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-Helen & Adam
As I prepare to return to the office tomorrow after a week of time off, I’m mulling over how to respond when I get asked the ready-made meeting starter: “How was your vacation?”
As a team leader, this is a critical question to answer well. In normal times, it’s a great chance to establish the norm that time off is encouraged and to set standards on how to ensure great coverage while you are gone.
In these pandemic times, it takes on extra cultural weight for a team. Our “hallways” are abuzz with concepts like “Zoom Fatigue” “Languishing” and “Burnout.” Even the luckiest of us are never more than one step removed from “Grief.” Norms are being reset. New expectations are being formed. Should I be enjoying my vacation while so many in the world suffer? Is it OK to feel like I need more time off now than in normal times? Is it OK to come back and still not be fully recharged given all that’s going on? Should I even take vacation in the first place if travel restrictions prevent me from using it to its fullest?
This post discusses these struggles even though I don’t have many of the answers. This is my first post on Mind The Beet that is more life focused rather than career or product review and it’s a new and more vulnerable writing style I’m trying out. Wish me luck and let me know your thoughts (you can always reply directly to this email or DM on Twitter at @AdamHarmetz or InMail me on LinkedIn)! I love hearing from subscribers.
🤹♀️ The Set Up
Like many of us, Helen and I struggled with figuring out how to take time off since the pandemic began. It felt like a waste of vacation days when stuck at home. Early on, we dreamed of truly remote work in a different part of the world but couldn’t figure it out with childcare and travel restrictions. We had planned a Spring Break family trip but cancelled as the vaccination schedule and kids return to school just didn’t match up. With Helen’s new job, we’ve slotted our first real family vacation, but it’s not until the summer.
That left me without any real time off since 2021 began and another 3 months on the clock before a break. The stress of my job was getting to me and these past couple months I felt like something was building up. I found myself a bit more frustrated than normal at the conflicts at work. It didn’t help that I was doing only maintenance workouts and subsisting on less sleep than normal. In general I found myself framing my weeks as more of a grind than a healthy equilibrium.
Nothing was really wrong, per se, but a bit of grime has been building up on top of an otherwise healthy frame.
In short, for the first time in my career, I needed to manufacture a break for myself in short order. And it wasn’t going to be a family vacation. Instead, it was a unique opportunity to plan my own adventure. I decided I needed a week of self-care optimized around my ability to recharge.
I didn’t have a fixed playbook for the week, but I had just enough plans to ensure I didn’t only do the effortless stuff. Below is what I did and how I approached it. Part trip report, part getting to know me, part how-to guide.
🕰 The Clock Speed
This was the first semi-emergency time off I’ve planned and the first non-family vacation I’ve done. I make product for a living, so of course I asked myself a top-level framing question: What was the pace and intensity of my week going to be?
Did I want to totally relax and lounge the whole week? Did I want to fill my days with Honey-Do’s? I decided, not surprisingly if you know me, to set the needle right in the middle. A healthy dose of relaxation yet still filled with a sense of accomplishment and planning for the future.
I unwind through escapism, as I talked about last week in my recent reading library post. Finding great content was a primary way I was going to ensure I slowed things down. Here’s my content download:
Myself: Shadow and Bone. #2 on Netflix right now. Not much redeeming value other than binge worthy Game of Thrones-like fantasy.
With Helen: For All Mankind. 1970’s period piece from Apple TV that imagines the “What If” of Russians landing on the moon first.
With the kids: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. The Netflix remake. Girl power FTW.
Music: My theme for the week was a throwback: 90’s Country Music: George Straight, Travis Tritt, Garth Brooks. Alan Jackson. Something familiar felt appropriate. Helen and my relationship has always been associated with country – some of our first dates were to country concerts. Mass market or not, the lyrics “Remember when…30 seemed so old” seemed to strike a chord for the week. 😊
Podcast: Acquired. The playbooks of great companies by Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal. In particular, the 3 hour history of Berkshire Hathaway was a good background reminder to be epic and inspiring in business pursuits.
Book: Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir. I am on the fourth and final book in the series, so it was good to go to a world I was already steeped in and get hooked on the final journey of characters I’ve been following for awhile.
Periodical: The Economist. I found intellectual stimulation in getting away from the day to day news cycle and instead looking for deep analysis. This week’s focus on Taiwan and the long-term geopolitics was fascinating.
All this content was a highlight of the week for me. Not having to figure it out during the week, but prepping it ahead of time, is a real best practice I’d recommend.
Taking time for myself was an important component of the week. Here was my approach:
Sleep. I prioritized getting back into healthy sleep habits. I know from years of experience that 7-8 hours is the optimal pattern for me. Any more and I have unbridled energy and any less builds up sleep debt.
Start with a “slowing down” day. To shock myself into the right clock speed, I began my week with a day of relaxation that involved content binging, a massage, and listening to my own stress level and body.
Novel Exercising That Pushed My Body. I wanted exercise to be a large and interesting part of my week – I’d been trending towards morning maintenance runs recently and wanted to do more than the checkbox. Hiking, bike riding, extended runs back on the treadmill, and VR workouts – I clocked 55 miles and over 95K steps in the last 7 days.
Fix the little micro-agitators. One hack for the week I’d recommend is to take time to fix all the little things around your life that bother you just slightly that you haven’t had time to deal with. Fixing my iPhone notifications that were too spammy, updating my browser contact detail defaults to remove the cruft, replacing the lightbulbs in the closet – these are examples of things I’d see every day but never have the space to correct.
Savor the food I love. Considering that I chose 90’s country as my theme music, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that I opted for a hot dog and a pretzel. 🌭 + 🥨 = 😋
Was the week a perfect paragon of self-healing? No - of course not. There were still plenty of kid’s logistics that constrained how much I was able to get my personal time. It took me awhile to adjust to the notion that the rest of my family was still progressing at normal speed and to not feel guilty about getting what I needed out of the week. The good news is that my energy tank isn’t a binary empty/full state but rather a spectrum and I made meaningful progress on filling it up.
Like most people, the events of the past year have me thinking more proactively about how we are one shared community and reflect on my role to play in it. The week was a chance to put some of that into action, even if it was in small ways. I settled on a few things:
Vaccine Distribution Volunteering. I volunteered at the Seattle mass vaccination site, helping staff the clinical supply roles (e.g. unpacking syringes, restocking cotton balls, collecting sharps containers). It was interesting to see the well-run operation and felt like a “moment in history” I’ll remember.
Donating Blood. Helen told me about the struggles of blood banks through social distancing, so I made a trip to Bloodworks Northwest.
Monetary donations to India’s COVID struggle. I work closely with colleagues in India and the devastation there is extraordinary – in many ways, it has had a greater impact on those in my network than anything to date in the pandemic. I was unable to find ways of donating my time so instead I opted for financial donation. My company is pooling resources together and matching them to ensure supplies are given rapidly to those in need.
Signing up for services I love. The Acquired LP program (community of product makers), Canva (graphics editing), and Calendry (easy calendar booking with industry/community) are three services/programs that I signed up for or upgraded my existing premium subscription this week. Supporting great apps and services - especially small companies – is another way in which I engage with my community.
I’m not sure how much of a difference I made with my efforts this past week. These are huge problems and the reality is that this was more about me starting a journey of increased citizenship and community rather than the results delivered. And I gave myself permission for that to be OK.
For the entirety of the pandemic, our family has used nature to recharge when it was allowed. Extended hiking into the wilderness has been out of reach to me for a while, though, with Helen’s recent leg injury and the kids still too young for more than a “kid friendly” hike. So I made it a point to plan an extended, muscle-burning hike – I chose Dirty Face Peak out near Lake Wenatchee. Here’s my trip report on the WTA site. It was a fantastic hike with a little bit of everything – waterfalls, deer and soaring birds, vistas, wildflowers, and some route finding. A great all-in-one package and exactly what I was looking for.
Fun fact: You can see about 2/3rds of the way through the hike I went off trail for a while (didn’t realize it did a 180-hairpin turn). Got scratched up in the bushes trying to figure out where the heck to go. I mention this in case you think life is as good as the Instagram pics say it is. 😊).
I’m one of those people where checklists reduce my stress. Part of washing off the grime for me is both earning a sense of accomplishment and gaining perspective on where to focus next. While the checklists I accomplished during the week mostly mundane house chores, I did net out on my approach to go forward plans. I decided to try out Notion, a notetaking/life organizer app. I organized my next 2-3 month plans around:
House projects. I got organized on the spring & summer house projects we want to embark on. Fuel reduction for wildfires at our cabin, a new picnic area, re-gravelling the driveway. It was cathartic to organize and “spec out.”
Approach to work. Time off gave me perspective on what’s important vs. just urgent. Before I left, I wrote down and shared with my team my TODO list upon my return, but I spent this week creating 4 ways I wanted to show up differently. I limited myself to just 4 – an exercise in figuring out what really bubbled up when I had time to step away.
Hobby== Writing. I spent time creating a topics list and a plan to carve out more time in my life for writing. I also spent some time kicking off a creative writing fiction project I’ve been noodling over the past few months. I’m not ready to share yet, but this week helped crystalize for me that writing – be it Mind The Beet, thoughts on Twitter, or creative fictions – is going to be my official hobby now that kids are getting older.
The next break. Helen and I are planning a vacation in June with the family. It was important to have the next break and milestone to look forward to, so I spent time trying to get organized for that.
🤹♀️ Back to Equilibrium
Did I make good use of this unique opportunity? I’ll answer with a cautious Yes. The week gave me perspective. It reminded me it’s OK to need to recharge and the power of being planful about it. It helped me clarify where to put my hobby energy. And the distance helped me figure out what’s profoundly important at work vs. a distraction.
I’ll remember this time as an inflection point in how I’m coping with the pandemic.
I don’t need a second week off right now. The time reaffirmed to me how much I enjoy the healthy balance that Helen and I have achieved. I have a renewed fundamental appreciation for the delicate balance between our kids, careers, marriage, and hobbies that is so critical to the life story we tell ourselves.
🙋♀️ Best Practices
Planning your own recharge week? Here are my biggest takeaways:
Be intentional about the clock speed. Think about how intense you want your week to be.
Find content ahead of time. Books, podcasts, TV. Having a queue that pulls you towards it and motivates you to change your pace.
Plan the themes. Self-care, community, and checklists were my big themes.
Leave room for whatever strikes your mood that day. Don’t plan out the entire week. Have a frame and let yourself work in it.
Be introspective. Stepping away from equilibrium is such a gift you can give yourself because it engenders fresh perspective that you can get in no other way. Ensure you pull on that – ask yourself what you want to do differently as you approach re-entry.
Plan the next break. It’s so important to have milestones to look forward to. Spend part of your time planning your next break 2-4 months from now.
Coda on Privilege
We end every Mind The Beet with a discussion of privilege and the ways we give back. It is an enormous privilege that not everyone has to be able to take time off like this. I’m grateful for the culture that I work in that encourages this and the leadership team who was more than willing to step up and cover. More broadly, as we’ve talked about before, I’m extremely grateful for the economic opportunity the tech industry creates for many of us and programs like TEALS help expand it to more people.
I’ll also take a second to reinforce how much India needs our support during this tough time – consider donating to Oxfam India.
Finally, Helen and I have long been supporters of the Washington Trails Association (WTA) and their support for maintain and encouraging outdoors hiking in Washington, which was an important part of my week.