The Vacation State Machine

For anyone who loves their work its tough to admit its time for a vacation, let alone actually take one. I’ve always had a strong work ethic even when it came to work I didn’t like very much; when I do enjoy the work I’m doing you can replace “work ethic” with “work-a-holic”. When it comes to software engineering its an obsession. I’m always tinkering with something either at home or the office. I know full well I’m not alone. Most coders I know who love their profession are always coding either on the keyboard or in their head.

The downside to loving what you do is not knowing when its time to take a break. Recently I took vacation and made some observations about the various states I was in throughout the week. Its definitely tough to unplug from the cool work we do and how can we complain, right? We get paid to tell computers what to do all day, which is really cool! However, nerds need a break too and its not wrong to admit to burn out.

1. State of Denial: I don’t really need a vacation

First, there is the state of denial about needing a vacation. I knew a lot of family would be in town for a week and I also knew a lot of deliverables were due the week after they left. Immediately, I told myself I don’t need a vacation and I’ll just work remote – that’s the same as being home while family is there, right? It took a lot to admit to myself that this is crazy. Being home and working on client deliverables doesn’t mean I’m home; it means I’m shut in my office with my heads phones on and if family wants to see the back of my head they can open the door and even converse with me without my knowing it.

We all know the addiction to deliverables and coding through the best and worst of them. We also know that when deliverables dates are met, a new set of deliverables are scheduled. So, there isn’t really a natural break in deliverables, all there is to do is trust in the rest of the team to handle the deliverables while you’re on vacation. For me, this is the only way to transition out of the state of denial; admit the vacation is needed and trust that life will go on without you. Its harder than it sounds.

2. State of Withdraw: Keep your coffee and bagel, where’s my laptop?!?

The first morning of vacation is awkward. I can imagine it happening one of two general ways for the truly addicted developer, I experienced both. Either you will roll out of bed and your feet will hit the floor in stride toward your laptop or you’ll stumble through canned morning greetings — “morning, how’d you sleep?” … “oh you know, with my eyes closed” — and shuffle right passed coffee and bagels for your laptop. The guilt set in pretty much immediately when I started checking up on tickets to see what’s moved and what code has been committed. If you’re lucky, you’ll have colleagues that will keep pushing you away from work and family who will keep shoving coffee and bagels in your face and giving you queues about what humans do for breakfast (Hint: It doesn’t involve your computer). Its your support group or sheer will power that transitions you out of this state.

3. State of Detachment: Man, I bet there was some cool cube conversation today…

Detachment comes in a few forms, and it closely follows withdraw. For me, I not only love my profession but the environment I work in is awesome so it didn’t take long to start wondering what I was missing at the office. I wondered if we got the new client I heard about? What cool conversations was I missing? These are the kinds of things I started to think about. Its easier to transition out of this state if your feeling detached from a positive environment. Getting out of the house and getting busy helps a lot, as does playing drinking games where the loser plays a round of “Just Dance” for the Wii.

There is a darker side of detachment, though, and while this isn’t a product of my current environment I’ve felt this way about places I’ve worked in the past – places I wasn’t very happy to work at. Feeling detachment can come in the form of worry or stress: “I wonder if anything is going wrong at work”, “What if something happens and gets blamed on me?”, “I bet they are talking trash about me since I’m away”, “Maybe my supervisor thinks I’m weak for taking time off”. If you feel this way and you’re a developer consider looking for a better place to work. If you’re not a developer and feel this way, consider looking for a better place to work. It shouldn’t be wrong to take vacation and if it feels that way then getting out of this state may not happen for the rest of your vacation.

4. State of Rest: Time for all the code I’ve been meaning to write!

I reached a point in my vacation where I was feeling great, the hangovers where light, the sleep was restful, I had forgotten about work and the rest of the world and family had a great time before heading home. Wouldn’t it be cool to relax with some code – after all, it can be relaxing to do the things you like to do, right? We all have those cool ideas and projects we want write code for but can’t because of how busy work (or life) is. Its risky business to mix vacation with code and its going to be tempting to make excuses like “well there isn’t anything else to do” or “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time and I just never get the chance!”. For me there is a lot of truth to these arguments but the risk here is not fulling decompressing from the mindset of problem solving and code. Feeling rested isn’t necessarily a sign that its time to jump back into the fray. Transitioning out of this state, for me, required more rest and more time out of my the engineering headspace.

5. State of Clarity: “Moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty.” ~Zoolander

Vacation was a success when I felt clarity again. What I mean is when I think about work again I don’t feel pressure about the deliverables or the amount of work ahead of me. Instead, I just know what needs to be done and feel like tackling the work isn’t a big deal. I know I do my best work when I can anticipate the problem being solved, the risks associated with it, the changes that are likely to be requested, etc. When I can think like an engineer again, with clarity, I know its time to return from vacation. This state of clarity may seem like a subtle difference from the State of Rest, but being well rested is just not enough to make a full return from vacation. In fact, its reaching this clarity that opened my eyes to how I’ve done this whole “vacation” think wrong in the past, where I returned to work too soon or fooled myself into thinking that working half the time I’m on vacation is a vacation.

I’ve gained perspective on the need to take vacation and how to work through a vacation in a way that puts me back at work better than when I left. While we, as a profession, have some very cool jobs and work with awesome technology it takes its toll on us and we need to decompress. So if you’re currently in your cube shaking your head at this post and thinking you couldn’t possibly take vacation then its time you take one!

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3 Responses to “The Vacation State Machine”

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