What I learnt from a year off

Reflections on a year off work, including not finding my passion, learning about myself, my relationship with achievement, my daily routine, procrastination and unproductiveness, physical health, stress and anxiety, planning and money, and the future. 

In 2016, nine years into my career, I took a year off work to do ‘creative things’. It was part of finding out what I want to do with my life and career, which I’ve never figured out.

The idea was born in 2015 when I saw a career coach. In one hour, we discussed my situation, values, and dreams, and then listed things I’d like to do, regardless of whether I had the education or experience to do them. Then we devised a plan with the world-shaking idea of taking a year off to try some of these things!

I knew of people taking time off to travel or study, but I didn’t know of anyone (to my knowledge) who had done what I subsequently did: dedicate serious time to try a range of creative things to see if they could be career options.

The plan was to try four things: write a book (using a blog for regular deadlines); do some freelance editing; continue performing and teaching improv; and do some kind of public speaking. There wasn’t a specific end goal other than to give these things a decent go.

I knew immediately that I wanted to do this, and my boyfriend and family were supportive. So I took the year off. Apart from a short project in July, I did not do my normal job for a year.

It’s still two months before I’m due back at work but I was inspired to write this now (and one thing I’ve learnt this year with creative ideas is to strike while you give a shit!). Looking at my list, I’ve given the four things a shot, in some form or another. And while I am going back to work in a couple of months – not quitting and becoming a professional magic happy person – I have learnt an unbelievable amount.

What did I learn and get out of it?

Not only did I not work out what I want to ‘do’ with my life, I no longer expect that this will happen for me

  • I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to do with my life forever. I’ve been searching for my One Thing (also known as one’s passion) since I decided in year 8 that I didn’t want to be a vet anymore. I just thought I hadn’t figured out the specific thing I was supposed to do. In fact, that’s why I went to see the career coach – I was hoping she would figure it out for me.
  • But I don’t think there is one thing for me. There are people in the world who know what they want to do and they do it. But I don’t think I am one, and I know plenty of people like me. We just don’t have a pre-designed soulmate career out there waiting for us.
  • Multiple things can be an option. I had never considered doing more than one thing – I thought I needed to find that single calling. But my career coach’s simple suggestion of trying four things in a year off was mind-blowing. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might need to tailor a few things together to get satisfaction from my career, that my dream job wasn’t already invented and neatly packaged into a single thing waiting for me.

Through experimentation, I crossed a few things off and built a few things up

  • The writing – and working out what that meant to me – was the biggest challenge. The writing didn’t magically take off the way I expected. At first I didn’t know how to get into a good routine to write. Then I didn’t know what to write. I decided I needed to focus on one thing at a time, and chose to start with this blog. I did that for a while and was happy with it, then tried to do something else but didn’t know how to. In June, feeling completely lost, I booked into an RMIT fiction writing short course that I’d been googling for months.
  • I don’t think I want to be a fiction writer. My attempts at writing fiction (to achieve my dream of writing a play, or a crime novel) were so excruciating that I’ve given up on it for now. Maybe I’ll give it another go at some point. But that feeling I’ve had since I was 15 that ‘maybe I could write a novel’ has been dispelled enough for me to chill out and leave it, possibly forever.
  • I still like writing though – just not fiction. Writing this blog is very enjoyable. I like the process, I like the outcome. It’s still hard work, but it’s not painful like fiction was. It was also unexpectedly rewarding – it’s so lovely when people tell you they got something out of your work. Old friends got in touch for the first time in ages, and new people reached out to me. And hating writing fiction really showed me how much I liked writing non-fiction.
  • I don’t want to try to build a reliable income from editing. I love editing, but I hate the business side of it enough to put me off. I like Elizabeth Gilbert’s (Eat Pray Love, Big Magic) view on this: I don’t like editing enough to eat the particular shit sandwich that comes with it.
  • I still love improv. Improv really exploded this year. It’s amazing how much I did and how far I’ve come. I got heaps from teaching it – it was incredibly satisfying to help people uncover talents and build confidence and skill. I think I became a better performer too, with several highlights throughout the year. And I got to deal with issues I care about, like women’s issues.
  • I will keep experimenting to find more things that I like doing. To continue building my suite of things, I’ll keep trying stuff as it becomes interesting to me. For example, I am currently doing some volunteering to try different things and meet different people.

I learnt things about myself and my needs that surprised me

  • I need more intellectual stimulation. I got bored. There was lots of information going in (thanks to plenty of time to read and listen to podcasts), but less going out. I found myself studying the classics (Don Quixote discussion, anyone?) and writing a diversity strategy for the improv company I’m involved in. Once I abandoned my dreams of being a fiction writer I fell into a funk and got seriously bored.
  • I got lonely. I thought I was a power introvert who would love the alone time. Turns out not so much. Working in the library helped, although the best days were when I worked with people directly.
  • I really like collaborating. During my writing course I found writing fiction at home on my own to be almost physically painful. But in the classroom, I loved it! A bunch of people writing simultaneously and then reading out our stuff to the group and commenting on it – awesome! It’s not just about being in the same physical place though; I like to work on the same thing, interactively, with someone.
  • I’d rather make money from a government job and find time to be artistic than go full-time as an artist. The life of an artist can be a struggle financially. With a government job, I can earn a good, reliable income. I know there are benefits to doing all the varied things artists do to make money outside their main goals. But my choice for now will be the government work. This is also partly for the intellectual stimulation.
  • I’ve lost a lot of excuses, which is liberating. Excuses like ‘if only I had the time’ and ‘if only I didn’t work’. But I haven’t written a book, and I still don’t cook elaborate meals, or go bushwalking, or eat amazingly healthily, which means my day job can no longer be the excuse. Maybe I just don’t like doing those things, or don’t want them enough to put the effort in. Or maybe there’s something else holding me back. One big barrier for me in terms of writing was putting my opinions out into the world where they might will be disagreed with or criticised. I’m still getting better at this but I’ve started.

I had to face my achievement demons head on

  • Achievement is a big part of my identity. I am so driven to achieve. A standard phone call with my mother involves us listing the things we’ve achieved that day, if that gives you any idea. But in this unstructured world of the past year, I’ve really had to figure out what achievement means to me.
  • I don’t always feel a sense of achievement or purpose. Sometimes I am really clear on what I am working on. Other times I feel adrift. Around September I basically decided to give up and treat it like a holiday; around November my motivation came roaring back.
  • Achievement was hard to measure. Most of the stuff I did this year wasn’t as easy to measure as the tasks in my day job. This was especially true with improv, because there’s no physical product at the end other than memories. But I found some ways:
    • Could I have done it a year ago? There are so many things I can now do that I couldn’t have done a year ago: publish my opinion online, perform improvised songs, comfortably say no to people asking me to do things, create and host a podcast, make up an improv class on the spot, analyse a classic piece of literature, make leadership decisions and live with them, and burpies (full burpies!). There are also things that I could do but I do better now: writing fiction and non-fiction, performing improv, and teaching and coaching improv.
    • Impact on others. Many of my improv performances have struck a chord with people. After one performance where I told a true story about a friendship breakdown, about 20 people came up to me after and told me their own stories and how mine had made them feel better, or less alone. Similarly, hearing that my blog posts impacted people meant a lot to me.
    • Am I living in line with my values? If I have an feeling of unfulfilledness, I check in with my values (which are connectedness, fun, storytelling, risk, kindness, self-care, genuineness, and contribution) to see if I am doing things that contribute to them. If I haven’t contributed to one of my values lately, I schedule something in. This is usually an accurate diagnosis of what is missing in my life for me to feel fulfilled.
    • Listing! This is a crude tool and it doesn’t capture whether something gives me satisfaction, but it makes me feel less like I’ve wasted my time. Some things I did this year: I started a blog, started a podcast, did Raw Comedy at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), wrote a Diversity strategy and a Diversity Scholarship Policy for my improv company (which has led to many things including gender balance and increased diversity in the ensemble), been on the leadership panel at my improv company, supported my workplace by going back to work for five weeks in a time of need, wrote something great for my workplace in that five weeks, written and directed a comedy sketch, acted in comedy sketches, performed improv in the MICF and the Melbourne Fringe Festival as well as shows throughout the year, gotten really fit and strong, taught lots of improv, read a ridiculous number of books, been able to support people around me more, set up some awesome volunteering roles and started volunteering.
  • I’m learning to not focus on achievement. Sometimes, I’ve even entertained the idea that achievement might not be the all-encompassing purpose of my life. I am working on trying to just… be. This is not easy. But sometimes it’s not all about achievement.
  • That said, part of me feels like I didn’t try hard enough. As I wrote this blog entry I did start to wonder if I’d tried hard enough. For example, I didn’t write a book. Have I been giving up too soon? Am I rationalising everything as a learning experience? So that has lit a fire under me; now I’m trying harder before my year is up.

Managing my schedule is a balancing act of flexibility, discipline and boundaries

  • The hours go fast. Many days I don’t end up doing much. Two creative things a day (e.g. work on a blog post, prep for improv teaching) seems about the limit once I add exercise, cooking, errands and evening activities.
  • Other people tried to steal my year off! It’s amazing how many people were like ‘you can work on my idea!’. I quickly learnt I needed to have boundaries and protect my time (unless their thing directly contributed to my goals). It was hard at first but I’m now pretty comfortable saying no to things I don’t want to do.
  • I have an effective to-do list process now. I tend to write them the night before. The fewer things on the list the better. Too many things on the list, and I won’t get them all done and then I’ll feel sad looking at my list. If there is something big and hairy that I don’t want to do, I make it the only thing on the list – otherwise I’ll do everything except that. I keep a master list of to-do tasks in my phone, but my daily to-do list is short, and on paper.
  • Housework is a killer. We hired a cleaner so I wouldn’t get stuck with all the housework. I purposefully didn’t do housework during the day – like, I barely put my dishes in the dishwasher.
  • At first I had to structure in unproductive time. Earlier in the year when I was a bit more stressed about being productive, I had to schedule in ‘unstructured active days’, where I followed my whims without pressure to be productive. Now I’m a little more relaxed so I don’t need these days as much.
  • I still give myself weekends. I don’t put pressure on myself to achieve anything much on weekends (although they are often full of improv which this year I have treated partly as work). Given I’m not trying to start a small business right now, I think this is reasonable. Maybe in other circumstances you’d be working as much as possible.
  • A day with no commitments is a precious, magical thing. One commitment can make a whole day unproductive, and I can quickly end up with a commitment every day. On the flip side, a day with no commitments can be lonely. Throughout the year I went in waves: sometimes I kept days empty so I could get stuff done, other times I booked things in to keep away the loneliness. Unfortunately these schedules didn’t always align with how I was feeling. In a lonely period I’d book in lots of things, but then move into a productive period and would have something on every day. Fortunately people cancel a lot these days. But I’ve learnt not to schedule things too far out. Instead, when that week approaches I can decide: pile every social appointment into one day (productive week) or spread them out (lonely week).

My daily routine changed a lot as I experimented and as my motivations waxed and waned

  • I sketched out my idea of a good daily routine at the start of the year. I would exercise and do errands in the morning, write in the afternoon, and do improv or social stuff in the evening. I designed this thinking I needed to do the exercise in the morning as it was hard and I needed to get it out of the way. Little did I know that exercise would become the easiest thing.
  • But this schedule didn’t work. For years I’ve been getting headaches in the afternoon and these did not stop despite not working. So I had to change my plans for the daily routine. I worked in the mornings and early afternoons before the headache arrived (new glasses in October rescued hours of unproductive time) and errands and exercise moved to the afternoon. This also worked because I was finding writing to be the hardest thing so it needed to happen first.
  • I have a consistent and productive routine now. I write in the mornings and (maybe) early afternoons, taking little breaks as I need them. Lunch is a danger zone! I usually take two hour lunches – I just can’t motivate myself to do anything with only an hour’s break (this felt the same when I was at work, it was always a struggle to do anything at 1:30). Sometimes I use lunch to see friends or run errands, or read. If I watch TV, I lose hours, so I avoid that unless I’m really tired. Three o’clock seems to be the transition point to exercising, cooking and normal evening stuff.
  • I did too much improv. I had to take a break from improv because it quickly took up all my time. I needed to give writing a fair go. Also, improv is usually scheduled outside the 9-5 Monday to Friday time i.e. exactly when my boyfriend, friends, and family are free to hang out. I pushed it as much as possible but ultimately my boyfriend and I needed to see each other more, so I stopped doing the parts of improv that weren’t providing me with all that much pleasure or development.
  • It took me a long time to build up some habits. While I had time to exercise every day, it took nine months to build up a daily exercise regime. I’d like to get a daily meditation thing going, but I won’t bother forcing it every day to start with.

Unproductiveness was still there

  • There were really unproductive times that lasted weeks. When I was sick or didn’t sleep I gave my body plenty more time than in the past to look after itself. I lost three weeks to a broken computer (yes, I tried other options but it’s not the same). I also lost a lot of time to a hand injury. And then there was September, which is when I realised I didn’t want to write fiction and I became untethered for a while and wandered off into a wasteland of boredom. My motivation came back in November and now I’m pumped for the rest of my time off.
  • I learnt to accept my unproductiveness. There were days when my boyfriend came home from work and said he hadn’t had a very productive day. This reminded me that I’d had such days in my day job, so I became more realistic about my productivity expectations. I can’t be 100% productive every day.
  • I still find myself clock watching! This seems ridiculous – surely I’m supposed to be easily motivated because I’m doing things I love, right? But ultimately I am trying to get work done, and that work is hard and I want it to be over so I can revel in satisfaction.
  • You can only get so far in one year. After having some expectations met and others not, I think there are two types of years off: an exploratory, self-discovery one, and a get-serious-about-a-particular-thing one. I don’t think you can really do both in one year; I certainly couldn’t. I will be going back to work with many more ideas and experiences that will help me keep building a fulfilling life. In a few more years, perhaps, I’ll have found something I want to invest a lot of time into.

I discovered a whole new level of procrastination

  • I got better at beating basic procrastination and distraction. Working without a boss revealed all my weaknesses. I am so easily distracted! My sheer frustration at myself helped me get better at beating procrastination, as did mindfulness. Now I’m better at being aware that I’ve been distracted so I can decide whether or not to engage with the fun procrastination.
  • Now I understand why there are hundreds of articles on how to manage your email. Never before has email seemed so important – or Facebook, or Instagram, or The Age. I found the tips in those email-management articles quite good: things like not checking it before a certain time, or only checking it at certain times, or limiting the amount of time spent responding. It takes discipline but they work.
  • But there are bigger versions of procrastination than I realised. I was also procrastinating via big useful tasks that looked like productiveness and took weeks, like writing a diversity strategy. It was important, rewarding and educational, but it wasn’t what I set out to do, and it took a crapload of time.
  • Is it procrastination, or a new interest? Then again, some distractions were genuinely interesting and I decided to lean into them. I started studying the classics after picking up a copy of The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer. It’s opened up a whole new world to me, because I never really knew how to analyse texts like Don Quixote or The Pilgrim’s Progress. Similarly, my role on the leadership panel at improv came to take up a lot of time but was interesting and I made a conscious decision to dedicate time to it.

I understand my body better

  • My health hasn’t been magically cured. I expected to feel awesome as soon as I stopped working. However, while my health improved a lot this year, it’s not perfection. Now I know that this is what I’m working with: I have a base level of being super sensitive to fructose and catching colds relatively easily, and I still cannot nap during the day.
  • I sleep eight to nine hours every night. That seems to be what my body chooses. Isn’t it scary that when I work I get between 1-3 fewer hours sleep every single night than my body would like? And this isn’t an oversleeping thing. This 8-9 hour mark is something I remember from other times in my life.
  • Eating healthy was sometimes easy, sometimes not. I think boredom played a role here. While I was enjoying the things I was doing, it didn’t banish food from my mind the way a major deadline does. Food remained a big source of entertainment, comfort and pleasure.
  • I built up a daily exercise habit. It took me about nine months but now it’s just something that I make time for. And now that I know I’m going to exercise every day, I don’t have the ‘will I, won’t I?’ tussle, it’s simply a matter of when. Some days, it might be the only thing that gives me a sense of achievement. It became easier to motivate myself once I identified self-care as one of my core values. It’s also easier than writing.
  • I became an afternoon exerciser! After a lifetime of thinking that if the exercise isn’t done by 10am it’s not happening, I now prefer exercising in the afternoon. It’s physically easier. This also made me wonder if I’m more flexible (mentally, not physically!) than I thought.
  • I didn’t need to relax. I haven’t needed to zone out watching TV, except when I’ve been sick. I just don’t need to chill so much. On a holiday to Bali with my sister, I read and analysed ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, a 17th century allegory about religion by John Bunyan. I’m not full of boundless energy, but I don’t need downtime. But when I went back to work for a few weeks in July, all I wanted to do when I got home was fall in a heap and watch UnReal.
  • I drank more alcohol! This was surprising. I haven’t had any more big nights than usual, but I suppose the small nights have increased. And I suspect a bit of boredom might have contributed. When I’ve spent all Friday on my own and I’ve exercised and read and meditated and cooked and cleaned, by 6pm I’m looking for something to do.
  • Proper self-care seems very hard when you have a full-time job. Exercising, eating well, meditating, getting 10 000 steps, getting enough sleep – apparently it’s simply a matter of prioritising them. But does anyone achieve this and work a normal job and have a life? When I went back to work for a few weeks in July, most of these things went out the window.

I still got anxious and stressed

  • Similar to the health stuff, I had expected the anxiety and stress to disappear. Not having to work certainly took some pressure off. But anxiety still showed up more than I expected. The pressure to feel like I was achieving things made me anxious. While I am not working a traditional job, it’s not like I’m doing nothing.
  • I did stop getting the Sunday night chest tightening though. Other people get nausea or even throw up on a Sunday night. The first Sunday of my year off I got the chest feeling and then realised that I didn’t have to go to work tomorrow – or for a year. The Sunday chest tightening stopped.
  • My GP and psychologist were big supports. In March, when I thought I might have had a glandular relapse, my GP did the blood tests but she also suggested I go back to my psych. This was a very good idea. My psych helped me deal with things like the pressure to achieve, perfectionism and whatever else was going on in my life (because that didn’t stop!).
  • I got quite anxious talking to people about my year off. People are always asking me how my year is going, what I’ve been up to. And it can feel a bit nothing to say ‘some writing and improv’. I feel a lot of pressure to be living a wonderland dream. I’m fine with it now, I don’t get so anxious anymore, but you try summing up your year in small talk!
  • The fact that I still get anxious and stressed is good in a way. If work was the sole cause, I think I would feel like a failure at life, and it would make it very hard to go back. Instead, I have more clarity on anxiety and stress and why it shows up in my life. I can’t avoid it and I have to face it head on.

Planning and money

  • I did some planning but wasn’t fastidious about following these plans. I had a second session with the career coach just before the year started, and we did some planning including discussing my daily routine, how to motivate myself, the value of meditation, and how to address the barriers to taking the year off. Then at the start of the year I wrote a project plan for myself (very government of me!) with action items, and a daily/weekly routine. During the year I looked at these documents occasionally, but not often. In general I was sticking to them anyway so I think the value was in writing them, not necessarily following them to the letter.
  • My main barrier was my fear of not having enough money. I’ve kept a budget for years, so I plugged my new numbers into that. My boyfriend agreed to pay a little more rent. I identified unnecessary spending. I saved for a while. I knew I’d be earning a little here and there, and I had safety nets. So I decided I’d be ok, which I was.
  • I was surprised how far my leave pay lasted. My long service leave and annual leave, both taken at half pay, lasted me longer than I expected. I think you must still accrue one kind while using the other? I’m ashamed to say I still don’t know.
  • I still definitely needed the savings as well as the leave pay. I was getting a little bit more than I expected (I forgot to take into consideration that I’d be taxed at a lower rate, and that due to something called ‘leave loading’ I got slightly more pay when I was on annual leave). However, the half pay was just below enough for me to have a reasonable lifestyle (by this I mean keeping the osteopath appointments, and losing the hairdresser appointments), so there were some months before the leave ran out when I tapped my savings. Also, thanks to two unanticipated trips to Bali, and weddings in Sydney, Canberra, Launceston and Inverloch, I used a bit more of my savings sooner than expected. Once my long service and annual leave ended it was time to properly use the savings.
  • Cutting back too much spending made me sad, so I gave up on that after about four months. Not getting my hair done or eating at fancy restaurants is fine. But limiting Pilates to once a week was making me sad, so I brought that back in (especially once I felt comfortable I was going to be fine financially). I also allowed myself little indulgences, like brunch at my favourite café on Fridays after Pilates. I valued it so much that it became extra special.

I’m excited about the future, but also trying to be realistic

  • I’m pretty nervous to be going back to work. Will I be happy? Will I be bored? Will I be stressed? Will I be able to keep the exercise and the blog going?
  • But I’m also excited. I’m excited to test out all the things I’ve learnt about myself, organisations and management, and self-management. I’ve also come to see and appreciate many things that I didn’t realise I was getting out of my job: intellectual stimulation, collaboration, a good source of income, and working with people I like. I’m going back four days so I can also do some volunteering.
  • I will have to be realistic about how much I can achieve once I’m back at work. I’ll be tired so it’ll be harder and I’ll need that chill out time again. I’ll probably try those meal services and we’ll keep the cleaner. Sleep will certainly reduce.

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