The Okay Corral: Walking Away From Work at the End of the Day

by Johanna Bates


Inside my brain is a field, and in my left part of that field, there’s a corral. The corral is where my workday thought ponies run, in circles. They never stop running.

Most days, at the end of my work day, I leave the corral and close the gate behind me. I walk out into the grass, the asters and goldenrod, and let the evening unfold. Once I’ve left the corral, the importance of what happened between 9am and 5pm is at least relatively meaningless. I love my work, I care very much about what I do. But it simultaneously doesn’t matter.

This isn’t all as neat as closing a gate implies. Some days, I stay in the corral too late. Other days, I leave, but linger outside, leaning on its fence, watching the ponies run, worried that I’ll miss something if I turn my back for the night. But, more than ever before in my life, I walk away from the work corral at the end of my day. I have colleagues and friends who sometimes ask me how I manage to do this.

It did not come easy. Sometime just after 2008, I woke up in a cliché. In August of that year, I held my father’s hands for three hours while he died of cancer in hospice. My life changed that day. It was the beginning of a dark passage, during which three more members of my close family died from cancer in rapid succession. A close friend got dangerously ill. A longtime friend lost her child.

After being repeatedly hit over the head with this “time is fucking precious” frying pan, I have gotten extremely efficient. When the nonprofit I worked at went under at the end of 2009, I became a consultant, and later started a company that builds websites for nonprofits. In order to accomplish that, while caring for my family and myself and earning a salary, I had to build the corral.

When I’m in the corral of running ponies, I am relentlessly productive. Like so many of us, I live by to-do lists. I sit at my desk with coffee, and headphones to block out the world, and try to knock as many items off my list as I can. I watch development tutorials and take conference calls from my treadmill desk, so I can do something to take care of my own health while working. I listen to web development podcasts while driving or walking.

But I am only productive in the corral because I regularly leave it. There are times when I need to walk out of the corral and listen to music instead of a podcast, even if it’s not the logical “best” use of my time. You won’t see me at too many weekend tech conferences, because out in the big field in my brain, my kid will only be 10 during the second weekend of September once, ever, and that’s more important than open source software. Full stop.

I know that the ability to walk away from the corral at the end of the day is a privilege. It’s a choice that costs me career advancement, and income. It is also what makes it possible for me to stay, 18 years and counting, in a tech career.

There are many people for whom a tech career is not sustainable because they cannot afford to take care of themselves and their families in this way. This deeply upsets and saddens me. The reasons for this are rooted in sexism, racism, classism, and American capitalist culture. That’s for another post, another time. For the moment, I’ll have to leave that one in the corral.

This piece was originally published on and is reprinted here with permission.

Top photo: Chris Burke/Flickr Creative Commons

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