When you love your job, working can become an addiction – making it hard to have time away and switch off. But surely even a workaholic needs a break from time to time? We spoke to three work-addicts, including Steph Douglas of Don’t Buy Her Flowers, to find out…
(This was originally published in April 2016. Since then, both Steph Douglas and Annie Ridout have gained an extra child).
Since starting The Early Hour I’ve worked evenings, weekends, nap times and even (*guilty*) when I’m with my daughter. I know that time away from screens is important, and that having a break can refresh the body and mind, but the to-do list simply grows longer and longer. And, if I’m honest, I really enjoy working.
But then we went away to Whitstable for the weekend. We walked, talked, threw pebbles on the beach, ate fresh fish, danced in front of a live band in a pub, drank local beer and had a rather jolly time. It reminded me of the importance of time away (the only ‘work’ I did was read a business book when the toddler napped and upload a few Instagram pictures).
It made me think about the best way to take breaks from working – throughout the day, as well as proper time off: a week, or longer, with no emails, social media and all the rest. So I spoke to three self-confessed workaholics – the founder of Don’t Buy Her Flowers, Steph Douglas; digital agency owner Will Craig and freelance social media/PR manager Stephanie Reed – to get some tips.
Steph Douglas, 35, lives in St Margarets, south west London, and set up Don’t Buy Her Flowers, selling thoughtful gift packages for women (and now men, too)
“We launched 18 months ago, offering gifts for new mums. The idea came after I had my first and realised how tough those early months can be… I feel really strongly that new mums need looking after, whoever they are. Soon after we launched customers started sending packages for birthdays, get well or just to cheer up a friend, as well as new mums so we’ve expanded organically, which is great.
I’ve just increased my youngest’s nursery days to four as I was finding it impossible to run a business in three days. I work most evenings during the week and at some point over the weekend Doug will take the kids off so I can do some work. In the last six months we’ve got more people working with us so I’m hoping that will improve the balance as the day-to-day can run without me, which is an exciting shift.
I think I was probably naïve to think that having a business means you’re more flexible. I am, in that I can decide to pick the kids up early and go for ice-cream, I am there for pick-ups and haven’t had to rush across London on a sweaty train. But equally I am far more invested – emotionally and financially – in the business than I ever would be in a job so the pressure is on to make it work, which requires time.
Anyone that starts a business will find it really hard to take a break. You can’t employ people to do work you can do yourself until you know the idea is going to work and the money starts to come in, so the early stages are full on. I was the only one answering emails, fulfilling orders, ordering stock as well as doing all the promotion for at least the first nine months. I’ve always been a hard worker but the combination of my own business and something I’m really passionate about has taken it to a different level. But it’s also very exciting and, without wishing to sound like a cliché, it doesn’t always feel like work.
I do stop for food as I get really angry if I go too long without it! I’m not great at stepping away from the business for a break unless it’s for a purpose. I am doing more getting out and meeting people, as now we have people involved in the day-to-day running, I don’t have to be here all the time. I’m not that far from the baby days so just sitting on a train with other adults, reading the paper and carrying a small bag still feels like a holiday.
I tend to go in cycles; I’ll work hard, have a few social things on and then suddenly be knackered and realise I need to take some time away from everything but my family – keep weekends empty, say no to week night gatherings and have a cut off time where I step away from my laptop. Then it creeps back and we start the cycle again.
Buster, our eldest, started school in September so that’s changed things a bit in that we can’t skip off any time we fancy. I think it might be a good thing though – school holidays force a change of pace every six weeks or so.
Buster is knackered in school holidays so we take it really easy – lazy mornings hanging out at home in pjs, a few day trips and seeing friends and then a couple of days holiday club where they play with friends all day and mostly he’s excited that he gets a packed lunch. The four of us go to Majorca every summer for two weeks. Last year was noticeably calmer – we took less ‘stuff’, the kids can jump about in the pool without being held and eating out isn’t as much of a disaster as when they’re babies. I lay down on a towel on the beach! It was heavenly!
We also went to St Lucia on our own in January which was awesome. Doug booked it last summer – he’s been saying for about two years that we should go away together, and I kind of forgot about it as everything was really busy in the run up to Christmas. Then in January I realised we were going and I felt terribly guilty – the night before we went I held them while they slept and wept big, eight-year-old-girl tears and said ‘I don’t think we should go’. The second we got on the plane it felt amazing. The kids had a fab time being spoiled by both sets of grandparents and we got to be a couple. I think it’s something we needed.
I know I always feel better after a break. Fresher, clearer thinking and excited to get back to it. It also helps me to have perspective. I think with a new business there is always something to do and no one is going to make you take a break so you’re responsible for yourself – that’s quite tough to get your head around. The flexibility you craved that in part drives you to start a business is only a benefit if you actually carve out the time and stop yourself from becoming a slave to the business. I’ve learned a lot in the first year but I think it’s probably an ongoing lesson.
To run a business takes hard work. It shouldn’t be to the detriment of your family and health, of course, but I was chatting to my uncle a few months ago, who has run businesses. I said ‘It’s bloody hard work isn’t it, doing your own thing?’ and he said ‘yep, it is. I don’t know when it happened that people don’t think it should be’ and I thought, he’s right. If it was easy everyone would do it.
The label ‘workaholic’ isn’t helpful…
Being labelled a workaholic or feeling guilty as you scan all the inspirational quotes telling you to meditate and stuff – it can feel like another thing to beat yourself up about. I’ve accepted that for Don’t Buy Her Flowers to be successful I’m going to have to work hard and that involves long hours sometimes. I also think it’s very exciting that so many women are doing their own thing, but there is a danger we do everything we did before and try to run businesses on top. I don’t think that’s possible, or fair. It’s become clearer for me that equality starts at home and we’ve had to make some pretty significant changes in the roles Doug and I have. It’s another work in progress, but I couldn’t have got to where I have with the business without his support.”
Will Craig, 32, started out as a freelance web developer and is now heading digital agency Digital Impact. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland
“I’ve dipped in and out of web design since I was very young but I only started building websites professionally when I graduated from university – that’s about six years ago now.
I’m officially in the office between 8.30am and 5.30pm. Between those hours, you know you can get hold of me at my desk. However, I’m usually working somewhere from about 6.30 in the morning to 11 at night. Whether it’s lying in bed, tweaking a quote on my tablet or hammering away on a MacBook over dinner, I’m always working on something.
When I’m asked what I like to do in my spare time, I honestly struggle to come up with an answer. I work in the mornings, I work in the afternoons, I work in the evenings and I work at the weekends. I know I’m addicted to working but I love what I do so I don’t see it as a negative.
Agile methodology is a big deal in the digital industry right now. While I don’t agree with big parts of it, I think there’s a lot to be said for agile methodology’s granular approach to work. Instead of seeing a project as one huge thing, agile breaks them down into hundreds of smaller tasks which you complete in short, concentrated sprints. After each sprint you present your work, assess your performance, take a break and start the next one.
I really like that approach and apply it to my day-to-day work. For example, if I have a big quote to write, the research is one sprint, producing a first draft is another and editing the draft into a finished quote is the final part.
After completing each sprint, I take a short break – usually five minutes or so – away from the task. What I do is pretty varied, I might walk a couple laps around the office, go get a coffee or catch up with a member of staff – but the important thing is that I always do something. Getting away from my work for that short nugget of time lets me come back with a clear head and fresh eyes.
It takes me a long time to break out of my schedule because it’s all-encompassing so any time off I take tends to be quite extended. Last year, I took one holiday but it lasted for three solid weeks. This year, I have another holiday planned for a similar length of time.
While away, I go into a complete digital detox – no phones, no tablets and no internet – and escape to somewhere where I can relax. I usually head for somewhere warm like Greece, Spain or Italy and just unwind. I think about everything I didn’t have time to think about before. I read books. I eat way too much food. I catch up with friends and family.
A lot of people believe that any sort of break is wasted time. This simply isn’t true. Your average output declines the longer you work on something and eventually there’s a point where not taking a break is less efficient than taking one. I know I would get far less work done working for a solid nine hours than I will working two four-hour shifts with a decent break in between.
A break isn’t just a time you aren’t working, it’s an opportunity to refresh your head and recharge your batteries. Frankly, if you aren’t taking regular breaks, you’re wasting your own time.”
Stephanie Reed, 30, manages social media channels and PR for brands on a freelance basis and lives in London
“I decided to go freelance last summer after working for a number of PR/marketing agencies throughout my 20s. Now that I work for myself I’m typically switched onto work most days, especially because of the industry I work in and the 24/7 nature of social media.
The hours I work on a daily basis often change – it often depends on my workload, which can fluctuate because some projects are short-term. For example, yesterday I worked 5am to midnight because I’ve just started working on the PR for an event that takes place very soon and there’s so much to do – but that is extreme for me.
I can easily work 10 to 12 hour days during the week but there are days I will work less or not at all, to give myself a break. I often find myself checking and responding to notifications on clients’ social media channels at weekends, too – I can’t help myself.
Am I a workaholic?
‘Addicted’ is a strong word but now that I work for myself, I definitely let it consume me sometimes and have never worked so hard in my life. What I earn now is completely up to me, which is so rewarding but also a little overwhelming at times.
Yoga is one of my favourite ways to have some time out through the working day. One of the reasons I usually start work at 7am, is so I can go to a hot yoga class at 11am (two or three times a week) and not feel any guilt for having a break! My job involves a lot of multi-tasking and fast-thinking, so yoga really helps to calm my mind. Simply stopping to focus on my breath through movement and being ‘present’ in the moment has helped me to create more balance in my work.
I absolutely love to travel so I take long weekends or week-long trips throughout the year (every three months). I enjoy exploring new countries and cultures. My fiancé is from the US so we often go back there to see family, too.
Now that I work for myself and there tends to be WIFI everywhere you travel these days, I don’t often completely switch off from work, but I always let clients know that I’m going to be away, that I have scheduled their social media posts in advance and may be offline.
It’s important to have a break so you don’t completely burn out. I work more effectively if I have time out, so no guilt should be associated with having a break if you work hard. I worked in the US for a period and there’s a culture there where many people work for long periods with little or even no vacation time. Thankfully my manager there was fine with me taking time out but I’d have really struggled to embrace that way of working if not.”
Are you a workaholic? Or – if you don’t like that term – someone who loves working and finds it hard to take breaks? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear your thoughts…
Main image: Martin Azambuja
Photo of Steph Douglas: Emily Gray Photography