Now more than ever, the lines between work and not-work are blurred. Home working, Slack on our phones, the need to keep up with technology and a million other reasons means that disconnecting is hard! I’m self-employed and the feeling that I should be working is very real and strong.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when the UK went into its first lockdown, I struggled a lot. I found it hard to concentrate on work and it seemed that I wasn’t getting enough done. I spent more time at my computer to make up for it. As you can guess, this did not result in more or better work.

It was difficult, but taking time for myself was the key to re-balancing my life.

I was surprised by how unproductive it felt to read a novel or play Switch when I felt that I should be working. I’ve done it before. One of the reasons that I went self-employed was to give myself flexibility, after all. Somehow I had forgotten how to do this in the latter half of 2019 onwards; there was always something more important to do.

However, it is important to take time for yourself. Your health will suffer and there is a risk of burn out. Some form of exercise is good for the human body and while it can feel abstract, activity and general fitness makes a difference to our mental health too. This is the magic of endorphins which generally lift our spirits. Motivating myself to exercise regularly remains something I continue to work on, but I see the benefits when I do.

Many articles have been written on burn out, so I will not labour the point here. I think that it’s best described as prolonged job stress which leads to physical and mental exhaustion. No one wants this; it leads to apathy and poor work. A good proportion of those of us in tech are here because we love doing it. Feeling apathetic about the work we love is a very strange situation to be in. Avoiding burn out is worth it!

We need time away from work to recharge; to take care of ourselves.

There is a temptation to make your non-work time mean something, but there are no rules here. You are allowed to do nothing; it’s okay. You can do something; that’s okay too.

There are a number of ways you can approach this. I found that I needed to actively change what I did in order to not fall into the routine of heading back to the office to work. Habits aren’t the easiest to change, but equally new ones can stick.

Of all the types of exercise available, I’ve found that simply walking has stuck the best for me. Going for a walk isn’t the best exercise, but I’m operating on the policy that something is better than nothing. I find that going for a short walk in the morning after breakfast, before I start work, works best for me. I have friends who go for a walk at lunchtime. The time doesn’t matter, but getting outside if you can is good, even if it’s dark or overcast as it is here in the UK at this time of year.

In the evenings and for set times at weekends, I turn the computer off. When the computer is off, there’s a barrier to working on it as you have to wait for it to boot. Not much of a barrier, but enough for me to do something else.

Having convinced myself, and hopefully you, that taking time for yourself is a good and worthwhile thing to do, what can you actually do?

Nothing’s off the table.

  • Stare into space, but don’t doomscroll!
  • Listen to Spotify. Losing myself in music is a wonderful way to relax. Find a friend and share a Spotify Group Session if you can.
  • Read a book. I like novels and biographies; others like self-help books. There’s plenty of choice but avoid job-related topics.
  • Play video games. I like my Switch for this and have many hours in Breath of the Wild and, more recently, Civilization. Mobile games work too.
  • Watch TV. Streaming services make it easy to watch what you want to, at the time of your choosing
  • Exercise. As I’ve noted, walking for me, but an online fitness class or fitness programmes like Zumba or Ring Fit Adventure is good if you don’t want to leave the house.
  • Take up (or return to) a hobby. I photograph trains and go out into the fields so also get alone time. Friends of mine do woodworking and others do craft projects sent to them monthly.

What about hobby programming? Good question. Sometimes it can work well. Especially if it’s in a technology/language that is not your day job. Avoid the temptation of doing a bit extra related to work. Tread carefully here and you can add it to the mix. I have a small hobby photography app that I do two to three hours a week on, but never in the evenings or weekend afternoons.

It’s hard to balance your life.

It’s really hard to get over the hump of feeling like you’re wasting time and should be doing something more worthy. It took me months into 2020 to get to the point where I am comfortable playing Switch or reading a book all day on a Sunday.

Most importantly, give yourself permission to relax. You’ll be better for it.