Our Journey to Claiming Life-Giving Time Off
We recently took some time to reflect on our summer life-giving time off. This year the Courageous Change Collective offices were closed from July 18th - August 19th. As we reconnected with partners and collaborators upon our return, many shared how valuable it's been to hear about how we are living out our commitment to building time away from work into our organizational culture. This blog is our attempt to share more broadly what we are trying and what we are learning through the process.
At Courageous Change Collective we have made a commitment to taking ample time off to rest, play and rejuvenate. This is an essential part of our practice as changemakers and our business model as consultants. The work we do seeks to be transformational, it is long-term and it is challenging. We know we do our best work when we are well rested and can regularly invest in the expansion of worldview that travel and play provide. This is part of what helps us to sustain our hope that another world is possible.
Life-Giving Time Off
So what does our life-giving time off plan look like? Well, our offices are closed for 9 weeks each year. A week for Spring Break and Thanksgiving, 5 weeks over the summer and 2 weeks at the end of the calendar year. We are also closed for most major US holidays and for each of our birthdays. We have built our schedule around a 4 day work week and only work on Fridays on rare occasions. Finally, we offer unlimited PTO for other time off as needed.
We recognize the privilege we have in creating this organizational culture for ourselves. We know not everyone works in organization’s where the work is as flexible as ours. This post is our attempt to share our personal story of reaching for a healthier work culture - one that we had each been yearning for. We have worked with the particular challenges and opportunities of our context as we reach for a different way. We know that your context and its accompanying challenges and opportunities may be different. Our hope is that sharing our journey will encourage you to reach for rest, rejuvenation and play in whatever ways are possible in your context.
Sindy & Kirsten
Our journey began with taking an honest look at our patterns of working too much and where they come from. In 2017, our bodies finally rebelled against our long-term pattern of overwork. Sindy and Kirsten were working as a team to lead the work of Wilder’s Community Initiatives and both of us got pneumonia. Moreover, we were sick during a time where we had overcommitted ourselves and felt we had to “push through.”
As we emerged from this season - with the help of our bodyworkers, peer counselors and community mentors - we realized something had to shift. We reached out to our friend and partner, Hanna Cooper to provide some coaching for our team. With Hanna’s guidance we explored the question: How could we continue the work we cared so deeply about and not do so at the expense of our well-being?
We began to shift the ways we scheduled our time - building in adequate time for the prep and design required to do good work. Accurately scheduling the true time projects required led us to realize we needed to commit to fewer projects. We had to say no more often and notice that we could be okay when we did that. It meant we had to negotiate contracts differently and approach projects in new ways - but we made it work. Somehow we still reached our budget targets. And slowly we worked our way towards a more sustainable workload.
This journey involved many hours of healing and reflection. We had to acknowledge our internalized narratives around “work” “rest” “being enough.” To be honest that we come from legacies of exploitation, that our ancestors endured the slow destruction of their bodies through oppressive working conditions. Not only did we not feel justified or deserving of working less, we frankly did not know how to do it in practice. How to slow down? How to rest? It felt wrong and often easier to just continue our defaults of overworking.
Having to face these hard truths was the beginning of the journey to where we are today. We kept working on it, one small step at a time. We kept building a new way of working.
A friend used to say I am the kind of person that “lives to work” rather than someone who “works to live.” For the majority of my career this was true. I have always found pride in being the kind of person that does what it takes to get the work done, and lucky enough to find jobs where I could live my purpose. Living my purpose through my work and being committed to community made me prioritize serving others over myself.
Prior to founding Courageous Change Collective, I worked for 14 years with the Youth Leadership Initiative (YLI) and I worked A LOT. I had a leadership role where I had to attend 9am meetings and then work until 9pm because I was needed to assist with programming and help transport youth home. I was easily working 12 hour days, 4 days a week and sometimes weekends. Despite the long work hours, YLI filled me up more than depleted me because playing and learning was the nature of the work and we were having transformative conversations on topics such as identity, culture, racism, and leading across difference.
It wasn’t until I lost my job in the summer of 2020 that my perspective on work, play and rest changed. Losing my job forced me to rest. Suddenly, I had an abundance of time to do nothing. The pandemic also led me to seek out spaces and activities that did not involve people such as exploring local trails and parks. I would go hiking for 3-4 hours a day. During this period, I learned to slow down, soak up the natural world around me, observe how the light hit different parts of the forest, and listen to the birds sing. Being out in nature allowed me to unplug and slow my mind. I discovered a kind of joy that I only had a glimpse of before on vacations once or twice a year. To deeply experience play and rest without work on a day-to-day basis was rejuvenating and healing for me spiritually and physically. I noticed that my body was carrying less tension and I needed less massages. I learned that simple things like walking in the woods can be life giving. I learned that I don’t need to have a purpose all the time. This started to shift my mindset and way of being to be more balanced. Now I find myself wanting to go hiking in the forest or along the Mississippi River, climbing mountains, traveling more, and making time to just paint at home for hours. I am learning to prioritize ME time and appreciating the complex person that I am outside of work. Losing people that I loved to COVID has also reinforced my desire to more fully live life outside of work. My late friend Ilean Her would often ask, “Are you living your best life?” This was such a great reminder that we have a choice in determining the kind of life we want for ourselves and at any moment we can make changes to do the things we love.
Coming Together to Build an Organizational Culture
Then in 2020, we found ourselves launching a new organization with the chance to build an organizational culture from the ground up. We didn’t know it at the time, but all the healing, re-imagining and practical strategies that we had been cultivating during the previous years had prepared us for this moment.
In the midst of financial anxiety and the unknowns of launching a business (while navigating a pandemic and racial uprising), we created a courageous plan for an organizational culture that would be life-giving. We knew our overwork defaults were still strong and that it was important to start out with firm commitments and boundaries in place.
We didn’t know if it was possible to do less and get more done? We learned it was. We learned it is possible to do things differently. It’s ok to say no. It’s possible to do purpose driven work with boundaries. It’s possible to find a balance between work, play and rest. We are in charge and it is really powerful to claim our agency, openly discuss our values including play and rest, and decide the kind of organizational culture we want for ourselves.
We are now in year two of living out our life-giving organizational plan. It’s been both terrifying and deeply rewarding. During these two years we have exceeded our budget and provided high quality work to our clients. We work less and still get all the work done.
Each time a life-giving time off is approaching the feelings return - doubt, guilt, anxiety. We have to work hard to claim it every time. We have learned that the emotional healing is just as important as building the structured time off into our calendars. We have realized that part of what makes living out our commitment possible is operating as a collective. We are constantly reminding one another that this is legitimate, that it is okay for us to take the time, that the work will get done and we can truly take a break and rest. We are still learning how to make this workable for each of us in our different lives, families, cultural expressions, sources of rest and rejuvenation. Centering our healing work remains essential to truly embracing the opportunity we create for ourselves, otherwise we go back to our defaults.
Living in a culture where overwork is normalized (and sometimes celebrated), where people often don’t even use the vacation days they are provided by their workplace, we are surrounded by messages that taking the time off we do is entitled and excessive. We have to fight to stay clear. To remember that we want this for everyone. We want everyone to have ample time for rest, rejuvenation and play.
Part of what has allowed us to succeed is that rest is not an afterthought. It requires a tremendous amount of intention and planning to structure our year in a way that builds in the breaks we need. We have developed strategies and tools we use both before we head out on break and for our re-entry after break. We build in time to reflect on what we are learning and adapt and expand our approaches based on our experiences of taking time off.