Knowing when to take a break

If you are a creator, there will be days when you know you just isn’t feeling it. No matter how much you push yourself and force yourself, you can’t seem to make that piece of work you desperately needed to get out.

And one of the biggest reason is pressure. You are forcing yourself to create something because you feel obligated to do so. I know because I am forcing myself to write at least one essay or post per day. I didn’t want my blog to die off for one day without new content. So I went and try to write a horror fiction. There was this idea that was stuck in my head for the past few days and I thought why not find a way to churn out a short story based on that idea. After nearly an hour, I only managed to get two hundred words out and started to feel so frustrated. So I stopped.

After that, I was thinking to myself: It’s fiction writing. It’s supposed to be my thing. The one thing I’m good at.

And that was how I killed my own writing. By pressuring myself.

Then a funny thing happened.

The idea to write this particular piece came to life. I just feel like I should share it.

And you know what’s the other thing that could just as easy kill your writing? It is your Input. An article written by Annie Mueller on Medium titled, “What’s Blocking Your Creative Output?“, talks about how the wrong kind of input actually kills your creativity.

And I’ll admit, these last few days, I have been feeding myself junk by reading a whole bunch of articles on Medium ranging from productivity to self improvement to business. And what the hell? Business? I actually have no intention of running my own business. At least not yet. So you see, reading junk actually stopped my mind from thinking about new stuff to write about.

So if you realise you are somehow stuck and don’t have any more creative juices flowing, maybe it’s time to ask yourself if there’s something wrong with your input. Maybe it’s time for you to purge those junks out of the creativity pipes.

But, I suspect you must be wondering how the hell I wrote the article, “Singapore, not as green as you think” if I’m out of ideas. Well, environment is something I cared about and it was stuck in my head for the last two weeks. I finally took the leap to write that piece yesterday and challenge myself to write an essay about Singapore. After all, I’m born and raised here so I thought I would know it better and not sound pretentious but it didn’t stop me from experiencing some kind of anxiety attack when I hit published.

And now I know, it’s time for me to take a quick break from writing and do something new. However, it doesn’t mean I stop completely. My mind is always churning out ideas. As soon as I encounter something novel during my day, it will send a spark to start the engine.

Smartphone doesn’t mean available 24/7

Since the release of the smartphone, we have all become more interconnected over the internet. It has definitely improve our lives in general by allowing us to access content from wherever we are and do the things previously we need a computer for. The side effect of that is it has also given rise to the expectation that all of us should be readily contactable even in the wee hours of the night.

There are stories I heard from my friends and read about online where some bosses would wake up as early as 4am to start sending work-related emails and messages to their subordinates and expect them to reply within minutes. Failure to do so would mean certain kind of penalty. Maybe you are pass over for promotion. Maybe you won’t get as much bonus as your colleagues who are more active.

As a software engineer, I’m not spared from that kind of expectation. There is this unspoken rule where I have to be available on weekends and late nights to respond to issues the customer faced. And I’m not saying all software engineers face this issue. Some get to work in a very chill culture where they can focus on just development work. So much so, I’m envious. Then there are those who work on projects or products that are available 24/7 will have to be ready to troubleshoot issues 24/7 too. Think engineers working at Netflix, Amazon Web Service, etc. So in a way, you are no different from doctors and nurses working in an ER.

Now, depending on your personality and tolerance, you may find yourself stressed out just by the very idea of anticipating receiving messages late in the night. I know I will. And for those who can handle such a culture will inevitably burn out when they have to be on edge or standby for long period of time. So you can see how, the requirement to be constantly online and available is just bad for your mental health.

Therefore, it’s very important to set boundaries if you don’t want to fall sick. Different people require different amount of rest time. Some people are also just better at compartmentalisation while some are not. Then there are highly-sensitive people to consider since they may not operate very well under high-stress, suffered from reduced rest and have tons of things to do, especially if they haven’t develop their own proven system for stress management and reduction.

For a start, you have to be assertive. You have to be ready to set expectations when it comes to your rest time, play time and work time. If you keep quiet, your bosses, family and friends would expect you to reply as soon as you receive their messages.

In the past, I would just keep quiet and be ready to respond to any messages received about work issues. But it always stress me out and tend to ruin my day. And bad mood spreads very fast especially when you are out with friends. These days, it’s different. I realised I could no longer keep quiet. So now, my team lead knows I need more rest and my body is ultra sensitive to certain allergens, and can fall sick easily. Thus, I don’t get that much work-related messages from him. Of course, it’s important that you are empathic here. Your colleagues are also humans and they need their rest too. And the company hire you to do a job and be professional. So they would expect business problems to be solved on time. So you have to compromise sometimes and do the work when required.

And it’s obvious that you can’t quit or leave work-related WhatsApp chat groups unless you have no intention of keeping your job. So what you can do for the sake of your mental health is to mute those groups. This way, you still can continue to use your phone for other purpose without seeing those work messages until the time you should.

But then, why should you stay on your phone for such a long time?

If muting chat groups ain’t enough and find that you are still susceptible to receiving calls from work, you can also activate your phone’s “Do Not Disturb” mode where calls, messages, notifications will all be silenced if not rejected. The latest iOS 12 release come with Screen Time feature that you can use it to limit your access to certain apps too. So in this case, you can block all the communication apps.

For me, I schedule “Do Not Disturb” to be active from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. Having an internet-connected smartphone doesn’t mean you have to be online 24/7. Your situation probably is different. So you have to schedule the “Do not disturb” mode according to your needs. But the idea is you get to switch off from work when you are not working. That way you can focus on doing the things that you should be doing at home.

If your bosses have boundary problems and make a big fuss about you blocking their calls late at night, then maybe you should evaluate whether your happiness and health is more important than the job.

The company don’t own you

You found a job with a company that you love. Or maybe you found a job that bring you joy majority of the time. When you go to work, you are always happy because of your colleagues and probably the culture. And you are paid what you deserved.

And because of that, you put in most of your waking hours into your work. You show up everyday, never missing a day. When there’s a crisis, you are always first to respond because you are professional and very responsible.

If you do it out of your own freewill, that’s great. At least you are intentional about it.

Then come a day when something happened in your personal life that required your immediate attention. And it’s a weekend. It’s your much deserved rest day. At the same time, because of your “constant” showing up at work, your bosses want you to work over the weekends to prepare for a proposal for an upcoming contract that the company desparately needs.

Now, because you are so responsible and professional, you choose to do what your bosses asked and put the personal situation aside. The situation could be anything. It could be something as simple as your best friend’s birthday, or as tragic as someone you love died, or something as joyous as your wife is giving birth to your first child.

Maybe you don’t think it’s wrong. Maybe you think that there’s always another time.

But life is unpredictable. By putting your work and the company your work for front and center of everything, you risk creating a massive discontent and imbalance in your life. Who knows one day, the company decides to lay you off because of lack of funds in its banks. Then you finally realise you sacrifice your life, energy, and relationships for the wrong reason.

I’m not saying not to be irresponsible or be unprofessional. But there has to be a line between you taking care of your tasks and you putting yourself, your life, your relationship first. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more important than your family, your friends and your health. After all, the company is not going to cry when you die. Maybe your friends who are also your colleagues will. The company is not going to miss you when you leave. They will just hire another to replace you. You are there to add value to the company’s bottom line and in return you are paid for the effort. If you can’t add value, you are let go.

So if you think or feel that you should take a day off from work, do it. And if the company decides to force you to go back for a team building event on a weekend and it’s a non-working day, it doesn’t mean you should go for it unless, well, you really love hanging out with your colleagues. Then, by all means go. I for one only have my weekends to catch up on my sleep and rest. So I draw a line there.

Always remember that, the company doesn’t own you even though the company usually has a bigger negotiating power. At the end of the day, both of you are in a service contract that can be terminated anytime. When the contract is terminated, you don’t own the company anything unless, well, you stole something that doesn’t belong to you.

What if

What if you have only five minutes left to live? After that you disintegrate into nothingness, leaving nothing for your love ones to even touch or bury. What would you do to maximise those five minutes?

What if you are given a choice. A choice to choose between receiving a million dollar a year but you have live like a slave, obeying every order and command given to you or live free but on ten dollars a day. What would you choose?

What if one day you can only remember what happen within a day and your memories get reset the next day? What would you do?

And what if you wake up one day to find yourself in a completely different gendered body and you can’t die because you are now immortal? How would you feel and live?

You see, there are just so many possible events that will happen in life, some of them implausible and some of them possible. Yet, the highly neurotic ones will always think about all. I for one am aware that I’m highly neurotic and constantly worry about things. I will try and be ready for those situations. But it is not the way to live your life. Yet the power of nurture and nature will require one to have a lot of will power to overpower. And it takes time.

Even then, it doesn’t change the fact that you should give yourself a pat on the back if you are slightly less neurotic than you are yesterday. One step at a time. Towards a better you.

Thin line between apathy and acceptance

As you grow older and experience more things in life, you probably begin to learn to accept certain things in life. Like if you are very idealistic about how some things should be when you are younger. Then reality strikes. One time. Two time. At first you will be angry or upset. Soon, you learn to let things go and accept the truth. After all, you are only hurting yourself by getting upset over the most trivial of things.

And that’s how it is for me these days.

You see, I’m a stickler for rules and care about how certain things should be done. But once you have been punch in the face sufficient times, you start to lose that mindset. Of course, it won’t be an overnight thing. But it’s a sure thing.

Now, this “letting go” or in other words, acceptance, can be found in the work I do, especially my day job. I just accept the situation, whatever it may be, and go with the flow. If you want me to ignore best practices and focus on delivery things fast, that’s what I will do. If you want me to do a quick workaround, that’s what I will do. At the end of the day, I’m well aware that I don’t own any of the things I created. In fact, I created this narrative in my mind, “You are paid to do a job and that’s it. The IP belongs to whoever pays you.”

So far so good. I managed to get myself out of depression. But I caught myself doing something else.

I stopped caring. Codes aren’t structured as how they should if I cared deeply. Attention to details is also slipping. Mistakes are quite common these days. And if there’s a bug found, a quick fix is thrown in. After testing that the fix works, I move on to the next thing. Otherwise, I will toss in more quick fixes. Even during brainstorming session, there won’t be much input from me. I will listen and agree with almost everything that was said. I will still mention some potential issues but that’s it. You will no longer see the same kind of passion I once had.

And why is that?

When you care too much or is a stickler for best practices, you would find yourself banging against the wall a lot of times. You will get hurt emotionally. A lot, if you are a natural idealist.

It’s just how it is in the business world. Best practices are the idealistic version of processes. But once put into practice, they don’t quite work out. Your customers don’t really care about your processes and they only want what they paid for. If there is a problem, they want immediate solution. After all, you won’t care if the waiter had a bad day or if the kitchen ran out of certain ingredients when you order food from a restaurant right? You want what you ordered at the earliest possible time. At least for most of us anyway.

So when you have been hurt enough times, it’s quite easy for you to turn acceptance into apathy. It’s especially so if there aren’t enough “mentors” in your life to help you balance your natural idealism and accepting reality. I certainly don’t. People around me implied that I throw away that idealistic mindset of mine and be present. This is why it won’t be surprising if you start to question yourself and think, “why should I care if these people don’t care.”

And after a while, you are no longer emotionally invested in your work or whatever jobs that you may find. You are only there because you need the money and that’s it. You stop caring about the progress of the project you are working on. If the project dies, so be it. If the project is successful, you’d probably think that you won’t get anything out of it. So you would rather focus on something else in your personal life.

This is why I see that it is actually a thin line between apathy and acceptance. This is how potential visionaries are lost and everyone become executors instead of having dreamers in their midst. And it’s a sad thing for the world.

My advice is be very mindful and tread carefully if you don’t want to join the mass horde of soulless people who no longer dream. Hold on to your dreamer mind as though your life depends on it while accepting the realities of life and act accordingly. Channel your dreams into something tangible. And that’s the best of both worlds.