At The Airport In My Underwear: Getting Your Life Back From Work

Last night I had a dream that I’d forgotten that I needed to fly to Las Vegas one more time, even though I didn’t work there anymore. People were calling me asking me when I’d arrive. I was at home, couldn’t find my ticket, and everyone was waiting for me to show up “to get started”. It was the classic “I’ve forgotten that I had one more test to take before they’d issue my degree” dream all over again. I’m surprised I didn’t look down to find I was standing at the airport in my underwear.

A couple of weeks ago, I reached my breaking point with a job that hadn’t been working for me anymore, and I quit. Now, it wasn’t like I was just fine one day and out of work the next. My departure had been some weeks or months in the making. Still, one day I was had a job, and the next day I didn’t.

Part of my leaving my job was that I’d been commuting, essentially every week, for five years from Portland, where I live, to San Francisco or Las Vegas, where I worked. That commute had become habit. Usually, Wednesday morning, I’d wake up around 5:AM, slap together my bag, stumble out into the dark, and drive myself to the airport. I’d fly off to work, sometimes forgetting mid-flight where I was headed, and stay for the rest of the week.

I’d learned to do things like take pictures of everything. It’s a terrible feeling to come back to your hotel and not know what room you’re in, leave a meeting and not be able to identify your rental car, or arrive at the airport and not remember if you took a cab or drove– or where you left your car if you did drive. Taking those pictures, wearing TSA-approved shoes, and pre-departure inventory process (wallet, check; phone charger, check; boarding pass, check) became second nature in my road warrior lifestyle.

It also became second nature to say ‘no’ to a lot of things. Sadly, one of those things was time with my family. Since my schedule varied, and I never really knew too far ahead of time where I’d be during the week, my default answer was ‘no’ to school events, lessons, or even birthday parties. Their mother would have to deal with all of that so that I could make the money to pay for things.

Working remotely on the days I didn’t travel had the same chilling effect. Part of the deal I’ve made when I work remotely is that I’ve tried to be available as much as possible. I’m an advocate of remote work, but I think there’s some responsibility on the remote worker to ease concerns that he’s not abusing the situation. Answer texts and calls. Respond to emails. Attend meetings via Skype or Google Hangout. Be present, even if you’re not physically there.

As a result, the default answer to activities away from home was also ‘no’. I could do quick things like laundry, make meals, or turn the water on in the garden, but it was a mental struggle to pull myself away long enough to take the kids to the park, bring them to the doctor, or even just go outside with them for a while. And yet, most often, I’d find myself declining such things and then just sitting at my computer doing work that I could have done when I got back or after they’d gone to bed.

What’s been surprising to me is how hard it’s been to shake some of these feelings since leaving my job. I still find myself compulsively drawn to checking my computer frequently. For what, exactly? I’m not actively looking for a job for the next couple of months, so any employment or consulting opportunities that come up aren’t going to require urgent response, even if they were compelling enough that I’d like to pursue them. Everything can wait.

I’ve spent several days with my kids since I left my job– going for bike rides to the park, getting frozen yogurt, or exploring the museum. Pretty mundane and incredibly enjoyable stuff. Each time, though, I’ve had to push myself a little bit to just go. I don’t know how long we’ll be gone, and it really doesn’t matter. Somewhere inside me, though, there’s a voice still saying “whoa, wait a minute, slacker, what if someone calls? Are you sure you don’t have a meeting? Is everything done that needs doing? Just check your email one more time.”

As I write this, I’m sitting in Sun Valley on a weekend getaway. I couldn’t take weekend getaways when I was working because every week was a getaway of sorts. When I was home, I wanted to see my kids. If I’d taken a weekend with my partner somewhere, I’d go nearly two weeks without spending time with my kids. We traveled a bit, but it was always an internal struggle to justify.

This experience has really shown me, yet again, that we need to keep saying ‘yes’ to our personal lives. A few days of vacation are nice, but they don’t give you the time you need to reset your brain from all the habits and stressors that build up in our hard-driving work lives. We are so often the proverbial frog in the pot of water, not noticing the heat increasing until it’s too late.

Without proper care, your mind and body will have had enough. It’ll manifest itself as burnout, illness, addiction, or some other self-limiting behavior that forces you to pull over and take a break. Decent vacations, exercise, time with family, and sufficient rest aren’t optional. They’re necessary relief valves that keep us connected to reality and our social networks, performing at our best, and happy for the long term.

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