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The Ramp-Down

Page created: 2023-07-19 , updated: 2023-08-23

Related: intentional-rest, anti-productivity, project-balance.

Before I went on vacation this summer, I did something different.

The plan

Over a period of several weeks, I gradually ceased all personal projects. I replaced them, one by one, with reading books on the couch.

I left each project intentionally incomplete.

Now, to understand why this is a big deal for me, you need to know that I usually do the exact opposite: I often worked extra hard before vacations to try to get projects to some sort of completion state.

But that always sucked. It may have taken a couple decades to see the pattern, but I was determined to do it differently this time.

In performing an intentional ramp-down, here’s what I was hoping for:

  1. Easier transition from "hurry and finish stuff" mode to vacation mode.

  2. An easier return to the projects when I got back because I left them intentionally incomplete.

  3. More relaxing in general.

In case it’s not obvious, the problems with rushing to get things done before a vacation are multi-fold.

First of all, now I have with two stress-points: the project (which always takes more time than I think to complete) and preparing for the vacation itself.

Secondly, it means I’m starting the vacation in a heightened state of "hurry, hurry, hurry!" So the first couple days are essentially wasted as I re-learn how to relax and enjoy myself.

Did it work?

Yes! It’s now been over two months since I started the "ramp down" and here’s some key points:

  • I got a lot of great reading done. (I had a bunch of fun non-fiction queued up - they even had pictures!)

  • Having given myself "permission" to rest meant I could thoroughly enjoyed my leisure time.

  • Travel with kids is plenty of stress on its own.

  • I loathe airports, so going into that with a calm state of mind is very helpful.

  • I was able to relax much, much faster on the actual vacation. (I knew it would be a weird sort of vacation, so that was extra important.)

The single biggest project I’d prolonged finishing was Forth: The programming language that writes itself: The Web Page. It was 99.9% done, but I postponed the last edits and posting it to RSS and Mastodon until I got back. Again, this is completely against my nature. It was so hard to delay completing something I was so close to finishing. But I knew that there would be a fair amount of feedback and I didn’t want to have all of those messages and emails coming in while I was on vacation. (I was more right than I knew. I got some amazingly thoughtful feedback.)

I really enjoyed completing and posted it shortly after we returned.

Other projects were left "on a cliffhanger" and have proven to be easy to start back up. (Written notes are also essential here, e.g. next-note.)

So that was the planned part. 5 out of 5 stars: totally recommend!

But it turned out to be even more important than I realized. When we got back, two things happened:

  1. We got sick and stayed sick.

  2. Work went crazy.

The sickness was initially due to our exposure during the process of air travel. Then it was extended because the kids went back to school, which always means getting a fresh round of viruses. As I write this, we’ve been fighting overlapping cold/flu symptoms for about five weeks straight. I think we’re finally starting to emerge from the woods on that.

As for work, that was semi-expected. I knew there was a deadline looming upon my return. But I did not imagine how chaotic it would be, nor that a second, smaller deadline would suddenly appear simultaneously. As with the sickness, this is just starting to quiet down, a full five weeks after we got back from the trip.

So I extended the permission to myself to not work on any projects.

This has been vital to avoid frustration and burnout and has probably made me 200% more pleasant to be around during this time than I otherwise would have been. :-)

Back to normal?

An entire two months after ramping down, I’m only now starting to ramp back up. But I’m being cautious about it, too. I’m still reading for a good portion of my evenings (as family obligations allow) and enjoying that very much.

Though I am itching to work on projects, I do not feel guilty about not working on them. (Perhaps the idea of feeling guilt about not working on personal projects sounds strange? I believe it stems from the notion that I have somehow let myself down.)

I’m also feeling very energized to start on projects again and enjoying them quite a bit. In some cases, I’ve even discovered new perspectives while I’ve been away from them. (Example: Year of the Microcontroller: Chapter 6.)

The only thing I’m not 100% sanguine about is that my personal email inbox currently has over a dozen messages with very high quality correspondence that date back as far as seven weeks ago. None of them are things I absolutely need to act upon, but it does bother me to have so many.