The Cost of Decompression

If you work for a living, you know the feeling. You finish a day of earning money. You’re tired – mentally and/or physically and/or spiritually and/or socially exhausted.

You go home, drop your stuff by the door, and just head to the couch for a while. You sit there in a daze, watching a television show or even taking a nap for a while.

You’re decompressing.

For a lot of people, decompression is a vital part of their work day. They come home feeling like a zombie and they just need some time to recollect themselves.

Decompression used to be a vital part of my day when I worked at my previous job. I would often decompress for half an hour or an hour when I got home, watching a television show or playing a video game. I just needed some time to unwind.

I’m an introvert, so I mostly just relished some time being by myself without having to be social. I was often mentally taxed, so I would also enjoy playing a mindless video game or just watching a television show so my mind could refresh itself a little bit.

It was simply a necessary part of my routine. Most days, I would spend almost an hour unwinding after work, leaving me ready to take care of business when Sarah got home, as I usually arrived home a while before she did. I would usually make dinner or do some chores while she unwound from her job.

When I look back at those work days, though, I see the real cost of decompression.

Let’s say I made $40,000 a year. It’s a reasonable approximation of my average salary during those early years. Let’s also hypothetically say I worked 45 hours a week, which is also a reasonable approximation (I think it’s on the low end, but we’ll keep it easy), plus five more hours per week for commuting.

If you look at just those numbers, I earned $16 per hour. Not too bad, right?

Now, let’s also say I get eight hours of sleep per night, adding up to 56 hours per week. I’m spending 50 hours per week working and commuting. So, out of the 168 hours in a week, I’m left with 62 hours per week for taking care of life’s business and enjoying life.

Let’s see how five hours of decompression per week – one day per workday – changes that equation.

If you include decompression, my hourly wage goes down to $14.55 per hour. It’s still a nice wage, but not as good. It also changes the dynamics of the week, raising my time spent working, commuting, and decompressing to 55 hours per week and lowering my free time for the responsibilities and joys of personal life down to 57 hours per week. They’re almost equal at that point.

Decompression lowers my effective hourly wage and also reduces my genuine free time. I call it the “job misery tax” because that’s effectively what it is. It forces me to compress my personal time, usually resulting in paying for shortcuts like convenience foods. It effectively adds “overtime” to my job while also lowering my hourly pay rate at work, which isn’t fun, either.

Now, let’s look at today. I basically don’t decompress. My “work day” bleeds almost seamlessly into my normal days, partially because I enjoy writing so much, but also because I “border” my day with other responsibilities. I stop working when my children arrive, for example, or when I need to go to bed, or when I need to prep my children for their school day.

How did I get rid of expensive decompression? Obviously, one element was the career change. I get deep personal fulfillment from self-guided creative work. I enjoyed my previous work deeply when I had opportunities for self-guided creative work and my fulfillment dropped rapidly when those opportunities dropped. My current work is filled with self-guided creative opportunities, so I generally feel quite fulfilled with my work, meaning I don’t feel nearly as drained when I finish.

That’s not the only element, though.

I bookend my work with personal tasks. In other words, I “decompress” using low-intensity household and personal tasks that I need to accomplish anyway. I turn on the radio and do dishes. I go directly to bed. I stop to wake up my children so that they make it to the bus on time. If I were commuting, I’d just go in the house and work on something low-intensity rather than just vegetating. I’d load the dishwasher while listening to NPR instead of just playing a video game.

I focus on clearing my mind when I get overwhelmed. Rather than just shutting down and decompressing, I take a few minutes to actively clear my mind and calm down. As I’ve mentioned before, I find it really, really useful to spend three to five minutes focusing exclusively on my breathing. Rather than sitting there staring at the television or a game, I’ll just focus on breathing in and breathing out for three to five minutes. Every time my mind wanders, I guide it back to my breathing. After I do that, I feel great and I’m ready to tackle the things I need to tackle.

The goal is to transform the time spent decompressing into something personally fulfilling. If I can spend the “decompression” hour doing something that needs completing around the house, I’ll have an extra hour free on the weekend because that task is completed. That’s an hour I can devote to a fulfilling hobby or to enjoying life in some fashion. It reduces the effective time I spend devoted to work – because, like it or not, decompression time is time given over to work – and increases the time I spend on personally fulfilling things.

I effectively improve my hourly wage at work and have more time for the things that I want out of life. That’s a huge victory in my eyes.

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