time off. They run their engine at its hottest, forcing their mind, body, and soul to work overtime in order to earn a cool down. The problem with this thinking is that much like an engine or our bodies after exercise, we need a cool down period or a downshift for the lowest gear to be effective. If you are racing down the interstate in fifth gear going 80 miles an hour, you can’t all of a sudden hit the clutch, shift down to first gear, and then release the clutch to go back to driving. If you’ve ever done this, you know that the screaming and grinding sounds your transmission makes are hideous and terrifying. So it is with you soul and your mind. You can’t expect to actually relax, slow down, and refresh your soul on vacation if you are working overtime and scrambling all over the place the night before you leave. You need a downshift period to truly see the benefit of the rest.

So if you need me for the next 5-6 days, I’ll probably be in my chair in the office catching up on reading my trade magazines or maybe responding to a few emails or sitting on a conference call or two. I may lounge around the house all weekend or go for a lazy bike ride with the kids for ice cream. In any case, I’ll be downshifting so that this time next week my soul will be fully present with family and friends and reaping the benefits of a truly re-charging time.