Two years ago, my strategy for redeeming paid time off was thwarted when travel felt selfish and unsafe during the first year of the COVID-19 crisis. Unwilling to let my earned paid time off expire, I opted to schedule four-day workweeks for the last several months of the year to improve my day-to-day life.
The following year, still too uneasy to spend any time in airports or bus terminals, I repeated my scheme from the year before. And this year…wouldn't you know it, we’re still spectacularly failing to safely manage a global pandemic with even the simplest precautions, and I’m not willing to risk brain damage for a vacation.
The last time I scheduled a week off was December 2019, and working almost three years straight after that without a period of sustained rest unquestionably felt unhealthy, so this year it felt prudent to schedule a full week off in my favorite month, October.
As an American with precious little time off each year, I labored over what I might spend my week on. I bought art supplies and video games and made lists of all the projects I want to start someday and all of the chores I’ve been putting off. I wanted to make sure I had everything I could possibly need to satisfy any whim, and I was still terrified I’d squander this rare opportunity the same way I might let one of my weekends slip by, exhausted and stuck in bed for too long.
I spend a lot of my time trying to analyze my fixation on the fantasy of simply living my life—and how sad it feels to yearn for something so mundane. All I want is to nourish meaningful relationships, be engaged with my hobbies, and focus on joy, despite being born into an entanglement of systems that demand constant labor to justify my existence. It’s been such a constant meditation for so long, that my primary focus and financial goal is pursuing early retirement, embracing many of the philosophies and aspirations of the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) community.
Ironically enough, a whole category of posts in FIRE forums involve people who have achieved financial independence and feel an emptiness after accomplishing their goals. After years working towards the singular focus of automating away the drudgery of a 40-hour workweek, the new influx of free time brings about an unsettling malaise from the emptiness of not knowing what to do next. I don't forsee this as an issue for me—I’m very happy with the life I’ve created for myself, and all of the relationships, hobbies, projects, and other joyous pursuits I’ve built into it.
Nevertheless, I approached my week off with the mental model of pretending I had already reached my goals, and tried prototyping the life I might lead for myself when I ultimately don’t need to rely on 40-hour workweeks to sustain myself. I allowed myself to indulge in the fantasy of rehearsing retirement.
I spent a year traveling around the States in 2015 after graduating college, and quickly realized that even with an abundance of leisure time, the rest of my friends are still working most of the time.
This was a sad realization.
Making the most of the situation, though, not everyone works 9–5 Monday through Friday, and many of my friends work remotely these days, so coworking at one of our apartments is a feasible option. I can spend time on my personal projects, writing, paintings, or even read or watch movies while others focus on work-work, and I have plenty of opportunities to take breaks to serve tea or prepare meals or snacks.
Even just within a week, it felt liberating that there was so much more I could say yes to, whether staying up late with someone on a weeknight, getting an early-morning coffee and late breakfast in town, or making time for a lengthy afternoon tea session. Tuesday afternoon I visited the hardware store for terracotta pots and potting soil. Wednesday afternoon was dreary and rainy, which felt like the perfect weather for brewing sencha and watching Seven Samurai (1954)—something I had put off for years that I felt I could finally indulge in.
Equally intoxicating was the realization that there was also so much more I could say no to—after waking up late one day, I reminded myself that productivity was not my goal—in fact, it was the anti-goal—and instead, I should focus on more meaningful leisure, only producing that which suits me.
It was a delight to putter around the way I remember my grandfather tinkering in his basement with his radio on, or tidying in his garage. Having so much agency to decide how I wanted to live my life was beautiful, and I hope I’m only a few short years away from extrapolating this into an entire lifestyle.
Was there any merit to this week as an experiment? It's hard to say. I remember at age six or seven asking my parents if I could spend the night with my grandparents next door. My dad was building our new house at the time, and it was going to be a large upgrade from our trailer. So, with the purest child-logic reasoning, I remember proudly giving the justification that I wanted to be able to practice coming downstairs for breakfast in my pajamas. To my toddler brain, this felt like iron-clad reasoning, but I obviously didn’t need to give any other reason other than wanting to spend time with my grandparents and have a novel experience—to see life in a different context, get tucked into a different bed by different caretakers in a different house with different smells and sights and rituals—but also to allow myself to pretend I was living a new life I was anticipating having for myself one day soon.
I’ve come up with a reasonable justification for taking this week off, but I recognize this is something I wanted to do because it feels nice and novel—and because it’s fun to fantasize a little, rehearsing for a future I'm hoping to have for myself one day.
I didn’t actually get to much of any of these things I prepared for, and that’s 100% okay! ↩︎
I know people smarter than I may have figured out how to do this within the confines of capitalism, or may be better at living the mantra I constantly remind myself from Camus—One must imagine Sisyphus happy—but I may be too stubborn or idealistic to embrace absurdism or Buddhism to the degree that would be enough to make me feel at peace with my time in the rat race. I'd like to think about this more, though! ↩︎
Coworking is something I’ve enjoyed, even while working my jobby-job. Body doubling can be a nice productivity boost, and it’s nice having elements of social interaction and random breaks interspersed throughout the day. ↩︎
I watched so many movies this whole week; that became my primary focus! I had the mental energy to engage with films that might be too challenging on a normal weeknight after work and dinner, and got to enjoy works like Eraserhead (1977) and 8½ (1963), or the three-and-a-half-hour Seven Samurai (1954), which was truly an experience. I also made a Tumblr blog where I could post gifs I made from the films for no real purpose other than pursuing a fun project to satisfy a niche interest. ↩︎