March 13, 2014

Finding Balance: Play Hooky

Woman lying down in a meadow with text: Is It Time to Play Hooky?

When we were school-age, many of us recognized the need to blow off classes and responsibilities once in a while to play hooky. The exhilaration of “getting away with something” can recharge our burned-out batteries just as much as the trip to the shopping mall or whatever we did with our goof-off time.

But as adults, we often feel guilty for falling behind on our to-do lists. We know we’re only cheating ourselves and that our list will only grow while we’re elsewhere. Guilt is not a helpful emotion when we’re already feeling stressed.

That’s too bad. We need goof-off time when we’re adults just as much as we did when we were younger (if not more so). Every once in a while we need to play hooky from our responsibilities and allow ourselves to recharge.

(Side note: I checked to make sure “hooky” wasn’t a vulgar term in non-U.S. locations, but if you’re not familiar with the term, it means to skip school or classes. *smile*)

The Dangers of Pushing Ourselves Too Hard

We often hear the advice that we must make time for writing. This is true. If we wait for the perfect opportunity, for our to-do list to go down to zero, for the muse to strike, etc., we’ll never write anything.

Life is all about choices, and we have to make choices based on our goals. We won’t live long enough to do everything we want to do, so we have to make sacrifices and cut out some items from our “want to do” list to make room for those we deem a higher priority.

But as some of my readers pointed out in the comments of one of my posts last week, it’s easy to become so passionate about something that we veer into obsession. Or it’s easy to feel like we have to sacrifice everything in pursuit of our highest priority.

We Must Find Balance

Neither of those are healthy paths. We don’t want to sacrifice so much that we lose our sense of balance.

We won’t get everything we want no matter how much we obsess or sacrifice. We can’t become a Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning, Oscar-winning, top-spy-with-more-gadgets-than-007, Olympic-gold-medalist, billionaire-benevolent-dictator, parent-of-brilliant-and-generous-children, bestselling author, all in this one life—even if we spend every minute working toward that goal. *smile*

So we narrow our focus to our top priorities, but that brings the danger of obsession. There’s such a thing as sacrificing too much. What if we focus all our time and energy on a single project and fail anyway?

Even if we succeeded, we’d be hard pressed to say it was worth losing our friends, family, job, and sanity. And it’d be impossible to say losing all that was worth it if we had only a failure to show for our sacrifices.

We should sacrifice only things we’re okay with losing. Some things we can live without (especially for a limited time), like that new TV show everyone’s talking about, etc. But I wouldn’t recommend long-term sacrifices of things we can’t live without.

We must find a healthy balance of realistic goals we can reach with a doable level of sacrifice and the permission to play hooky occasionally too. A life without goof-off time is no life at all.

All Work and No Play Makes for a Burned-Out Writer

As I’ve mentioned before, while we do have to make sacrifices for our writing, that doesn’t mean we should sacrifice all the time. Sometimes we have to know when “living life” is the most important thing on our to-do list.

Sacrificing everything or sacrificing every spare moment leads to burnout and other issues. That’s not sacrifice—that’s setting a time bomb.

There’s a reason the cures for burnout include activities we’d label as “goofing off.” Watching TV or playing games or the like can be used to replenish our creativity after burnout occurs, but those same activities can be used to prevent burnout.

That’s what goof-off time is all all about. Despite what it looks like, we do have a goal for that time: Avoid burning out. *smile*

We Must Give Ourselves Permission to Seek Balance

That truth means we have a reason to give ourselves permission to play hooky from our responsibilities occasionally. Yes, the to-do list will still be there tomorrow (and will likely get bigger in our absence), but most things can wait until tomorrow. And no, we shouldn’t feel guilty about choosing to avoid burnout.

As with many things, balance lies in the middle ground of moderation. Any extreme can be unhealthy. In this case, we’re seeking the balance between procrastination and obsession. Just as it’s bad to procrastinate and not accomplish anything, it’s bad to obsess to the point of losing sight of our life.

Only we (and sometimes our close friends and family) can see which direction we’re leaning toward on any specific day. Some days we might need a kick in the pants to avoid procrastination. Other days we might need a pep talk that we’re pushing ourselves too hard.

So when we see advice directing us one way or another, we have to learn to ignore it if the suggestions would push us off balance. We can learn our “nearing burnout” signals. Do we have more trouble sleeping? Are we crankier? Are we stress-eating?

When we see those signs in our life, that can give us a heads up that it’s time for a hooky day. Take a day and go to a park or indulge in a nap. Sloth out on the couch to do a marathon-viewing of TV shows or movies. Immerse ourselves in a video game world. Or even take ourselves out for ice cream. *grin*

By intercepting our burnout early, we might be able to get back on track in an afternoon or a day, rather than dealing with several days or weeks of severe burnout. Think of all the guilt we’re preventing by stopping our burnout slide before it gets to the point of not accomplishing anything for weeks.

Really, when we look at it that way, playing hooky occasionally is downright logical. Our teen-aged self was logical? Who knew? *smile*

Did you play hooky as a teenager? Do you ever play hooky now? If not, why not? What would you like to do for a day if you could talk yourself out of any guilt? Do you agree that playing hooky occasionally is good for us?

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My high school was insanely difficult. (Seriously…the place closed because too many students pulled out for health reasons, and it gave me several stress-related health problems that exacerbated the effects of a genetic condition of mine. I started getting hot flashes at 20.) Because responsibility had resulted in all sorts of health issues, I developed a physiological aversion to studying and homework. I managed to pull myself out of it enough to keep my scholarships and even hit honor roll in college, but to this day, I struggle not to panic when my to-do list starts getting long, even when I know it’s all doable. I actually play hooky sometimes on purpose, when things are going slow, to kick myself in the pants to do things efficiently, because I want to avoid getting in the habit of wasting time when I set out to do things. Of course, that focus in itself is exacerbated by some health issues I still suffer from that mean my energy levels are erratic. (I have adrenal problems + a TON of allergies, even when you omit the trees, shrubs, cacti, grass, and flowers.) I can’t even exercise—and any kind of physical activity, even mild walking, can have negative physical and emotional repercussions for two days after. I’m in treatment, and it’s helping, but it’s still quite annoying and more than a little problematic…because I have a habit of planning cleaning and such tasks as if I’m healthy, which wears me out emotionally—but when I…  — Read More »

Taurean Watkins

Thanks for doing this post, Jami, I had to back off a lot of writer stuff when my dog had a health scare recently. As much as I would never wish my dog be ill just to slow me down (in a GOOD WAY) that’s what it took to keep me from overstressing. Oh, and Pepper (my dog) is okay now, but taking care of him in that time meant dialing back my other stuff. He had to take a lot of medicine at different times of day, and I didn’t always do it just so, but he took it, and for those of you who are parents I assure you (with all due respect), it’s WAY harder to give medicine to animals that human kids because you can’t reason with them the same way. People always preach not to leave writing cold because it’s harder to start again, and true as that may be, I also can’t be productive if I have a nervous breakdown that makes me a cranky rat to everyone, offline and on… I’m now getting back to form and yes it’s slow, but better slow than never, and anyway, I think a better frame of mind for “Sacrifice” is being kind to yourself. I think I’ve had a warped view of “Sacrifice” because I only experienced it as something painful rather than something healthy to do. Not to say what you said above is incorrect- “We won’t live long enough to do everything we want…  — Read More »

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

😀 Awesome post! This especially resonates with me, because I very often feel guilty whenever I spend time not studying, lol. It’s only recently (maybe this year) that I’ve learned that it’s OKAY to goof off, haha. And that it’s NORMAL and HEALTHY to goof off once in a while. I think it was also helpful to me to write a bit everyday (1 hour at least), because it makes me realize that I CAN afford to make time for some extracurricular stuff without compromising my grades. As long as I don’t go overboard with writing, of course. So 2 hours a day would be overboard, especially for the days where you didn’t manage the 2 hours and have to do FOUR hours the next day. XD So, I’m much happier now in that I feel self-justified in taking my breaks. And as one friend put it, once you get to relax, don’t think about your work. Just RELAX HARD. 😀 I also used to feel guilty about socializing (I’m an extrovert so I love socializing and chatting and hanging out with friends, haha). And that’s because I always have WORK goals in mind—i.e. studying, reading, and writing (and sometimes drawing.) But as I grow older, I realize that I should make my RELATIONSHIPS my goals too, i.e. goals to develop my friendships by spending more time with my friends. I always saw relationships as a static, stay at the same level thing, something to maintain. But now I see…  — Read More »

Sarah Brentyn
Sarah Brentyn

Yeah, I usually wait until the time bomb explodes to play hooky. Totally not helpful. Well, a little bit. That’s more escaping/avoiding than preventing though. I’ll have to start paying more attention before-hand.

“Do we have more trouble sleeping? Are we crankier? Are we stress-eating?” How dare you! (*munching on potato chips*) Sorry, I’m tired.

Loni Townsend

I never played hooky in school, but I was one of those crazy kids who enjoyed attending. I find it more difficult to play hooky in my adult life because that means pawning my 3-year-old and 6-month-old off on someone else. But that’s what a husband’s for, right? 😀 He’s always there to step in when I need a time-out.

Kristen Luciani

Sometimes I play hooky. Everyone needs to rejuvenate themselves. I don’t do it as often as I like, but it helps. I am a big planner and master of prioritization. But at times I want to let all of that go and focus on thing I love to do instead of what I’m supposed to do. It’s my little escape from reality and it helps fuel my creativity. It’s not possible to get to everything, so I try to set small, attainable goals and reward myself for achieving them. It gives me a more positive outlook and inspires me to plunge ahead with my next set.


[…] We all experience “encroachment,” as Robin LaFevers calls it–demands on our writing time from family, friends, and other outside sources. Jami Gold chimes in with how to find balance through playing hooky. […]


[…] those little signals from our body or subconscious. Sometimes we need to sleep, relax, or play, and that’s okay. Sometimes we’re stuck because the story is going in the wrong direction, and we need to […]

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