Switching Off

Since last night I’ve been terribly sick. I slept fitfully, if at all, all of last night, and I’ve been totally out of action all day today. It’s nothing particularly serious – just a bad attack of the common cold, and I expect it to take its normal course. Yet, through the day, as I’ve struggled to think, I’ve realized how hard it’s become for me of late to switch off.

When I tell people that I freelance and lead a “portfolio life”, the first question I usually get asked is if  I can separate my work and non-work lives. This is especially important since my office is just a room inside my house. Usually i say that I do it pretty well. I have some strict rules, for example – I don’t work beyond 6:30 pm. I don’t work on weekends unless absolutely necessary (this includes Saturdays when my wife goes to work). In the last six months, I use my iPad for reading, so that I don’t use my work computer for non-work purposes – so of late I don’t even switch on my work computer on weekends and holidays.

Yet, I think I have difficulty switching off, especially on an unplanned basis. I took a vacation in December, and didn’t carry my work with me (for the first time since turning freelancer I even put an Out of Office AutoReply into my email). Yet, when I got back ten days later it seemed like I hadn’t taken a break from work, and could actually continue from where I had left off before I went (this is a good thing).

I have no difficulty taking my mind off work on most weekends, and on holidays. Yesterday, for example, was a general holiday in Bangalore (on account of Makara Sankranti). I had no problem switching off. Yet, despite being terribly sick and unable to work today, it has been really hard.

The downside of a “portfolio life” is that at any point in time  there is something pending. It is seldom that all your responsibilities close at the same time, and you can declare yourself to be “free” (which is why it is important to switch off in the evenings, on weekends, etc., and take the occasional vacation irrespective of whether the “work” is “finished”). So it is very rare that you get to your desk some day and realize there is “no work” – there may be no immediate deadlines, but there is always plenty to do.

In this context, today has been hard. I realize today that the common cold not only affects you physically but also mentally – it eats into your mindspace, and doesn’t allow you to think, which doesn’t allow you to work. And when you decide to declare a holiday for yourself and not work, things you do, such as the things you read, remind you of one aspect of work or the other – another downside of a portfolio life – too many non-work activities have a connection with work. And then you feel guilty about not working.

I think I need to figure out a policy of “casual leaves” for myself, where I tell myself that it is okay to not work on certain days, despite all that is there to be done. I’ve done it for myself for scheduled holidays – such as weekends or vacations. I need to convince myself to do this for the occasional unscheduled holiday, too – days like today.

I’ve done it yet again

I quit my job earlier this week. I did so on Wednesday, the fourteenth. In hindsight, I should have waited another day and quit on the fifteenth, to coincide with the anniversary of the demise of Lehman Brothers. So for the fourth time in five years of career, I’ve quit a job without knowing where I’ll go next. The plan for the first month is to just chill and detox, and get back my sanity. Once that’s achieved, I’ll start thinking about where my next paycheque is going to come from (my employer promptly put me on Garden Leave, thus effectively giving me a month of  “free salary”).

You know what I miss the most about student life? The annual vacation! That once a year, you are entitled to spend two months or more doing absolutely nothing. I remember that friends chose to do academic projects during that time. Others got internships in companies. A few others chose to travel then. I used to do none of the above. I’d just sit at home in Bangalore and fatten myself (to compensate for the weight loss during the semester), and that ensured I started each semester in fairly high spirits (no I didn’t indulge in those spirits back then). The only time I did something “productive” during vacations was when it was an academic requirement to do a project.

I seriously miss having that annual two-month detox period. Yes, I know that my last employer gave me over twenty days of paid leave per year, but it wasn’t the same. You knew that it was a rationed resource, and you’d try to use it effectively. You’d go on vacation and immediately get on to a flight. You would land in Bangalore and head back to office within the next twenty four hours. You would sometimes need a break, take a day off from work, and then feel supremely guilty. It was on one such day sometime in the recent past that I realized that I miss vacations.

There exists a reasonable chance that I might choose to be self-employed (if things work out the way I intend, that is) but otherwise I need to find myself a job that gives me substantial vacation days a year, which I can take without any guilt. I realize that is absolutely necessary for me to keep myself charged up, and that if I had access to vacations the way I did during school/college I wouldn’t have taken a career break so many times after I started working.

My other objectives for this vacation are to travel (but it’s a bit tough given that the wife works and is subject to the twenty-days-of-paid-leave rules) and more importantly figure out for myself what my tradeoffs in life are. During my last job, I realized that I’d grossly misunderstood between my tradeoff between time and money. The other tradeoff I need to understand is the one between money and perks. And I want to write more.