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My Day Off

This piece follows directly from last month’s on taking time off. The author explores why taking a day off is so hard and describes her attempt.

Finally, I decided to take a day off. I work at home and, as anyone knows who does, that means all the time. No boundaries, no borders, no warning bell blaring at 9:00 at night or security guard barking “Closing!” When you quit is dictated only by hunger, exhaustion, or an occasional family emergency.

Ironically, I’ve often published advice to others to stop work and smell the rest of life. And yet, the doctor can’t comply with her own prescription.

You may know the warning signs of breakless working: a creeping unsettling sense of discontent, dissatisfaction, weariness, frustration, restlessness, even futility. A desire to keep sleeping. A penchant to snap at everyone who appears in front of you, on the phone, or in a text. These are blatant signals for taking a break longer than to the bathroom.

I’m talking specifically here about time alone. Time with others may be easier. We let friends inveigle us into their passions for the zoo or the game, relatives play to our guilt for Sunday dinner, or colleagues appeal to our professionalism with a “necessary” meeting.  Alone is another story.

Having dispensed the advice, I know it well: Plan the break. Schedule it like a work session. Stick to the plan. Do it.

Well, I planned and scheduled, even announced it to a few people. Writing guru Julie Cameron (The Artist’s Way) nailed it: “watch your killjoy side try to wriggle out of it. Watch how this sacred time gets easily encroached upon” (p. 19).

Why Is It So Hard?

As Cameron reports and many writers have discovered, we become more creative than God when He made peacocks in our efforts to sabotage our down time: “I simply must finish scrubbing the house siding.” “They’re counting on me to make two thousand pancakes for the Boy Scout breakfast.” “Before my mother comes next week, I’ve absolutely got to clean out the basement, attic, garage, and 10,000-foot storage shed.” For me it was “just” finishing that client discussion section or revise the draft of my 5,000-word essay.

Why, indeed, is it so hard?

Workaholism. Whether it’s the Protestant, Jewish, or ancient Osirian Ethic, the work mantra is powerful. “The phrase I’m working,” says Cameron, “has a certain unassailable air of goodness and duty to it” (p. 166). She’s right. Our egos preen in our apparent self-deprivation. My writer and academic friends/colleagues and I all subtly and continually inform each other that, of course, we always work nights and weekends. And proof—we make sure those righteous times are visible on our emails and texts: 6:22 a.m., 11:58 p.m., 2:15 a.m.

Working incessantly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy our work and sometimes get so caught up and excited that we can work for eight, nine, ten hours into the project. As social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) eloquently describes it, we feel completely in the flow. But with, or after, these gift sessions, we still often can’t allow ourselves real breaks.

Even with the current emphasis on stress reduction and relaxation, our national religion is still workaholism. So we loathe leaving the latest project—or any project.

Cameron is right: “Play can make a workaholic very nervous. Fun is scary” (p. 166).

A Thousand and One To-Dos. We’re plagued by to-do lists, overflowing inboxes, and compulsion to get it all done. But have you ever noticed that the “To-Do” list never ends? You finally cross off one item and, like the marching brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, more spring up to replace it. In Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, Richard Carlson sanely reminds us that our inbox never empties. “The nature of your ‘in basket’ is that it’s  . . . not meant to be empty” (p. 19). When we are no  more, “there will still be unfinished business . . . . “ Carlson assures us: “Someone else will do it for you!” (p. 20).

Fear. A deeper reason we avoid self-dating (pardon me for coining this vaguely dirty-sounding word), I am convinced, is fear. We may not be able to identify its cause or what it’s aimed at, but when we contemplate taking time, our stomachs sink and we do everything we can to get out of it. We fear being alone in silence, without all the artificial company of our society—cell phones, text messages, headphones, iPads, TVs, videos, DVD players, gameboys and girls. Maybe we’re afraid, as Cameron notes, of intimacy with ourselves and nagging feelings we may be avoiding about our work, our creativity, our relationships, and all the inboxes of our lives.

Elaine St. James, author of Inner Simplicity, offers broader insights: “Some of us have kept moving, either to prove to ourselves that we’re still alive, or in the unconscious fear that if we stop, we’ll have to take a close look at who we are. . . . terrifying” (p. 213). I’ve noticed that I have to keep doing, whether I’m listening (half) to someone else or watching television: I straighten files, dry a dish, skim headlines, make a few notes for the current project.

A colleague, admitting he’d never catch up anyway, recognized his fear of time off as fear of “getting even more behind in everything.”

The best metaphysical advice notwithstanding, I equate being with doing. That may be why, as St. James suggests, doing nothing terrifies.

I’ve also discovered that my date-anxiety is fear that something terrible will happen while I’m away from the project(s). Not necessarily a physical disaster but some kind of work-related punishment—I won’t make a deadline, I’ll miss a crucial call, I’ll have to work triple time.

Deserving. Maybe this word explains a major obstacle underlying our resistance to taking time off. At heart we feel we don’t deserve a moment—much less an hour or seven—of pleasure and play just for ourselves. A friend called her similar feelings and poor time-off record “the attack of the pleasure demon.” Another who was raised in a fundamentalist religion observed, ““If you’re having too much fun, it’s sinning.”

Women more than men may have trouble giving unqualified time to ourselves, since women still traditionally handle so much in so many arenas of life. Most of us women, however much we’re liberated, harbor those ever-tentacling physical and mental to-do lists, foolishly wishing, in spite of ourselves that someday we’ll get it all done.

Yet men too shy away from time alone. Maybe they think it’s not manly—gotta be at the bar or bowling alley with the guys. Maybe they fear they have no inner resources, or that, if found out, they’ll be ridiculed. Or people close to them will incessantly ask if they feel all right.


Wait, you may say—solve it by going on a vacation! I’ve avoided vacations exactly for the same reasons I can’t take an hour off. Why pay for a cruise when I know I’d seek out the ship’s Internet café and spend most of the time, except for the endless buffets, at a computer terminal? (On the sole cruise I took, I did just this.)

Vacations strike terror in my heart. A small comfort to know I’m in good company. The genius cartoonist Scott Adams (“Dilbert”) remarked, “I ‘m not happy on vacation. In those rare times when I have three hours with no work I have to do, I’m terribly uncomfortable”( Enzo Ferrari (of dream-car fame) said, “I have never gone on a real trip, never taken a holiday. The best holiday for me is spent in my workshops when nearly everybody else is on vacation” ( enzoferrar542617.html)

I recall how the vacation conundrum was made dramatically clear to me in that irreverent and brilliant diabolical television series “The Young Pope” (aired October 21-November 18, 2016). On vacation at the Vatican summer palace, the gorgeous, 40-something Pope aimlessly bats a ball with a racquet against an ancient balustrade. Later, when he admits discomfort, a colleague consoles him: “All intelligent men are uncomfortable on vacation” (Episode 8, Nov 12, 2016).

Is it obsessiveness or creativity, is it laudable drive or feeling incessantly driven?

I know, breaks are healthy and we need them. After all, we’re not automatons, although some of us, I’m sure, would like to be. I’m annoyed at my body for getting tired. Especially when my mind is still firing up, and my back, arms, wrists, head ache from all the screen time.

Possible Remedy

In Inner Simplicity, St. James suggests how we can ease into doing nothing, kind of like reverse withdrawal. She tells us that this (non)activity is a valuable tool for getting in touch with our inner self and, if we need a rationale, is tremendously constructive. It’s a habit that must be learned, and she advocates starting with only two or three minutes. Stop all activity and fidgeting and sit quietly with eyes open, “your mind aware but not active, and just be” (p. 214).  She warns too of the temptations: hunger, thirst, sleepiness, racing mind, pop-ups of absolute imperatives. When I’ve followed her advice, after a few times it does get a little easier.

My Day Off

Having thought, rethought, and overthought all these reasons and rationales, I finally decided—next Tuesday it will be. Eerily, the client work cooperated: I did all to date (dare I say “caught up”?). The client who was supposed to send in her manuscript on Monday emailed to tell me she wouldn’t have it ready for two days. Perfect!

In preparation, I made a list of “pleasure” things—sleep late; have my regular quiet time outside on the terrace—where I always plan the day and survey yesterday’s list of to-dos. Instead of the usual standing precooked oatmeal, a leisurely, savoring-the-syrup pancake breakfast. Then a walk outside, taking a book and settling under a tree. Or maybe I’ll somewhere—a downtown art gallery, the zoo.

Unplugging? The by-now classic stricture to unplug didn’t bother me–mostly. No earbuds (I prefer desktop Internet classical radio anyway), no texting or Twitter (time wasters), no games (double time wasters), no photos or Instagram (memory suffices), no news (except for a little celebrity gossip). I may be one of the few remaining 21st-century individuals who uses her cell phone primarily like a phone.

But another admission: I’m in love with my desktop. I like it, working steadily on client manuscript cleanup or my own essays like this. Maybe you think I should unplug from my desktop too. You’re right. Yet I somehow feel rudderless without this place. It’s safe, often challenging, always ready to answer.

It Starts. Tuesday morning arrived. I slept later—but it was still only 7:00 am. Lying in bed, automatically rehearsing my to-dos, I had to remind myself this was my “day off.” Depression crept up, a feeling of anchorlessness. I was already lonely for communication with my desktop.

I tried, Lord knows. Got up, dressed in something a little better than my habitual jeans. Put on earrings and some makeup.

Took my coffee out to the terrace with a few uplifting pamphlets. Surveyed the never-tiring view of sky, ocean, greenery, boats, high white buildings. And I still made my schedule for the day, a mix of writing, client work, household (endless) tasks, food prep, mail opening.

Would I dare build in an hour or two of television? Or just sit. Or meditate?

Now it was 8:12 a.m. I got up, put my pamphlets away, straightened this and that, felt the dirt in a plant for dryness, took a dish from the dishwasher and washed it. Couldn’t even flip through a magazine I’d been meaning to read. Or a fascinating volume on early Christianity. I turned on the television and sat in front of something—don’t remember what. I longed to go to my desk. And succumbed, firing up the computer.


So here I am, writing this essay on my day off. Maybe I’ll practice doing nothing again, even for a record twenty minutes. And I’ll schedule another day off—in about a year.

© 2023 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at