So I hate to admit this, but one of the reasons I haven't blogged lately is that I have been spending a significant amount of time in the past few weeks sitting around in my backyard lounge chair eating bon bons (more often than not, with a glass of vino).
I actually don't really care for chocolate that much. Nor am I in the habit of sitting around doing nothing. But I really am trying to relax more than I ever used to, and certainly more than my natural proclivities feel comfortable with.
The good news is that I no longer beat myself up over eating a couple pieces of chocolate (who was that bulimic 19-year old??); it's so much harder to get rid of my all-American-angst over the feeling that I'm wasting a lot of time. (Especially since I've been occupationally programmed to account for my time in 6-minute increments.)
But is "down time" really wasted time? I've been thinking about this a lot lately, so the scene in Eat, Pray, Love where the Italians lament to Julia Roberts that Americans have completely lost touch with the "joy of doing nothing" (il dolce far niente) really struck home.
Much of the world simply does not understand Americans' obsessive drive to constantly be doing something productive. I recently wrote an email to an executive level Australian acquaintance and received an auto-responder unapologetically explaining that she will be out of the office on vacation for the next month -- period. How different this is from the typical American message providing cell numbers, alternate contacts, and endless promises to periodically check email regardless of where the person is or what they are doing with their miserly few days off.
Americans average less than 12 days of vacation time each year compared with the 4 to 6 weeks of mandated vacation in most other Western nations. Australians actually require that employees be paid a 20% bonus during their weeks off so they can afford to travel. (Which makes one wonder why Australians are so notorious for being cheap house guests who never go away ...)
Here in the land where the pursuit of happiness is constitutionally protected, however, there is no right to time off. In fact, one law firm I once worked for actually did away with vacation days altogether and replaced these with a personal rejuvenation policy wherein at least in theory, an attorney could take off as much time as she wanted -- provided that she still met her billable hours expectations and didn't miss any important court dates. Any guesses how many days of "rejuvenation" the average associate was actually be allowed to have? (Hint: it worked out to even less than the average American receives. And oh yeah, if the associate ever left the firm, no vacation time was owed.)
But I am getting off topic. If we Americans really feel so cheated by the stinginess of our employers' policies, why don't we rebel? I'm guessing here, but I think it has something to do with our good old Puritan work ethic: as a nation, we tend to believe hard work somehow proves our virtue. At least that's what my guilt monster whispers in my ear on those days when I'm indulging in yet another afternoon of far niente ...
But what if down time and true relaxation actually improve our productivity? Certainly in legal circles you cannot bill clients for those three hours spent lounging on the beach, but what if during those hours you actually experience that creative spark of inspiration that leads to your winning strategy at trial? What if relaxation is, in fact, the only way to access our much more creative, subconscious minds? (And I haven't even mentioned the nifty side effects of indulging in playtime such as improved health and relationships.)
I'm certainly not the first person to feel this way. Timothy Ferriss' The 4-Hour Workweekwas a #1 New York Times bestseller, and Chris Guillebeau's blog, The Art of Non-conformity is equally popular. Both authors specialize in instructing readers how to escape 9-to-5 and create prosperous, passionate livelihoods -- anywhere in the world, with no boss, and in a lot less time.
I'm still trying to figure out how to achieve this; in the meantime, can someone please pass the bon bons?