One of the most challenging aspects of knowledge work is one that is often overlooked: much of what we call knowledge ‘work’ is actually quite fun. Think of an entrepreneur, a software developer who likes to write code, think of a manager who likes to see her objects develop in fruitful ways, think of a teacher who likes to teach!
I myself like very many aspects of the tasks that occupy me at present. However, as difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, if I take a good, pure break; a break in which I am not in the least worried about the pursuit of my current professional passions, then, on my return back to work, I feel very positive and productive. In fact, many of my best ideas come to me right after a break or within a break.
However, the question arises what exactly makes up this good, pure break. What does it mean for me to be not working – not working at all? Since there are many other ‘projects’, which I pursue with great pleasure but which effectively could also be characterized as knowledge ‘work’.
To identify which activities are ‘work in disguise’ and therefore do not qualify to be part of a good, pure break, I came up with the following strategies:
The useful test is relatively easy to apply. For the activity in question, ask yourself whether you would deem it useful in the general scheme of things. Will this help you to advance your career? Will it help you to become a better person? Will it earn you money now or in the future? If you can answer any of these questions with yes or if the activity is useful in any other way, then it does not pass the Useful Test and thus it should be carefully considered to be part of a good and honest ‘pure’ break.
The second strategy is a bit trickier to apply. This strategy entails to reflect upon how you worked AFTER pursuing the activity in question; where ‘after’ does not have to mean in direct succession; it could be the next day or a couple of hours later. The key point is not to look at how you feel during or directly after the activity. Instead, look at how effectively you work when you pick up on your main work again. In particular, focus on how easy the work feels to you: Do you have to drag yourself to get started, or does the work literally pull you in with the warm embrace of optimistic confidence? If the former is the case, the activity in question might not be well-suited for a healthy break.
Is this a strange problem to have: Being in danger to work too much and too often? My observation of the world tells me that not everybody is haunted by this very problem. However, I would expect there is many a founder/student/researcher/programmer/artist out there who is being less productive and happy because of wanting to work too much and, more importantly, because of the inability to relax truly and guilt free. Take some time off and enjoy the fruits of your non-work in form of a clearer mind, a more positive attitude and more creative ideas when you need them.