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How to have a life outside of law enforcement

Use the ‘take-charge’ skills you learn as an officer to take control of your personal schedule and enjoy your time away from the job

Get yourself a calendar, or scheduling app where you can view your schedule long term, plug in all your workdays, then see where you can find free time and decide how you’d like to spend it.

You’ve all heard it said that “Police work isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle.” If you’re a cop, let’s face it, you tend to view yourself as a cop 24/7, and frankly, a lot of us do so with pride. However, even Bruce Wayne took off the Batman cape once in awhile and had Alfred bring him a drink and a nice dinner. But when you hang up your uniform and duty belt for the day, do you find yourself surfing the net to check all the cop-related sites and blogs, or watching a “COPS” or “LIVE PD” marathon on TV?

In other words, even when you’re off duty, are you surrounding yourself with a little too much police-related information and entertainment? How are you spending what little free time you have?

There’s no question about it, police work doesn’t lend itself to an overabundance of spare time. Between call outs, overtime details, court days, shift holdovers, extra-duty jobs and myriad other duty-related things we end up having to do before and after work, it’s no wonder so many of us fall victim to what Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Cops, calls the “I Usta Syndrome.” The “I usta” response is given by so many of us when we’re asked about our hobbies and activities outside of the job. “I usta” go fishing, “I usta” coach my kid’s soccer team, “I usta” go to church, “I usta” be a runner, “I usta” be into photography – the list goes on and on.

With our odd days off, weird shift times and the long-term effects of hypervigilance, it’s no wonder we start to lose interest in the hobbies and activities that once brought us so much joy and relaxation.

In law enforcement, we are totally immersed in a culture that, if we’re not careful, becomes all-consuming, and we can find ourselves struggling to maintain even a modicum of balance. In fact, sometimes the harder we try to be the best, most informed, most enthusiastic cop we can be, the more we risk losing sight of the non-police support systems that help us maintain that great attitude on the job.

In the extreme, some cops lose interest not just in pleasurable activities, but in their friends, their families and eventually their own self-worth. If that happens, it’s time to seek professional help, now.

But let’s just say you’re like the majority of us who have “allowed” the job to dominate or eliminate your free time. Here are four suggestions to get back on track:

1. Take back control

Sure, the agency controls when you work; the court system controls when you have to appear; crime, mayhem and the 911 center control what calls you respond to, but despite your perception to the opposite, work does not control your life 24 hours a day.

Learn to practice what Gilmartin calls “aggressive personal time management.” Get yourself a calendar, or scheduling app where you can view your schedule long term. I prefer to have two, a personal scheduler and one that the whole family can view at home.

Plug in all your workdays, court days, training days and so on, and then look at the days and hours you’re not at work, and take a second to feel good about that.

Next, schedule all the family obligations, school events, church, doctor appointments and things that you can’t or don’t want to miss. Sometimes, just writing it down makes it more “real,” and it makes you feel more in control. See whether you can find some free time in there and then decide how you’d like to spend it.

2. Start small and prioritize

Think about the things you feel you’re missing out on. Do you long for when you and the whole family went to a movie and then out for ice cream every Friday night, but now you’re on second shift and the kids seem even busier than you are?

Pick one day during the upcoming month that you all can get together, then write on the calendar “Family Movie Night.” Give everyone plenty of notice, let them know that the date is sacred, that it’s on the calendar, and it’s a priority. Spend time talking about it, anticipating it; look at what movies are coming out and see if you can all agree on one.

Even if you don’t see much of your family because of shift work and busy schedules, get in the habit of e-mailing your kids and your spouse or leaving handwritten notes about the upcoming event — in other words, make it a big deal, and then make sure that it happens, no matter how tired or distracted you are, no matter how crazy things have been at work, no matter how much time you’ve spent in court this week. If the members of your family see that you’ve made a night out with them a priority, they’ll do the same (although your teenagers may not admit it!).

If going out is not an option, make the same effort to have family movie night at home, with everyone curled up on the couch in front of a scary movie.

If you’re on nights, how about scheduling “Cartoon Saturday Morning” for a few hours before it’s time for you to hit the hay? Be creative! The family will just be happy to have your time and attention. If family time is what you feel you’re missing out on, start out small and make it happen.

3. Be consistent

What if you’ve decided to make getting back in shape a priority? Again, start small, and then make sure you be consistent. Write your anticipated workout dates on that calendar, and then, just for fun, write down what you accomplish each time you work out. Treat each scheduled workout like a high-priority doctor’s appointment or court case, and if something happens and you’re going to be late for your “appointment,” go as soon as you can.

Twenty minutes on the treadmill (instead of the anticipated 45 minutes) is better than no minutes on the treadmill, and as I’ve learned from my husband, you don’t need to spend an hour or two every day in the gym to stay in great shape. Walking the dog, playing basketball with your kids or chasing your spouse around the bedroom can count as “working out” too sometimes. The point is basically to get your heart rate up and your mind off the job.

4. Be flexible and relax

I was really into scrapbooking at one time. I had all the cool tools, all the pretty paper, I subscribed to all the magazines and online newsletters, and I secretly felt superior knowing that all my family photos were neatly chronicled when most of my friends were throwing all their photos into shoeboxes and junk drawers.

I was considered quite the “expert” by my family and friends, who would consult me about their own scrapbooks, and ask whether I’d help them organize their own pictures. However, once I became the big “expert,” I quit enjoying it so much. In fact, it just became one more “chore” that I had to get done, and I started driving myself (and my poor family) crazy trying to make time to get those damn photos into those stupid scrapbooks! I finally had to step away from my hobby for a while.

After a few months, I re-evaluated and figured out a way to make it fun again by turning it back into something relaxing and personal rather than a competition or an “expertise.” So if you used to be really into fishing, but it just seems like too much hassle to get out all those poles, lures, tackle boxes and all that high-tech gear you’ve been amassing for years, try grabbing a bamboo pole and some worms, and spending an hour in a lawn chair tossing a hook into your subdivision’s little pond.

Let’s face it, police work can be an all-consuming profession, whether you’re a patrol officer, detective, correctional officer or dispatcher. Our hours are long and inconsistent, our job can be stressful and heartbreaking, and we tend to have so much going on that our “inner citizen” gets lost in the shuffle. Use those “take-charge” skills you have to take control of your own time and your own life and learn to really anticipate and enjoy your time away from the job. Trust me, it will make your time on the job that much more productive.

This article, originally published on 02/29/2008, has been updated.

My column is undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. I’ve been writing for the Street Survival “Newsline” and the P1 Newsletter for several years. As a Street Survival seminar instructor, I write about officer safety and survival, but I’m also a supervisor, a mom, a trainer, a cop’s wife, and dare I say, a woman, so I’ve got a lot to say about any number of topics (what woman doesn’t?!), and I’ve always received great feedback from our readers. So when Police One approached me and asked me to author a monthly column dealing with women’s issues, I enthusiastically agreed. “What a great opportunity” I naively thought “to bring issues to light that both women and men in law enforcement could all relate to, perhaps discuss at roll call, and ultimately learn something from each other.” Yeah, just call me Sergeant Pollyanna…I forgot that by calling it a “women’s” column, not only will most of our male readers skip over it, but so will at least half our female readers. What?! Why in the world wouldn’t women read a “women’s” column?! Because, there are a lot of female crimefighters out there like me who have spent a lot of years just trying to blend in, to be “one of the guys” if you will…to be perceived as and conduct ourselves as “warriors,” not “victims.” We don’t want special treatment; we just want to be cops.