Working Non-Stop Almost Killed Me. Here’s What Happened When I Finally Took A Break. Planned downtime is crucial to your health. By Marilyn Paul
Years ago, I believed I had not a moment to spare for time off in my very busy life; my work, studies, and social commitments seemed to eat up 26 hours a day. I could have used eight days a week to get everything done.
In my 20s and 30s, I was a high-energy person who loved my non-stop days. When I went to Yale for graduate school in organizational change, I could stay up until one o’clock in the morning and get up at seven for a class or a breakfast meeting. I ran from meeting to meeting, from lunch with a friend here to a presentation there to drinks and dinner somewhere else. I loved what I was learning about creating healthier workplaces. I was high on action. Life was pressured, turbulent, chaotic, and very disorganized, but I kept moving. I would get tired—very tired—but I could always push through the fatigue.
Until one morning, to my horror, I couldn’t get up. I was more than exhausted; something was really wrong. I stopped moving because I had to. I consulted with many doctors who had no answer for me, other than “Take a break. Get some rest.” They didn’t know what I had and didn’t know how to treat it. After a year of seeking help, I was diagnosed with an immune deficiency disease. I understood this as a way of saying I had stretched my immune system to its limit. I couldn’t live at a crazy pace anymore. I experimented with different diets, more meditation, and reducing my workaholic hours, but it still wasn’t enough. I needed a complete overhaul of my life. (Discover the secret to adding more meaning to every single day with Live Well, Die Happy.)
Learning there was another way.
Right around then, a friend invited me to a Shabbat dinner. I declined actually, several times; I was still terribly ill and wasn’t interested in going out to an unfamiliar setting. His persistence won out, and so one evening I struggled over to a gathering of his friends, walking slowly because my energy was limited. I remember walking into the living room and lighting candles with a group of people whom I’d never met.
I felt a sense of peace descend over the room and a collective sigh of relief—the week was over. We said blessings, performed some rituals, and sang totally unfamiliar songs. I didn’t know how to do any of these things, yet those strangers welcomed me in and, over time, became friends. We met every month for a festive Shabbat dinner.
With their support, I learned to slow down, change my life, and stop moving on purpose. I finally recognized that not only did I need to slow down, but I also needed to completely shift gears once a week. I needed to allow space for the ineffable to thrive in my life. I discovered that my health improved if I allowed myself a full day off to recover from the week.
My own day of rest
Part of the problem is that in this busy mode, there is never enough: not enough success, not enough money, not enough attention. We dwell in a state of lack. Even while we are trying to attract more and better somethings into our lives, we feel that something is missing.
Little by little, I brought this Sabbath practice into my life. First, I stopped trying to work for part of an evening, then for an evening and a morning. I learned to plan a different kind of time. The weekly time “off” was an elixir. Every week, it poured a balm of recuperation on my tired soul. I started to heal from my “incurable” illness. Over a year or two, I experienced the power of stopping my work, my rushing, and my intense focus on getting things done for a whole day every week. To my surprise, my life did not fall apart. In fact, it got so much better.
It took about a year to heal from the virus that had attacked my immune system, but I ultimately regained my health and well-being, finished my doctorate at a more moderate pace, and went on to thrive in the intense, hectic world of management consulting. I drew on the well of traditional wisdom. I learned how much depth I can experience in life when I embrace and learn from my family’s Jewish heritage. I learned that we can replenish ourselves regularly. Then we go back to work with new eyes, new perspective, and new energy.
Making a plan
Little by little, I found ways to carve out a weekly “oasis in time,” or day off, in part by paying close attention to my own needs and desires, and in part by returning to my spiritual heritage. You too can take a weekly step off the treadmill and, religious or not, put this healing rhythm into your week.
Oasis time needs to be different from your everyday routine—slower, less technologically connected, and removed from the focus on achievement. It’s vital to make a plan for this time, even if your plan is to do nothing, because without our plans and switch-off rituals, we easily revert to our default pace, orientation, and habits. We need strong forces that can lift us out of our everyday patterns. And when you live in that manner, you reduce the strain and the stress of everyday life.
We might plan to be out in nature, to be with friends, to play music, make art, jump in the mud, go river rafting; or we might plan wide-open, unscheduled time to do nothing and go with the flow. The key, however, is a plan: Without the plan and the preparation to execute it, we will revert. “Do” mode will sneak back in, and before we know it we will go back to consulting our to-do lists, checking social media, and speeding up.
When we commit to one day of rest a week, we seize the rhythm of rest and recovery out of the jaws of nonstop action and live to tell the tale. We become heroes on the journey toward the well-lived life. We learn to be smart about corralling the nonstop messages that try to convince us to do more, be more, and have more. We don’t need any “more” right now; we need love, care, and regular oasis time to reflect on what is important.
When we integrate breaks into our lives, we get rhythm. When we get rhythm, we get perspective on our lives. We begin to see that there is life beyond the riveting, demanding pulsing of our workdays. We start to liberate the soul side of ourselves—the part that longs for music, song, dance, connectedness, sensuality, intimacy, and awe.
If you find yourself asking, “a whole day of rest every week? Who has the time to actually do that?” Remember: Millions of busy people do, that’s who—from management consultants to CEOs to me and my family.