Until recently, I ran a virtual content operation. Everyone on the team — a few editors and a host of freelance writers — worked from their homes. The New York City-area editors met face-to-face once a week for group brainstorming sessions; others of us based elsewhere conferenced in by phone. Additionally, each day included phone & Skype calls, emails, instant messages and group document input. We kept in touch without feeling the need to keep tabs on one another.
There were plenty of clear goalposts and deadlines and our rapid-fire interactions were designed to meet them efficiently. Yet, the precise way of doing so was left up to the individual worker. I didn’t focus on how people organized their days or what extraneous personal activities they wove into them as long as the job got done and no one was left carrying another person’s burden.
Granted, this approach required excellent, highly trustworthy participants with keen time management skills. But it was also the very reason I sought to “go virtual” with the operation and take advantage of telecommuting options. I figured I could land the best and most experienced workers by not insisting that they work from one locale and by offering general flexibility, something I know is particularly valued by veterans and those juggling complex lives.
This way of working also helped reduce the risk of stress overload. Having too much to do and being constantly on call via electronic connectivity inhibits work success and can ultimately lead to burnout.
Although our medium-sized team’s way of working was not entirely glitch-free (nothing ever is) and required continuous refinement, it was quite effective. I came to believe that the typical corporate mentality — that we need to have lots of eyes on what we do and when we do it — can be a true impediment to creative work and business growth.
It’s Time to Play Hooky
Since many managers don’t see a way to integrate flexibility into staff jobs or think it’s a particularly good idea, I’d like to suggest that workers build it in themselves — by occasionally playing hooky. However, there’s one caveat: just as a truant student is generally the only one who misses out or is inconvenienced by skipping class, employees who play hooky must take care to protect others and the business from their “me time.”
By playing hooky I mean judiciously using traditional work hours on a single day to do enjoyable things that allow you to decompress, recover mental and physical well-being or deal with important personal tasks (like caregiving for a parent, seeing a doctor or dealing with a truly critical errand) that work prevents you from addressing. I’m not talking about shopping.
Playing hooky involves going beyond the official personal days, vacations and daily breaks (the one-hour lunch or 15-minute coffee break) granted by your company when these prove inadequate. For example, maybe four hours is what you need right now to accomplish personal tasks but your company doesn’t allow you half-days off. It could also mean taking extra-long lunch hours (not for business meetings unless you’re looking for a new job or side gig) or ducking out when there’s no deadline at hand and afterwards making sure to take care of the work remaining on your plate.
It’s critical that you don’t play hooky often; this is about doing what’s necessary for your life, not slacking off. As for saying you were ill to account for your absence…. Nope! I’m not into lying and, remember, the goal is to go beyond codified sanctions.
How to Handle Your Boss and Colleagues
The benefits of a non-rigid schedule and a better work-life balance are well established. Next Avenue’s Assistant Managing Editor and Senior Work & Purpose Editor, Richard Eisenberg detailed the rewards of a 4-day workweek in this smart article. But, let me be clear: I’m not speaking about putting in 40 hours in fewer than five days. In fact, you may work, say, 55 hours over a five-day period. But you will have integrated rewarding downtime into it, thereby boosting your mental and physical energy and providing you with a much-improved attitude that can only help you tackle your responsibilities.
How should you deal with a boss or colleague who notes your absence and resents or objects to it? Of course, clear communication in advance of your time out is the ideal approach. But if that openness will likely lead to resistance (perhaps on the basis of principle alone), explain after the fact that you had to address some personal issues and will do whatever it takes to make up the work. Learn from the response and modify your future approach accordingly. The bottom line for a hooky player: you must be an excellent and invaluable worker.
8 Ways to Gain From Playing Hooky
Before playing hooky, I suggest giving thought to what can truly ease your burdens and recharge both body and mind. Whatever activities you decide on, turn off your smartphone and put it away while doing them — checking emails and social media will only elevate your stress level.
Here are eight ideas for maximizing the benefits of short blasts of time away from work that have nothing to do with run-of-the-mill errands or caregiving tasks.
1. Catch up on rest. Most Americans are sleep-deprived, which wields a substantial negative impact on their health and performance in all areas of life. Recent research underscores the importance of rest to sustain the brain. Take a power nap during an extended lunch hour or include it among the activities you pursue during a larger chunk of time away from work.
2. Go for a long, leisurely walk outdoors. The goal here is not exercise, though fitness will be a great fringe benefit, of course. Walk with the intention of connecting mind to body and observing and appreciating the small details of your surroundings — sounds, scents, patterns and colors.
3. Take a short trip to a beautiful or interesting spot. Head for a state forest or urban park, a mountain or skyscraper rooftop, but consider taking a mode of transportation that doesn’t force you to contend with traffic — a train, for example. This would also allow you to read more than just a few pages of a book you love or meditate. When you get to your destination, focus on one spot rather than trying to cover a lot of ground in a rush.
4. Get a massage or facial. Are you sitting on an unused gift certificate because you haven’t been able to find the time to use it? Well, it’s a lot easier to land an appointment during work hours and a body treatment will go a long way toward ironing out those desk-job kinks and restoring some fire in the belly.
5. Engage in your favorite hobby or investigate a new one. It’s hard to squeeze what we most love doing into overly crammed days and even harder to dip our toes into something that may well turn into an abiding passion. So carve some time out to pop in on a class or to just do the thing that you already know makes you feel happy. Does knitting, glass blowing or woodworking grab you? Motorcycle racing or swing dancing? Well, what are you waiting for?
6. Sit in on a lecture, participate in a workshop or check out an online chat or video on a topic that fascinates you. This is a terrific way to escape a stuck-in-a-rut feeling and stimulate your brain. How about a lecture on the new black hole that’s just been discovered or an instructive online chat with the author of a hot new novel? Check out the offerings of community centers, bloggers, web-based media outlets that stage intriguing chats (such as Book Club Girl) and educational sites like the Khan Academy. But if the task requires sitting in front of a screen, use it only for the designated learning or conversation mission — no work, games or social media dipping allowed!
7. Meet up with a dear friend, child or grandchild. We all have people in our lives we care a great deal about but don’t get to see as much as we’d like to. So set a date and get together during a workday. You can choose to do one of the activities mentioned here or meet over a meal, but I recommend spending much more than an hour in one another’s company and really listening and sharing.
8. Go to a play or movie, an afternoon concert, a museum or a gallery. Such activities are often reserved for the weekend, if at all, but you already have too many things to do then, right? How about seeking a cultural high on a workday and avoiding the crowds?
I know that my suggestion that we all play more hooky is irreverent, but I think it’s important to stand up for yourself and do what you need to do to be a stronger, happier employee. If done smartly, with a concern for your colleagues in mind, you’ll end up boosting productivity and the bottom line.
Now, gotta dash — it’s 3:30 p.m. and I’m heading over to New York’s Morgan Library. There’s a fascinating exhibit I want to see featuring Saint-Exupery’s original watercolors and text for The Little Prince. That oughta get me in good enough shape to meet my next deadline!
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