Blow out before Life burns out (Part 1)

Yesterday we spontaneously decided to go away for a week. Lucky for us my parents-in-law are friends with the owner of a holiday home in Bavaria. As it turned out, it was vacant for the week. Only a few hundred kilometres separated us from a winter holiday amongst zillions of snowflakes. Today we arrived in a quiet little town in Bavaria. Everything is covered in snow and the landscape looks like postcard picturing a winter-wonderland.

As we were packing our bags for the trip, we got reminded of our year long trip. It felt like a long time ago and truly enough the trip ended about 8 months ago. It was even more shocking when we realised that we haven’t been on holidays at all since then. Mr. M (my husband) started working soon after we returned to Germany and opportunities to take a break or go on holiday became rare and somehow the time was not suitable for a holiday. There was always something important to do. In less than a year’s time the healing and stress relieving effects of the time away had worn away; this despite the fact that Mr. M likes his job very much.

What does that show us? Just as you can’t accumulate sleep in anticipation of a sleep deprived period, you cannot stock up on relaxation. In today’s fast moving society terms like “Depression”, “Burn-out” and “Work-life-balance” have reached a household status and are even fashionable. It is trendy to brag about the unbelievable number of hours one works in a week or the number of accumulated holidays not taken. Admit it we all know someone, who knows someone who had a burn-out. We know of the terrible effects. As is evident in Facebook many feel depressed at least a couple of times in a month. Everyone knows what stress can do to one’s physical and mental wellbeing and yet many of us constantly find ourselves enduring long periods of sustained and high levels of stress.

Why is this so? Have we become desensitised to these words? Have the words lost their meaning? Are we afraid of being left behind by society? Is it so important for us to feel acknowledged and needed that we would risk our health for it? Or do we simply not know of a way to help ourselves? I think that a little bit of the truth lies in all of these considerations. Society exerts certain expectations on us and it takes great strength of character to go against the established norms.

I remember when I informed my ex-colleagues that Mr. M and I have quit our jobs and are realising a dream. Many said that it was very courageous of us. Some admitted dreaming of doing something like this in the past but the time was never right; either there is a loan to pay off or a career to forge or children to take care of. Finally when these aspects as taken care of, they realised the right time seemed to have passed them by unawares. Certainly a few thought we were crazy to give up a secure income in uncertain times. In our age group, people are expected to buy a house and/or get children and/or work on reaching a senior position in our careers. In order to meet these expectations, we put up with all the negative side-effects like suffering from burn-out or depression.

I wouldn’t describe what we did as courageous, although in our microcosm our actions might have been radical. Instead I would describe it as being a form of self-preservation. We both had demanding and stressful jobs before that. The line between work and life had merged with the introduction of the notebooks with VPN connections and Smartphones. One could and did work at the office and at home. It actually starts with a harmless, “I will look through my e-mails and sort them, since I never have time for it at work.” Next follows the consideration, “This e-mail just requires a quick answer. I can spare the few minutes now. I have nothing better to do anyway and it would show the others how hardworking I am.”

Now there are two reactions to this e-mail by the recipient. First, “I will quickly answer the e-mail to show that I am working too.” Second, “Cool since X is still working, I can send X an e-mail asking for more information that I need to carry on with my work.” Before one knows it, conference calls are being held on Saturdays and even when one is on holiday the Blackberry or notebook comes along. Just in case something pops up that no one else can resolve except for oneself.

Mr. M and I have personally experienced all of these. If we had carried on in that manner, it would have only been a matter of time before we burned out. Therefore we decided to live for the now instead of the future. We are glad we did because the experience has taught us a couple of meaningful lessons.

I am not proposing that everyone should take a Sabbath year or travel the world. But I think that it is important to unwind regularly, so that you can rewind again and utilise your potential. Do you remember those tiny wind-up cars from your childhood? The ones with a key that one turned to wind-up a spring in the car. But when the spring inside was wound up to the max the key no longer turned. Trying to turn the key more would not result in the car driving further. In fact the spring might break and the car would be broken. There are parallels between our lives and these kind of toys. There is only so much stress that we can endure before we break down. Unfortunately for us we do not have a key that refuses to turn when we reach our limits. Therefore we have to be sensitive to the signs our body gives us in order to stop before it is too late.

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3 thoughts on “Blow out before Life burns out (Part 1)

  1. I fully understand what drove you guys into your project and admire the will that made the decision possible. The VPN/Smartphone thought you brought up is a good example and shows perfectly how difficult it can nowadays be to draw a clear, distinguishable line between work and private life especially with virtual desktop extenders like the initial mentioned.

    Being available by these technical means generates the expectation to answer in a “timely manner” and receive answers and information accordingly. Most of us use precious ‘idle time’ in private life to check whether you’ve received the important answer/decision you’re waiting for. Queuing in the supermarket > quick look on the smartphone. Traffic jam > quick look on the smartphone. Homework with the kids > quick look on the smartphone, … .

    All of this results in 24 hours workdays and leaves no room for daydreaming, wishes and relaxation. We kind of tell ourselves everytime that it consumes only a couple of seconds (of worktime) but as your head is constantly kept in project/office mode, no time and space is left for relaxation and a full recharge of batteries.

    Once I’ve identified that my live became like this I was kind of shocked and decided to take a 6 weeks long timeout. To allow for some contrast, I’ve spend most of the time as a mendicant in a forest monastery in North-East Thailand. This really helped me to focus on what’s important in life. While I was able to recharge my batteries, I’ve re-established appreciation for a lot of small things in life that we somehow take for granted in our daily lives.

    Returning to my office life after this experience was harder than expected and has sort of brought me close to a depression. It’s true that you can’t accumulate sleep and relaxation. I had to force myself back into my daily routine while trying to maintain some of the essentials taught to me during my stay. It seems like others have identified as well that a healthy work life balance is the key, as some major enterprises have started to deploy Smartphone policies which prevent the routing of e-mail during certain times (esp. weekends) to business handsets. How did you cope with your return to your lifes?

  2. Hi Jan, thanks for sharing your story with me. I would love to hear more about your experiences in the monastery. Travelling helped us with the way we viewed certain things in life and we try our best to remind ourselves these lessons learned.

    Since we both quit our jobs before we left, we had to find a new jobs once we returned to Germany. Like you, my husband returned to his former company. He too had problems adapting to the routine and the pressure prevalent in an online agency. I was depressive too but rather because I received a couple of rejections and weeks turned into months and I still had not found a job. Then I decided to get Certified as a Project Manager and started looking for a new position again this year. I have 2 interviews coming up this month. 🙂 Due to the fact that I have been off work for about 20 months, I am raring to get back to work again.

    Wish you a wonderful week. Take care. Cheers!

  3. Hi Irene, you’re welcome. I have to thank you for your interesting blog posts. I’d be glad if you could blog some of your travel stories in the future. I also keep my fingers crossed regarding your AC – I’m sure you did well and trust that you’ll dig into OTOBOS soon.

    You can find some information about my retreat motivation, a short summary and pictures on my blog jweck.net

    Have a great weekend,

    Jan

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