Dear Sarah: How do you take time off?

A while ago, Zinzi (the editor at KnitWit Magazine) emailed me to ask if it was OK to take time off, and how do you do it? Taking a vacation for a small business owner is a much different process than at a corporate job. Here’s our exchange…

On Oct 8, 2018, at 5:22 PM, Zinzi Edmundson <zinzi@knitwitmag.net> wrote:

Hiya friend, I’m thinking about having a big out of office moment the week of Christmas and the week after—going dark (no posts on social or on the site). Am I nuts? Keep in mind, I will have been posting with newborn accompaniment for the four weeks prior... Have you ever done anything like that?

On Oct 9, 2018, at 12:04 PM, Sarah Schulweis <sarah@anchorandorbit.com> wrote:

Zinzi! I am so glad you brought this up. It's timely. First of all, I'm not a mom yet, so I'm not entirely sure what it feels like to have an infant needing my body 24/7, but I assume that by the time you hit Xmas you're going to be ready for a full week (or more) off. I have absolutely gone completely dark. In fact! I focus very little on marketing via social media, so I go dark ... a lot.

What I am not great at is stepping away from email. This past summer I had a forced "vacation" (i.e. two family trips in a row) and used that as motivation to finish projects, tell clients to hold on, and put up a vacation responder that went something like this: "Hi! I'm really good at my job, but right now I'm offline with family and recuperating. Call if you need me. xo"

The truth was that I was in fact online, but for limited and scheduled moments where I could check in with my facilitators (people who needed my guidance) as well as go through my email and make sure nothing was on fire (nothing ever was.) My facilitators knew the days and times I would be online and left me alone otherwise. So I had boundaries, priorities, and motivation to close the computer.

The BEST part about taking time away was the epiphanies. I swear, if I had another week away to read, drink a drank by the pool, and nap a lot, I may have actually solved world peace.

But stepping away is hard. What the worst thing that could happen if we really step away?

On Oct 13, 2018, at 8:16 PM, Zinzi Edmundson <zinzi@knitwitmag.net> wrote:

Drinking a drank by the pool, plus a nap, does sound like the best conduit for high-level thinking—I want to go to there!

What is the worst thing that could happen by stepping away, I mean, that's the question right there isn't it? I really dislike when people call other things that aren't babies “their babies” (pets, businesses, etc.), but I'm going to break from that to say that sometimes it CAN feel—especially now that you can carry your job in your back pocket—that a small business is close to being as demanding and nonstop has having a newborn around (or at the very least a high-stakes Tamagotchi). But on the other hand, I wrote "I feel" because maybe it doesn't have to be and we just make that up because that's what feels best to our computer-harangued (and weakened!), compulsive brains. Am I getting to sci-fi here? I'm about a half-step away from talking about the Singularity...

In all seriousness though, what's the worst thing that could happen. I think about those times I've checked my phone only to discover that I missed an important call/have an angry customer/printed someone's name incorrectly—that feeling that you dropped the ball that sort of pops out of nowhere. You don't see it coming. I think that's the fear, that if you're not a constant custodian to your inbox, or your social media feed, or your to-do list, that more of those feelings might appear.

What I love about what you wrote though, is that all the I's felt dotted, T’s crossed—you did the work in advance, then set the boundaries and expectations and finally put up the auto-responder. But I think I wonder, how do you know that you've done everything you can do? How do you for sure, definitely, 100% know you're properly set up to minimize the impact of your absence.

On Oct 15, 2018, at 8:48 AM, Sarah Schulweis <sarah@anchorandorbit.com> wrote:

There is so much to talk about here, really. After reading/hearing this question my automatic response is “time management” which, really isn’t the solution. It’s not as simple as saying, “Manage your time more and then taking vacations will be easy!”

You probably do work (or, thanks to our ever-present devices, could do work) all of the time! So this is less about time management and more about saying “No” more often, right at the beginning of an opportunity that will overburden you, and getting really clear about the priority level of every task on your to-do list. Simple, but not easy, right?

Some knitty-gritty: Create a project called “Vacation” in your project management tool of choice. Treat it seriously. List everything you need to do — not just the work you would have been doing during what is now vacation week, but also the admin things like letting clients know you’ll be out, setting up boundaries for email, writing that auto-responder, etc.

There are (and will continue to be) times when you just have to be “heads down and focused.” This may look like working after dinner or on weekends. And if you’re somewhat averse to the “hustle, hustle, hustle” entrepreneur mantra that’s everywhere these days, this way of working isn’t what you’re aiming for or enjoy the most. So when it hits, remind yourself it’s just for a short time (and make sure it actually is temporary) and learn how you can recover. Running a business is a marathon, not a 100m dash, and recovery is part of being a good runner (I love metaphors.)

When my work really starts to get to me, that’s when I know that stepping away isn’t just important, but a requirement. I have to take care of my most valuable asset — ME (my brain & my body.) Especially if you’re the main (or only) point person in your company, tending to yourself is a necessity. There’s a lot of self-care that can happen day-to-day, but there’s something unique about shutting everything down (or as close to it as possible) for a week or two.

A little tough love: You will probably never feel ready to step away or “go dark.” The good news is that this gives you permission to stop waiting to be ready and get it on the calendar.

Amid all of this, hold onto the most persuasive business reason why you should step away: the time helps you see the big picture, try to figure out what you can offload to others, what systems that you can implement to make your day easier, and most importantly, ways you can manage your time on a daily and weekly basis so you feel less overloaded. This may also mean that you have to adjust your rate and create more value for yourself (and that’s a perfectly wonderful thing.)