How many times have we heard the tired advice “take care of yourself”? Great…but how are we supposed to do that when work seems to consume all our time? Here’s how I developed my own “me time” bit by bit over the years.
It started when I was working with a team of software developers. Most of them smoked. The work was tedious and frustrating, and smoke breaks offered brief respite from the tension of the job. Not being a smoker myself, I started feeling left out and began hanging out with them just outside the office door. It was nice to get away from work and to socialize for a while, but no matter where I stood, the smoke still got in my eyes. Eventually I took to walking in a large circle around the outside of the office building. That solved the smoke problem and I took to calling my walks “oxygen breaks” in contrast to my coworkers’ “smoke breaks.” Management had no cause to complain since I took my breaks no more frequently than the smokers on the team, and I often did so at exactly the same times they went out to smoke. Walking out-of-doors gave me a chance to stretch my legs and take a deep breath. More than once I found the solution to a problem that had been eluding me while on my walks.
The walking habit caught on around the office. Pretty soon other people in the office were walking around outside to escape the stress. At first it was an individual thing. I’d wave to other solitary walkers as they went on their way. Later it became social. The question “do you want to take a walk around the office park” shortened to “want to go around?” Without any explicit discussion, an informal but regular schedule of walks began to take shape. And as these moving coffee breaks became more social, I found it easier to talk to people outside in the sunshine than trapped in a cube.
I changed jobs several times in the coming years, but no matter where I ended up, I always found a place to walk. Sometimes it wasn’t even outdoors. Once my workplace was spread across two three-storey buildings. When it rained or when it was too cold outside, I’d walk the halls, jog up the stairs and stroll down the glass-walled, covered walkway connecting the two buildings which quickly came to be known as the “hamster tube.”
Over the years, I’ve had more and more opportunity to work from home. My neighborhood is notoriously short on sidewalks, and so it took me a while to find good places to walk. I’d been in the house almost ten years before I realized that the local park featured not just some playground equipment and a soccer field, but a wooded trail running all the way around a large lake. Walking from my home to the park, around the lake, and back again made a nice 30-minute circuit. On top of the natural scenery and solitude of the woods, the trail itself winds up and down over hills and streams. Navigating the uneven ground keeps me focused on what I’m doing rather than getting lost in the issues I left behind at my desk.
Lately, I’ve been adding to the experience. Sometimes I take my cell phone along and talk to my friends as I walk (cell service in the woods came as quite a pleasant surprise). Other times I’ve brought my MP3 player and listened to music, audiobooks or podcasts as I walk along.
Over the space of a decade, and across many workplaces, I’ve gone from coping with smoking coworkers to creating a set of rituals that renew me physically, socially, emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually. “Taking care of yourself” doesn’t have to require sacrifice if you’re always on the lookout for small, simple, and brief ways to stretch your legs, rest your mind, and look at something other than the inside of a cubicle. What I value the most of this little ritual I developed is that it didn’t take a stroke of genius on my part. It came about simply by noticing and refining what was already working for me again and again.
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