Today’s post comes to you from a small town in the state of Washington. The picture above is the view from the back porch of the house where we’re staying, and I couldn’t ask for a more peaceful place to write. I have visions of sitting at the table outside, cup of chai at my elbow as I write in the cool of early morning. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a great dream. I might feel bad about sleeping in except that there are folks here who are awake by five am, and there is no way I’m getting up before then. This is a vacation, not a boot camp.
The closest I’ve come to my own personal writer’s retreat is to step outside while everyone else is busy elsewhere. The solitude doesn’t last long. I’m sharing the house with nine other people. My family is here, my husband’s friend is here with his wife and kids, and we’re all benefitting from the generosity of the friend’s mom and dad, who own the house. As soon as one person moves to the deck outside, the rest of the crew inevitably follows.
There’s an article I want to share with you. It’s about how to network when you either don’t have colleagues (because you’re an entrepreneur or a freelancer) or you want to network outside of your company. There are some really great resources out there to connect with other like-minded remote workers. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to write that article another week.
I started writing this post on the deck outside. It took about ten minutes for someone to notice that I was alone, and join me. I tried relocating to the back bedroom with the bad internet. That worked for a little while. Then my kids came back from their bike ride, and I had a series of visitors checking in to see if I was okay, and say hi, and ask for Gatorade, etc.
At this point I have two choices. I can wedge a chair under the doorknob and refuse to talk to anyone who tries to interrupt me, or I can go with the flow. I haven’t seen this particular family in more than five years, so I’m going to go with the flow. Enjoy your week. I’ll be spending mine enjoying the company of lovely people, in a nice house by the lake.
My son had no idea he was a drummer until last week. I knew. He hears music in everyday things. As a toddler he moved to the music that the wind made as it rattled through the autumn leaves. As a preschooler he boogied to the beat of the dishwasher.
I didn’t do anything about it because drums are really loud and our home is pretty small. He’s young and clearly had no idea he was missing something. But I knew. I knew and a part of me has been on the lookout for when I would have to do something about it.
The breaking point came in the Vancouver airport. There we were, waiting for our flight to California, munching on breakfast sandwiches from Tim’s and trying to stay awake, when the boy started grooving to a beat only he heard.
“Someone’s playing music,” he said, his eyes watching me, waiting to see if I could find the beat he heard.
It took a while. It was early and I was tired and the airport people were paging a long list of passengers who were about to miss their flight to Seattle. They had been paging the people off and on for half an hour and the kids and I heartily wished they would just give up and let the people miss their flight already.
Eventually I heard it. He was bopping to the beat that the printer made as it printed out boarding passes. I bopped along to the beat with him, as I always do, and he went back to playing Minecraft.
I thought, He has no idea. As far as my boy knew, everyone heard the music in ordinary things. And I suddenly couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand the thought of keeping him from a piece of himself just because I didn’t want noise in the house. It took until middle school for me to figure out that not everyone could write stories. I wanted him to meet the other piece of himself now.
Taking it to the Street
You can find anything if you know enough people. A few of my neighbours recommended a good place for drum lessons, and I took the kids there without telling them where we were going. I only planned to sign the boy up for lessons, but I ended up coming home with a used drum kit too. In my defence it was a used kit that came in that morning, and I paid half of what it costs new.
So now we have this drum kit in the living room, because that’s the only place it fits. And my boy took his first drum lesson and his teacher says he’s incredible.
All I can say is that it’s awesome watching him with his drum. He’s inspirational. I’m learning guitar so we can form our own band. No one tells me I sound incredible. That’s okay. And we may be wearing noise cancelling headphones in our living room for the next fifteen years, but I don’t mind that either. The boy found his thing. I can’t wait to see where it takes him.
My son almost died when he was a baby. And I thought I was okay once we checked out of the hospital. It wasn’t until three months later, when some of the trauma from that experience lifted, that I realized I hadn’t been okay at all.
Denial. Not Just a River in Egypt
I went through that same pattern for about a year. The cloud of trauma would rise up a bit, and I would look back at the previous months and think ‘Why did I think I was okay then? Boy I’m glad I’m okay now,’ until I noticed the number of times I said that. At that point I started worrying that I wasn’t ever going to be okay again.
Panic drove me to therapy. I had small children to care for, a demanding job, and the fallout from the last recession to deal with. I didn’t have time for PTSD or whatever it was that was wrong with me. The plan was to go, talk to someone to take the edge off of things, and then carry on with my life.
That isn’t how therapy works. I know that, now. But at least I went. Up until that point my only real coping mechanisms were denial and knitting, and knitting can only get you so far.
You Can’t Heal if You Don’t Admit You’re Injured
The thing is, you can’t heal if you refuse to admit you’re injured. It’s hard to admit when I’m hurting. I am the super hero of my own life. But sometimes life punches you right in the jaw and you need to admit it hurts.
My company is going through a reorganization. A lot of good people are leaving, and it hurts.
Discomfort Isn’t An Emergency
Let’s talk about running. I promise it’s relevant. Running long distances hurts. Something inevitably chafes, my muscles scream, and sweat gets into my eyes.
Long distances also scrub away the things that don’t really matter–if I can go the distance, I gain a kind of clarity I can’t find any other way. But to get there, I spend the last few miles talking myself through the tired and the pain. I’m not talking about actual injury here. I’m talking about surface discomfort–blisters, fatigue, that sort of thing.
You know what? Discomfort isn’t an emergency. Strictly speaking, if I’m running at the edge of my capability, I’m not okay. But the shortest distance back to okay is to wade right through. Running is the least traumatic way I know of to learn to cope with pain.
There’s only one word in the sentence ‘my son almost died as a baby,’ that I am grateful for. That word is ‘almost.’ The experience gave me a set of coping skills I wish I could have learned by running instead. And that’s basically where I’m at right now with this reorganization. Coping. My colleagues will find great jobs. At some point this will stop hurting so much. I will put one foot after the other and I will keep going until I push on through.
Working while on vacation isn’t ideal, but there are things you can do to get your work done and then get out and enjoy your vacation.
My only niece got married last Saturday. Good aunt that I am, packed up the kids on Wednesday and flew down to attend.
You might expect me to say that I’m glad that I can both vacation and work without missing a beat, thanks to the power of the remote workforce. The truth is that I try very hard to NOT work while I’m on vacation. Just because you CAN work from anywhere doesn’t mean you should. I generally keep work out of my vacations.
Sadly that wasn’t possible this time. My fellow analysts can’t cover all of the work I do. My boss generally oversees the bit that needs special handling while I’m out. Unfortunately he was scheduled to be in Banff (that’s in Canada) that week. Since he wasn’t sure about his WiFi situation and I was going to be staying in Silicon Valley, it made sense for me to cover my own tasks.
Working while on vacation isn’t ideal, but there are things you can do to get your work done and then get out and enjoy your vacation.
Communicate Your Work Hours
Distributed companies with healthy cultures celebrate remote worker flexibility. Still, people need to know when they can talk to you. Remote workers can’t see when colleagues get to work. We rely on other indicators–work hours listed in an email signature, the status button on instant messaging platforms, and good old fashioned memory. People won’t always remember the time zone you live in; they are more likely to remember the time of day when they usually get a response from you.
One of my colleagues regularly sends me instant messages at 11:50am. I’ve accidentally rewarded her for doing so by responding very quickly at that time. I go running at noon, and at 11:50 I’m anxious to clear things off my plate quickly so I can enjoy my run. I don’t know if she understands why I respond so quickly, but she obviously remembers that I do. Your colleagues hold similar information about you.
You need a strategy for handling work tasks while you’re on vacation. First, weed out any work that can wait until you get back. Your out of office message will do the heavy lifting here. I lead with some version of ‘I won’t be checking email or phone messages while I’m away’ so people won’t expect to hear from me until I return.
Second, use your email’s out of office message to empower people to get work done without you. My message lists specific people or groups to talk to for specific sorts of questions. I even share which key words to use in their subject line to get faster service.
Make Sure You’re Available to the Right People
If you have to do some work while on vacation, email the specific people involved with a different communication plan. I live on the West Coast but work East Coast hours. While I agreed to work on my vacation, I drew the line at starting work at 6:30am. In this particular case I committed to checking my email and finishing my work tasks by 9am Pacific.
Your email should be short but informative. Include your amended work hours, and the specific tasks you’ll be working on. Mention that all other work will either have to wait until your return, or go to your sub. My email went out 2 days before I left, and then again the night before I left. Does this sound excessive? It’s better to assume that your colleagues are too busy to keep track of your vacation time.
Break the News to Your Family or Friends
Even when you set great boundaries, it takes constant effort to get loved ones to respect them. There’s always that person who thinks your focus hours don’t apply to them. And if you work while on vacation, you can expect that your vacation mates will point out that you’re violating your own boundaries.
Are you tempted to sneak in some work when no one’s watching? Nobody wants an argument. But keeping your work schedule a secret generally makes matters worse. This is especially true if you regularly let work take over your life. If you told your loved ones that you would focus on them during vacation, and then try to work in secret, you can damage relationships.
Talking about you work schedule up front helps maintain your credibility. It also gives people a chance to weigh in. Your friends or family don’t want you to work on vacation. However, if you ask for (and use!) their preferences to plan your work hours, that can go a long way to help them deal with your reality.
I’m part of a large family. And I haven’t seen most of them for more than a year. When I come into town I usually spend every moment visiting and catching up. Since I couldn’t do that this time, I promised I would work only 2 hours each day, and that I would get it done by 9am.
Respect Those Hours
If you tell people you are going to be at work during a set time, make sure you’re there. And then make sure you sign off when you say you will. If you’ve been setting boundaries around your work and home life before your vacation, this should feel familiar to you.
Resist the ‘Just One More Email’ Excuse
Do you feel guilty ignoring work emails? Remember my colleague who sends me instant messages at 11:50. If you answer everyone’s emails while you’re on vacation, you’re rewarding that behavior. You can even justify it by saying that taking care of the problem now means an easier transition back into work later. Don’t do it.
You won’t develop a robust vacation coverage policy if you’re too available. Nobody likes waiting for answers. Nor do we like shifting our routines so we can catch our colleagues before they go on vacation. But you know what? We don’t always like waking up early in the morning to get to work on time, either. We do it because we have to.
Many of our greatest accomplishments as a species were solutions to problems. How can I eat that rabbit when it moves faster than me? Let’s invent the snare! How do I keep from starving during the winter? Let’s figure out how to preserve food!
Do you want a work culture that respects ‘off’ time? Then act as if off time is sacred. If we assume we can’t reach people on vacation, we will invent workarounds for this problem.
I remember when my niece was born. I remember when she used to call me Auntie Orange because I let her steal them out of my fruit bowl. It doesn’t seem possible that she’s a now a married adult. Thanks to the power of my boundaries, I was able to enjoy her moment and build memories that I can look back on for years to come.