I don’t think my father took days off. He must have, but I don’t think I ever witnessed it. I cannot picture him getting up and doing anything besides some kind of work.
When I would drag myself to the couch at 8am on a Saturday to watch cartoons, he was apparently in the middle of his day, already having built or fixed something.
He would permit himself to read books or watch TV later in the day. But I think the idea of taking a proper day off — where he didn’t build, organize, or otherwise try to advance his lot in life at all — was kind of foreign to him.
I don’t have half the work ethic he did, but recently I noticed I do the same thing: I see my weekends, my days “off,” as additional space for getting a bit more done, even if it’s only the kinds of work I enjoy.
A few weeks ago I found myself taking a true Day Off, in which I deliberately spent the day doing things that have absolutely nothing to do with improving, or even maintaining, my position in life. I had decided spontaneously the evening before: no work, no goals, no attempt to gain anything.
I ended up spending a lot of time outside, and visiting with four separate groups of loved ones, never rushing between them and never thinking much, at any point, about the rest of the day. I spent the morning with my girlfriend, lunch with a friend, the afternoon out walking with my mother, dinner with my sister’s family, and the evening with a book.
I went to bed feeling intensely grateful that my lot in life was such that I could have a day like that, and I slept very well.
If that wasn’t a perfect day then there are none. The biggest difference between that day and a normal weekend day, I realize now, was that I paid little attention to the advance of time. I suspended all aspirations to shaping the future. The only goal was to enjoy the setting and characters of every moment I found myself in, which is refreshingly easy when you’re not trying to get anywhere else.
The next day I went back to work, but I didn’t feel my usual resistance to it, and I got a lot done. The unhurried quality of my Proper Day Off seemed to carry into the following workday. It gave me a distinct feeling of being fine where I was, of not needing to be past what I was currently working on.
The Lost Art of the Day Off
It now seems absurd to let a week go by without a Proper Day Off, and I have quickly become an ambassador for the mostly-lost idea of protecting an entire day from one’s own toil. A lot of us never actually do, whether or not we realize it. We habitually give ourselves jobs on the weekend, and if we accidentally get nothing done, we feel guilty.
Stepping deliberately out of “getting ahead” mode reminds you that you already are “ahead” in all sorts of ways. What’s the point of getting ahead if we never have the experience of being ahead?
Before going on we should clarify what a Proper Day Off actually is. A day off what exactly?
It’s a day off of all the things we do for money, acclaim, position, or out of social obligation; off of treating time like a commodity to be invested or traded for future benefits.
A Proper Day Off isn’t an invitation for laziness, or the shirking of responsibilities. In fact, a Proper Day Off is a day for exploring a certain other class of responsibilities: being a relaxed and present friend, parent, son or daughter, or stranger.
It’s also a time for being a grateful member of civilization. A Proper Day Off is particularly suited to experiencing the highlights of human development: enjoying art, music and public spaces, particularly if we spend the other six days mostly butting heads with the worst parts: inhuman corporations, corrupt governments, vapid celebrity culture, and a news media that delivers only bad news.
6 Principles of a Proper Day Off
A few general rules, to keep your Day Off uncompromised:
1) No work, no “getting ahead”
If getting ahead has any use, it’s so that you can be ahead. A Proper Day Off is reserved for this experience of being ahead — appreciating the fruits of your labor (and that of others) — rather than for laboring even more.
Essentially this means, “Today, do things for now, not for later.” That means no errands, no utilitarian purchases, and definitely no major purchases. In fact, what are you doing in Home Depot at all? Go to the park. And although recreational shopping is a favorite pastime for many people, it is completely inappropriate on a Proper Day Off. Consumer shopping has too many emotional ties to the working world. Refraining from “getting ahead” doesn’t mean a Day Off is best spent getting needlessly behind, by liquidating your hours of labor (and therefore your precious time on this earth) for a low-brow shopper’s high.
Visiting an antique shop, or a farmers market, or a garage sale, is quite suitable for a Day Off — visiting a department store, or (God forbid) a Wal-Mart, is not.
2) Don’t spend the day at home
Although a case can be made for spending the odd day in your pyjamas watching old movies, it makes for a poor Proper Day Off — it’s too predictable and familiar, and most of us are going to feel regret creep into a day like that by late afternoon.
Generally most of a Proper Day Off will happen outside your home. It would be a shame not to spend a least a bit of it in a park, any time of year, even if you’re just passing through it to meet someone.
Try not to spend much of it in your car either. Make use of your feet, or your bike if possible. Cars fill us with the sensation of needing to be somewhere else.
3) Involve loved ones
Either take a companion with you on your Proper Day Off, or plan a visit or two. Maybe you had no takers for your museum visit in the morning, but you could certainly find someone to meet you for lunch or coffee at some point.
A well-tempered companion is best, though, even just for part of the day — a partner, a friend, or an offspring. Other people keep us from creeping away to “later” in our minds, and help us appreciate what we might not have noticed alone.
After all, quality time with loved ones is just about the best way a person can spend their time in this life. It’s what we miss when we’re away, what we would dream about in prison, and what we will still find important once we near our deathbeds.
4) Plan loosely, but don’t make an itinerary
It’s only practical to have a mental list of places you might go. Freedom requires decisiveness. Know beforehand what area of town to head to, where to stop first, whether to go to the flea market or the waterfront.
It is also helpful to figure out which friends and loved ones you’ll be meeting. Planning lunch ahead is perfectly reasonable, or you could just meet up and wander until you find a good spot. Maybe you want to pack a picnic.
One other general rule: Do more than one thing. An entire day spent at the convention center will hardly give you the freewheeling spirit of a Proper Day Off. Get an earlyish start, so that the day has room for variety, but don’t look at the clock much.
Gravitate towards free or inexpensive activities. Money, for most of us, is closely related to time and work, two spheres of concern we want to leave alone for the day.
5) Minimize electronic device usage
…or at least only use them only for getting around (i.e. maps) or co-ordinating meetings with your friends. We get more than enough screen time the rest of the week.
Being constantly connected to news and email gives us an unhealthy hyper-awareness of time, which is exactly what we’re taking a break from on a Proper Day Off. We often use the clock evaluate “how we’re doing” on a given day. On a Proper Day Off, only check the clock when necessary for utilitarian purposes. And remember: whatever time it is, it’s okay.
Don’t be too much of a luddite though. You don’t need to make it into anti-technology day. But if passive electronic entertainment (i.e. Movies or TV) is going to be a part of it, make it the last thing you do, and if you can, do it with someone else.
6) Enjoy the fruits of civilization
We become so cynical about the ills of civilization that we take its virtues for granted. For all our complaints, the truth is we live surrounded by wonderful amenities and cultural institutions, many of which exist solely for human enjoyment and well-being. A Proper Day Off is a perfect time to make use of your community’s parks, museums, galleries, markets, public spaces, performance venues and heritage buildings.
Consult a local events calendar to see what’s happening. If you live in a city of any size, you might be surprised at how much is going on every day — free music, art exhibitions, book and poetry readings, gatherings, meetups, contests and tastings.
We work so that we can improve the settings in which we live our lives, both the public and private kind. So let’s not forget to enjoy these settings while we have them, and put the working part aside entirely while we do.