-by Jack M. Jose, originally published July 4, 2016, revised July 2017
I am bad at vacations. Really bad. Classically bad. I have trouble scheduling them. I dislike planning for them. I pack well enough, but I put it off to the moments before we leave. On occasion I vow, “This vacation will be different.” I claim I will get away from work for real, but it always creeps back in, usually through an open door. A door that I propped open. After sunset we return to the hotel room, and I sneak a glimpse at the computer. Or perhaps I take a quick look at my phone and handle an email discreetly while waiting for a table at a restaurant. I then look up into my wife’s disapproving stare.
July, 2015, I vowed to fix that.
We had a cottage on a Florida inlet for a week. “No email.” I swore. “No projects.” I drew an “X” across my heart with my index finger. And Sunday I was solid. I accessed the computer only to stream Netflix as the family gathered in the evening and sprawled on the couches in the living room. Monday and Tuesday I was still on the regimen. In the morning I wandered out to the porch with a guitar and left my phone on the dresser. I took a nap in the afternoon instead of playing a game on the computer. On Wednesday morning, however, I slipped up, and saw on my phone that I had over 150 unread emails. “Stay strong,” I told myself. “A promise is a promise.” But it was too late. I did the math. We had left on Sunday, and I had achieved Inbox 0 just the Friday before. Surely no one sent emails on a Sunday in July. Just over two days had generated 150 emails! In the summer! I played out a full week in my head, imagined the steady stream of notes requesting my attention, and added a weekend before I got back to the office … I was looking at more than 400 unread emails at my next log-in. It would take a week of just answering emails to get caught up, but I had other work to do. The tension became physical.
That afternoon when my family went to a local arcade and trampoline “Party Zone” to escape the heat, I felt like I had a softball-sized knot between my shoulder blades. I had to rotate my whole torso when I looked to the right, or else a sharp pain would course through my entire upper body. “Must have pulled something,” I explained as I bounced on the trampoline halfheartedly. I then walked to the dismount ledge and slumped off to play some fine-motor skill video games that didn’t require head movements. Later I excused myself from a game of laser tag and instead sat in the cafeteria watching CNN Headline news, eating a greasy slice of pizza and steadfastly refusing to look at my phone. But I knew the truth. My work anxiety had created this tension knot. And only working would fix it.
For the rest of the vacation, I took various over-the-counter pain killers while trying to enjoy “getting away from it all.” A part of me spent the second half of the vacation longing to return to the office. Finally, the vacation was over, and we returned home. (Who else says “Finally, the vacation was over?”)
My symptoms disappeared Tuesday, our third day home. “You should go see a doctor,” my wife had suggested Sunday night, and again Monday night, because I had propped my pillows just right to keep my head from rolling, preventing a sharp pain from waking me in the middle of the night. She repeated this on Tuesday when I came into the kitchen in the morning. “No, I’m fine.” I rolled my neck around and raised my right arm, an impossible combination just two days earlier. “Huh,” she observed. “Like a miracle.”
“Something like that,” I agreed. It was really the result of a Herculean Sunday-Monday email binge that reassured me I was still on top of what had happened in my absence. No crisis here.
A Forbes magazine summary of a study by the Center for Economic and Policy research showed that Americans take far fewer holidays than the rest of the industrialized world. The vacation gap is even greater for lower income workers, where even unpaid vacations are frowned upon, and of course time away from hourly work means putting a dent in the family finances. Vacation is often optional here, where other developed countries require between 5 and 13 paid vacation days a year, with some countries paying a vacation bonus to cover unusual expenses, and the EU establishing a minimum of 20 paid vacation days for member countries. This is potentially bad news for those experiencing Brexit!
Research shows, however, that a vacation is truly good for you. Two widely-cited studies, the NIH Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial for the Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease, and the Framington Heart Study, showed that non-vacationers faced a 32% greater risk of dying from heart disease and a 30% greater chance of having a heart attack. Non-vacationing women were 8 times more likely to develop these conditions than their vacationing counterparts.
Not only can a vacation save your life, it is clinically proven to reduce your stress level, and decrease depression. Both of these correlate to longer life.
But there is more. And I put it here because I need to hear it as much as some of you. Vacations actually improve your productivity. Among the European Union nations, Germany has the second highest number of required days of vacation, even as it serves as the economic powerhouse for the EU.
“Sharpen the Saw” – In his seminal self-leadership book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey touts the benefits of a good vacation. He uses the analogy of a person sawing wood. The lumberjack who labors on finds himself more and more tired, and he finds his tools are less and less useful. His vacationing alter ego is instead stopping to “sharpen the saw”, and when he returns to work he finds that the teeth bite through the wood at a new, more effective rate, and he is able to get more done more quickly than he was before.
In a profession like teaching, where science and art meet daily, and we find ourselves constant cheerleaders and emotional supporters of our students and co-workers, our “saw” that needs sharpened is our creativity and emotional resilience. Sharpening it, by allowing it to rest and reset, can lead to deeper understanding and better facility with our own emotions. The teacher or administrator who has not rested his brain risks being a victim of his own overstressed amygdala, and instead of being a nurturing adult, he may well turn into a saber-toothed tiger. Or he may just roar needlessly at a bewildered student or co-worker making a simple request.
That’s the why. What about How?
So we all know how to vacation, right? Well, maybe not. The fact is, there are many different types of vacations, from the one-tank out-of-town trip to a nearby attraction, to the week at a cabin, to an extended trip to a continent holding many mysteries and cultures. Our vacationing style was passed on to us by our own family, and is restricted by our incomes and work schedules. Here’s how to make the most of your time away.
Barking Up the Wrong Tree blogger Eric Barker passes on a suggestion that you plan a trip of 3 to 6 days, with a major highlight coming right at the end. I recommend you read his post Are There Easy Ways to Improve Your Next Vacation. This is one of the ways you can sort of psych yourself into a great vacation. The last impression of your vacation is often the strongest, and planning the emotional high at the end makes your vacation even more satisfying, and perhaps healthier.
We know that a well-planned lesson goes better than a poorly planned one, or that an unstructured field experience can often lead to strife between students. The human mind craves organization. Even in vacation. Especially in vacation. With organization, our sense of time passing slows down, and it allows us to savor moments instead of wasting them. So take time to plan your days. Perhaps not hourly, but quarterly. My wife Kathy and I start with the “big rocks” of the vacation – Stephen Covey’s language for “the most important things.” [Alright, she is going to read this and I will be forced to admit it: she does the planning. All of it. About two weeks before the vacation, which she has already planned, I see it coming up on my schedule and I engage by providing helpful suggestions: “I’ve never been to Kansas City’s Kauffman stadium,” or “California sounds beautiful.” I get a quick summary of airline prices, and we’re soon on our way to Florida, or New York City. Once there, I get to make daily suggestions to influence where we eat, or which attractions we visit. Sometimes we end up at one of those places. It works for us.]
Whether it is a tour of a bourbon factory on a purposeful weekend getaway, or long walks on the beach in a leisurely week-long trip, or a horseback ride through the mountains on an anniversary trip without the kids, the primary attraction gets planned first. When we are on location at our destination, we then plan the details of our vacation days by forming an idea of where we would like to eat, and scheduling the four periods in between meals. Pre-breakfast: work check-in, which can include email, reading blogs or books, and writing. Then breakfast. After that, together time: a walk on the beach, and a drive to a nearby attraction. Then lunch. Tour the attraction, return, perhaps a family swim or afternoon game time inside. Then dinner. And finally, we have an after-dinner wind-down, which might include a second walk, a movie, or a Netflix series binge.
Michael Hyatt, whose “This is Your Life” podcast has been downloaded over 10 million times, and who also writes a tremendously popular productivity blog, offers many vacationing insights in a recent post entitled How to Vacation Like a Pro. He suggests that before you leave, you work intentionally to get completely caught up. The vacationer with a big incomplete project looming over her head will not truly be vacationing. She will be hiding. More a fugitive than a tourist. Solution: Finish that first quarter unit plan. Turn in those last papers for your master’s class. Update your back-to-school letter to parents, and save it in a safe place.
Hyatt goes on to offer a series of tips that are controversial and nothing short of revolutionary – and which definitely benefit from his position atop his own company. His suggestion is to leave a message on auto-reply in your work email letting people know you’re away. He then takes it a step further – deleting those emails and requesting people get back with him later.
To quote Bart Simpson, “Aye Carumba!” Or, more accurately, “Oy vey!” We do not advocate that particular position! That is not our style.
Instead, we leave lines of communication open. Being in communication does not have to be 24/7, however. My auto reply message for my next vacation will include information about when in the day people can expect a reply from me or can expect to reach me. Most of those people trying to contact us will gladly – and voluntarily – wait, rather than interrupt a vacation. It is my hope they will exclude me from a round of replies when an email discussion becomes a conversation thread. Krista, on the other hand, thrives on being in constant communication with her team, and will even manage a little work on Marathon Pool Day®. While Michael Hyatt will help himself get away by indicating who is in charge of making key decisions in his absence, this is a luxury not available to many of us, who are work teams of one.
A third suggestion Hyatt makes is to block out the whole day when you return to focus on getting caught up. Schedule time with you, for you. This way, you don’t have meetings and new business cluttering up your efforts to re-live the previous week. Tell people you will be back on Tuesday, but spend Monday in your office following your own make-up schedule.
This spring, with memories of my immobile neck fresh in my memory, I charted a new course for a brief getaway with my wife. A compromise position. I told her that each morning, before or after our walk on the beach, I was going to take 30 minutes to an hour – with the maximum of 60 minutes – to work. I was going to research or write an upcoming post, check email, make a phone call or text as necessary. I promised then that I would be present in every other moment of the vacation. This way, I knew I could stay on top of the things that had to get done, and work toward my own goals of what I wanted to get done at work, without guilt. I could keep my commitment to being on vacation, without the giant crick in my neck.
For her part, Kathy was willing to go along with this. She knew that I would keep my word about the rest of the time with her, and that being away from work really made me miserable. Additionally, she had a book she wanted to read, and could use a little time for herself. In many ways, it was one of our most enjoyable vacations – and not just because it was a rare getaway without the kids! We had structure for our time together, and rules for “solo time”. With these boundaries in place, we were able to be totally “in the moment.”
[Of course, in my typical fashion, I decided I would also stop drinking caffeinated drinks while I was away on vacation. I had read that it was easier to form new habits when you were outside of your usual patterns. So I had a misery-inducing headache the first three days of the trip. I am classically bad at vacations.]
Please comment by sharing your own travel tips, big or small, that help make the vacation a true rest and reset opportunity. Or, share your anxieties around vacationing. Can’t get your mojo back? Can’t even think about a long vacation without heart palpitations? Tell us about it!