Are You Cheating Yourself Out of Vacation Time?

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Everyone’s life is made up of 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week and 52 weeks in a year. We allocate our time in ways we think will make us more successful, and for most of us, that means more time at work. But the truth is that those who take regular and powerful vacations – even mini ones – are actually more efficient, more effective and more productive.

No matter the job, everyone needs time away from work, if only to refresh and recharge. And every enlightened organization needs a vacation from every employee. Making sure people have time away from work is smart – it helps people be more productive, less likely to quit and generally happier at work. Despite this,recent surveys by Harris Interactive show Americans are increasingly not using paid vacation days.

With all of the research on the value of renewal, relaxation, meditation and vacation, why are so many so reluctant to embrace what is so well established? Here are some of the reasons we work so obsessively:

  1. We’re competitive. In today’s 24/7 world, we’re reminded that it’s daytime somewhere, so someone could be gaining on us. We think getting to the top means beating out others. We want to get ahead in our free time, in our politics and at our work. With this mindset, obsessing about work becomes a habit verging on an imperative.
  2. We’re afraid. We worry that others will discover they can get along without us; and if they can, maybe they will.
  3. Our culture demands it. Friends and colleagues reinforce a hurry-up, plugged-in life where it’s actually easier to stay wired than to relax. This promotes an ever-ready state of mind where relaxation requires more effort than work itself does.
  4. We lack managerial skills. We believe we can do things better than others, and we think if we’re not present, nothing worthwhile will happen. We lack faith in others. And we worry that shared goals won’t be enough if we’re not there to press them.
  5. We equate income with time at work. We need money to live, and we believe the more we work, the more money we’ll have. The irony? Many think the more money they have, the less they’ll work.

Even when we do take time off, we’re prone to cheating our vacations. Many of us will take a vacation and find that our days look similar to office days, often including a fair amount of work. We live the “letter” of the vacation law but miss its “spirit.”

One of the main purposes in work is to re-create your best self – that’s why they call it recreation. To actually recreate, it is not enough to do the same thing you do every work day. Similarly, your vacation needs to recharge your batteries, not your friends’. So don’t take a vacation that just sounds good. (If you travel for a living, hopping a flight to Bermuda, for instance, might sound better than the reality.)

Whatever you decide to do, be deliberate with your time, whether that means lazily puttering about or doing a strenuous hike. When your vacations become little more than what Elon Musk calls “email with a view,” you know you’re only pretending to be on vacation.

While the big, deliberate vacations are important, there are also a lot of ways to quickly recharge. Here are a few ideas for how to stay refreshed without going on exotic retreats, spending a fortune or heading to a beach:

  1. Laughter. This is the cheapest and quickest mini-vacation. Look for opportunities to laugh and to make others laugh throughout every day.
  2. Naps. Rather than taking caffeine to keep going, consider napping to increase productivity. Night-shift air traffic controllers who nap an average of just 19 minutes see their reaction times improve significantly. The same must be true for daytime office workers.
  3. Dates. If you’re in a great relationship, a dinner date can be a stress-reliever. (If you’re in a bad one, do your best to become a great friend, a great spouse, a great partner. This will demand time and thought – a vacation in itself from the demands of work.)
  4. Trip cancelations. Make the most of canceled business trips by occasionally using your unexpectedly open schedule to take a break. There’s nothing like “found time.”
  5. Books. A book is a magnet to pull you into another century, another part of the world, another’s life. Reading can represent a chapter-by-chapter vacation from work.
  6. Business trips. It’s hard to do great work on airplanes. So instead, view air travel as a time to get back into the book you’re reading, rather than feeling compelled to squeeze in a few extra office hours.
  7. Service. There are lots of opportunities to render service. Working side-by-side with people who have real problems creates a break from what we thought was stress and lends valuable new perspective.
  8. Hobbies. President Reagan relaxed by cutting brush. President Obama by playing golf. FDR traveled with his stamp collection. Teddy Roosevelt headed to the wilderness for relaxation. Herbert Hoover fished. And John Quincy Adams read Latin for fun. Doing whatever removes us from the status quo and the stressors is key.
  9. Meditation. Silent time alone – no TV or radio, no conversation, no phones – can represent a daily mini-vacation. It’s a chance to rebalance and to connect with our deepest values. Those who build a rhythm of daily meditation into their schedules report an increase in energy, productivity and sense of well-being. The same goes for exercise.
  10. Reconnecting. Family, friends and colleagues – not the project of the day – are what we’ll remember at the end of our lives. Thinking deeply about those who matter most to us displaces work stresses. An hour on the weekend to review a list of friends, family and colleagues pushes them to top of mind, often reprioritizing work’s demands.

Over 3,000 years ago, Aristotle discovered that hot water freezes faster than cold water. Perhaps as counter-intuitively, we know that balanced, grounded, rested and refreshed people arrive more reliably and more quickly at better decisions than those who never take a break. During this holiday season, rejoice in the opportunity to take the vacation that – for you – will renew, refresh and recharge.

By Joel Peterson