Seth Barham Design
Minimal and effective design, inspired by culture.

spartan wanderer

Idle Hands are the Devil's Workshop

I find myself on a beach staring out into the sea, drink in hand. My body is there; my mind is not. Kate just said something, I think. I’m having “an episode”. I don’t know where it comes from, but I’m going to guess that it’s leftover from the whole “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” puritanical mindset. I feel guilty. Guilty that I’m not working. I’m sitting on a beach, missing potential clients! It only lasts for barely half a minute at a time before I’m able to forget about it and do what I’m supposed to be doing - vacationing - but it’s annoying nonetheless.

A cursory Google search has revealed to me that not only am I not alone in this weird work guilt thing, it seems that the majority of us have Stockholm syndrome when it comes to our work. 70% of us don’t even like our jobs, but we don’t know what to do with ourselves when we finally get away. Frankly, it’s an absurd feeling to have, so I’ve written this post to help both you and myself reclaim our down time, guilt-free. 

The journey is more important than the destination. 

Perhaps one of the modern human’s greatest flaws is the linear thinking that society has ingrained within us. We’re always so focused on the next milestone ahead of us - get a job, get married, buy a house, have a kid, etc - that we never take the time to look to our left or right. The lateral perspective, being in the moment, is where we are going to get the most joy out of our lives. I try to accomplish this by being mindful of what I’m doing, whether it’s designing a logo or hiking. Designing stuff is fun, so I try to make sure my head is in the right place, enjoying the process as much as I do the final result. When I hike, work is separate and I’m enjoying the beauty and the simplicity of walking. When I work, I think about work and not hiking. When I hike, I think about hiking and not working. It’s a simple enough concept, but it can take some time to master and some days are harder than others. 

Taking a break is healthy.

Healthiness and happiness are inextricably linked. Overworking leads to poorer health. I think you can draw the conclusions on your own. It’s strange that we can always manage to feel guilty about not working, but where’s that guilt when we work two hours late and decide not to go for that daily run? If I’m replacing my exercise and sleep with work, it takes no time at all to see my general happiness take a dip. With work comes stress, and although there is a sweet spot where stress is stimulating to the brain, pressuring yourself to overwork is naturally going to kick your stress levels into overdrive. When you experience negative stress, your body is basically stuck in a low level fight or flight mode, keeping your heart rate and blood pressure elevated for unhealthy periods of time. Spreading this out over a period of years can very possibly shorten your life expectancy. While you should probably take stock if you're feeling stressed in the longterm, taking a break will reign in your stress levels and ultimately help you live a healthier and happier life. 

Taking a break is productive.

As with pretty much anything, the law of diminishing returns applies to work. Sometimes I tell myself that I’m going to burn the midnight oil and, you know, “really get things done like I did in college”. Recently I’ve been confronted with the troubling reality that my body does not work like this anymore, nor can it endure two consecutive nights of drinking like young Seth could. Even if you do manage to stay up all night “getting things done”, there’s going to be a point where your focus and drive naturally deteriorate. Not only is this normal near the end of the day after you’ve spent most of your waking hours, it’s also true for long periods of unbroken attention. Adults can focus on a task for only 20 minutes before their attention begins to fade. Instead, we have to force ourselves to repeatedly refocus. Taking a break is the cure. In the short term, a 5-minute stretch rejuvenates the brain and allows it to continue the task at hand. A longer term holiday can help reset your perspective, act as a pressure valve for stress, and allow you to return to your work with renewed energy. 

Relying too much on lists is counterproductive.

I’m a list maker. I have a daily list that I keep in a journal as well as tasks under different categories on Todoist. Overall, they give me a net increase in my productivity. This will not be true for everyone, and there can be drawbacks when you transform them into rigid monoliths that preside over your life. Lists are a physical representation of stuff you need to do. Checking them a couple times a day can be a helpful reminder of your next priority, but if you find yourself staring too often, pinch yourself. It’s going to stress you out. Especially in your downtime, lists can create a sense of urgency that you're trying to take a break from. Try to put them somewhere out of reach once you've taken off your tool belt, so to speak. Finally, don't make an unrealistic daily list that sets you up for failure. Stop global warming, cure cancer, and disarm North Korea are not realistic. Answer emails, finish project A, and begin project B are a little more doable. 

You will never be “done”.

This is something that I personally struggle a lot with. I always dream of an empty to-do list, and what I would do with the extra time. I take great joy whenever I get to cross something off on Todoist. However, this is a problematic attitude for many reasons. For one, if I don’t have anything on my to-do list, then I am technically unemployed at that point. Freelancing never stops. In fact, the opposite attitude - rejoicing in a full to-do list - is more appropriate. Being done also represents the end of your potential. If you end up meeting your monthly income goals with a week to spare, well then it’s time to brush up on your CSS skills. Update your website or portfolio. There is always room for improving oneself and we have limited time to do so. The point is, being “done” is never going to happen so feeling guilty over such an unrealistic and unobtainable goal is pointless. 

Idle hands are creative. 

Work, even if you're lucky enough to be in a position to enjoy it, is a means to an end for everyone. Even my favorite projects are carried out based on parameters I did not choose myself. Breaks, vacations, and sabbaticals are an opportunity to let your creative side go wild beyond any set parameters. Even if you don't lift a pen or open Illustrator, camping in the mountains or sitting on a beach provides a shift in environment and stimuli, which can stimulate creativity in the background and allow you to approach your projects with fresh ideas. Especially in creative professions, travel can expose you to many unique perspectives on design that you can later call on for inspiration in projects you least expect. Don't feel guilty about taking a break. You may not realize it at the time, but it could be the key to finishing all that work you're so worried about!


Shameless Ebook Plug

Nearly losing your toes while climbing an Icelandic glacier, being beaten by a traditional Chinese masseuse, and following a monk on a pilgrimage around a Tibetan mountain. You don't need to be the host of a travel show or a trust fund kid to have these experiences. After 5 years of travel through 11 different countries, and living in 4 of them, I've tried to encapsulate everything I've learned into this short guide for anyone who wants to hit the road long-term. My goal is to help you:

  • Take the leap if you've been thinking about living abroad
  • Find an opportunity in another country that's right for you 
  • Learn how to pack effectively and cut through the visa red tape
  • Become acclimatized to your new home and get the most out of your experience there
  • Deal with the unexpected ramifications upon returning home

Living in a different country will fundamentally change you and unlock parts of yourself that you never thought existed. It can also be challenging, whether it's a slap in the face by culture shock or the aftermath of bad street noodles. It doesn't matter if you're summiting mountains or managing a classroom - don't leave unprepared!