Squirrels Optional

As I write this, it’s a gorgeous, sunny day outside. That’s big news here in the midwest, where winter has been a grim, Hothlike spectacle of snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures. Today, though, the ground is visible, the sun is out, and rowdy crowds of squirrels are scrambling over every available surface.

Of course, there’s no time to go out and enjoy it: I work in the world of web development and digital publishing. My company prides itself on work-life balance, but our industry is all about extra-curricular activities. There are new languages to learn on the weekends, side projects to work on in the evenings, and open source projects to contribute to in the margins.

I enjoy writing, so crafting articles (like this one!) appears on the activity list. I love photography, so a trip to the park is a chance to snap bokeh-filled pictures for my next presentation. If I want to take a break with a good book, it’s about content modeling or project management or business strategy or the fundamentals of graphic design or… well, you get the picture.

Talking to friends, I hear similar stories. Between the pressures of a fast-moving industry and a tech culture that loves to blend work with play, we could easily fill every minute of our lives with always-on ultra-productivity. It’s worse for those who really love the work they do: the all-consuming flood of work-ish side projects and research and conversations and learning can sneak up on you. If you don’t have a vocal partner or friend who’s willing to point it out, it’s easy look up, startled, and realize that you haven’t really taken a break for months.

This is a terrible thing.

The always-on lifestyle eventually grinds away the very productivity it’s meant to accelerate. Although some of us (particularly the young ones) can power through on coffee and cat-naps, the creative insights and fresh perspectives we need require disconnecting.

For me, disconnecting meant carving out time for a hobby that was utterly unrelated to my work and stepping back from a few projects I’d been involved in. I’d joined in because I was passionate about them, and they were all feathers in my professional cap, but there’s only so much time to go around. Sacrificing them meant leaving more of that time in the margins: time for family, time to relax, and time to recharge with things outside of the work I love. Sometimes, I have to grit my teeth and remind myself that the world won’t fall apart if my new code snippet remains incomplete for another day. Sometimes, my wife has to drag me from my desk for a hike around a nearby lake. And sometimes, to be fair, I have to pull her from her writing: the dangers of going all-in aren’t exclusive to the tech world.

No matter what form it takes, though, it’s worth it. Carve out the time to fill your metaphorical tank. Read a trashy novel even though Monday’s around the corner. Make some chili, because it’s delicious and you can play Threes while it cooks. And take the time to watch the squirrels while they’re tearing around the yard: those little imps are hilarious.

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