Home > Thoughtful Thursdays > take a break before you need one

take a break before you need one

In the days leading up to our departures for the International Reporting Project fellowships this past fall, IRP Director John Schidlovsky treated the ten of us fellows to an informal pizza lunch and a discussion about “what was keeping us up at night” about our upcoming trips.

As we went around the table and each one of us described our last-minute scrambling for accommodations, fixers and other resources, John reminded us to take some time off during our five weeks overseas to simply relax and enjoy ourselves.

No one needed to remind us that these fellowships weren’t simply an opportunity for an extended international vacation. But I did see a lot of us around that table sort of smile and nod at John’s advice, knowing that we’d completely ignore it.

That’s what I did, at least. And it was a big mistake.

You’ll only get the full benefit of time away from work if you take that step back before you actually need it. If you wait until you’re burned out or so stressed and tired that you can’t see straight, chances are you’ll need a lot more than a day or two away from the grind to fully recuperate and get your balance back.

So what happened in Ireland? At the tail end of my very last day in Dublin before flying back to the U.S., I was so wiped out that I couldn’t even think straight. I’d worked every day since I’d landed five weeks earlier and pushed my body beyond its somewhat fragile limits. As I was heading to the bus stop on O’Connell Street to go back to the airport hotel where I was staying the night, I saw a curious sight that I still can’t get out of my head:

A group of Muslim students had set up a table with informational pamphlets and cards, while a few yards away around the corner, a Christian evangelical stood on a small platform with a PA system, screaming about the moral and mortal dangers of Islam. I am not making this up.

What was particularly interesting to me was that the Muslim students were actively engaging with people who came up to their table to start conversations. There were lots of smiles and handshakes, relaxed body language and calm voices. It seemed that the Muslims were there just to answer questions that any passersby might have.

Around the corner, however, the man with the mic was shouting with a hate-filled edge to his voice. Even the sound was offensive, and I noticed that not a single person stopped to listen to him. Instead, the crowds seemed to hurry past as quickly as possible, as though trying to avoid a hornets’ nest.

So you know what I did? Nothing.

I did not pull out my Zoom and record the shouting evangelical. I did not approach the Muslim students and ask about what they were doing. I did not stop anyone on the street to ask what they thought about all of this.

Because I was flat-out exhausted. I was completely drained. I had just enough mental energy and focus to find the right bus stop, and that was it. So that’s what I concentrated on: getting myself back to a space where I could just collapse and try to recover a bit. Even though that’s honestly the best I could do in that place and time, I’m still kicking myself over that missed opportunity. The luck of running across that strange juxtaposition of religious expression was surprising. What a spectacular way to round out my five weeks in Ireland talking to people about religious minorities! But I didn’t have even half-an-ounce of energy left.

So. I hope I’ve gotten better about recognizing when I need to take some downtime. It’s easy to get so caught up in the individual project or the larger opportunity and find yourself feeling obligated to squeeze as much out of the experience — and out of yourself — as you can. But what about the next day, or even the next hour? If you’re not leaving yourself enough juice to think about anything other than work or even to take a deep breath, then you’re ultimately hurting yourself and the project.

Writers are driven by deadlines, and we’ve all burned the midnight oil more often than we’d like to get a story done — and done right — on time. But slamming yourself as you jump from one frantic deadline to the next is a fast road to burnout, and possibly worse. I’m still learning how and when to schedule breaks for myself. It’s really not difficult to get up from the desk a few times a day to take the dog for a walk, relax for a few minutes with a good book, listen to some music I enjoy. It shouldn’t be hard to take a full weekend away from my computer, but you’d be surprised. Part of this is time management, to be sure, but I think a larger part is giving myself permission to take time away. It’s okay to take a break. It’s actually necessary. So do it.

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