There aren’t many times in my life I can remember not having a computer nearby. Even on the very few holidays where I’ve decided not to work, I’ve taken my MacBook with me just in case.
I recently discovered a decline in my motivation and ability to concentrate for any length of time. The usual procrastinations became my daily affairs, rather than my momentary flings. Any form of work, even a simple email, became a monumental effort. Tasks would remain half finished in windows dotted around my screen and clients started wondering why the delay.
This was strange to me. I have always loved my job, the clients and the translators I work with. The process that forms the majority of my daily activities isn’t particularly difficult and it’s accessible any time of the day, from anywhere in the world.
I had never experienced burnout in this way before. Usually my burnout is accompanied by a desire to do even more and a vacuous, demoralising feeling that everything I’ve accomplished so far is totally worthless. This time it was different. This time it was preventing me from doing any more work. It was as if my brain was demanding the time off, analogous to my own computer that needs time to process before moving on to the next task.
The feeling had been growing over a long period of time, but I kept ignoring it. Eventually I found myself getting less and less sleep, trying to fit in everything I wanted to do, every single day. My friends started to notice how badly bitten my nails were and how tired I was looking. When I couldn’t spend a weekend at a friend’s house without looking at my computer for a couple of hours, it was clear something had to change.
“When was the last time you went a week without a computer?” my friend asked. I couldn’t remember. “It’s time we went away together”.
Several weeks later we had booked our February trip off-the-grid in Iceland. She demanded I left my computer at home, at whatever cost to my company, and turned off my iPhone, only to be used in cases of emergency (the death kind, not the Google Maps kind). I was happy to oblige.
Iceland was everything I had hoped for. Without any strict schedule, my appearance changed in days. My nails grew, the black rings around my eyes disappeared, I stood up taller than usual. My mind raced through the last year, processing, categorising and filing everything it needed to. My dreams became more and more vivid as my sleep increased from my usual six to eight full hours.
I went swimming four times, walked ten, fifteen, twenty kilometres a day. Lost weight and felt more flexible. My eyes were no longer straining and the aches in my back had gone. I found time to read four books, infinitely more than I had read in the last six months, and watched mindless TV without my normal feeling of frustration that I could, should, be doing something ‘better’.
Above all, I found time to coherently think about my plans. I made a mental list of everything that was making me both happy and unhappy and how I would solve them. I realistically prioritised what I can achieve in the near future, including time set aside to just do nothing.
While my flexibility at work has always been fantastic, I have been spurred on to create some kind of boundaries. Not just for myself, but also my friends and family who want, nay, deserve my full attention when I am with them.
In daily life, I often find my mind racing towards several futures that may or may not ever exist. I try and achieve everything I want in what limited time I have and I punish myself when I don’t meet those expectations. I don’t appreciate the free time I do get and I’m rarely mindful of the things I already have.
If you feel this way too, I recommend taking a week away from it all. Turn off 3G, no social networks, no messaging, close your computer and get away from your normal surroundings. Your friends and family won’t miss you for a week or two. Try and discover who you are right now, work out what really makes you happy, not what you think will make other people happy. Make a list of your goals, prioritise them and understand you can’t do everything. But most of all, give your head space. Space to work out what it needs, without interruption.