Learn to Thrive at Work and in Life

When’s the last time you took a vacation?  No, I mean a real vacation.  Long weekends don’t count.  Nor does that week you took off in the summer when you spent most of the time doing home renovations, yard work and running long-put-off errands. 

What about that conference last year in Cancun, you ask?  Nope, doesn’t count either.  Why?  Well, I’m guessing that: a) you probably attended at least a handful of sessions and most likely you had to get up at a certain time in the morning in order to make it; b) you probably spent at least 10% of your vacation “talking shop” to other colleagues and thinking about work-related issues; c) you chose the location, and time of year of your vacation based on the relevant conference, because you could write off your “holiday”.  Take a minute, and note how it feels to contemplate that kind of vacation.

Now, picture taking a vacation in which you and your significant other, plus or minus some very excited kids, first flip through a stack of travel brochures, fantasizing about and trying to decide which, out of several potential fabulous destinations, you want to go to the most.  It doesn’t have to be somewhere fancy, it could be somewhere you could drive to in a handful of hours.

When you get there, you get up when you want to, and no one has the power to plan your day but you.  I realize that some of you, on vacation with a spouse or friend, may not actually get much of a say in the day’s itinerary, but at least someone you like or love is in charge, rather than a conference planner.

As I write this, I am based in Mexico, but I still need to make sure I stop to rest.  In addition to the stuff of daily life, I coach over the phone, work on writing projects, do media interviews, teach salsa workshops, and rehearse and perform flamenco dance. I live steps from the beach, but yesterday, when someone asked me, I realized I hadn’t touched the sand in two weeks.

We’re not alone.  In 2006, the discount-travel website Expedia.com surveyed over 2,000 Americans, and reported that “vacation deprivation in America is at an all-time high”.  Expedia general manager Sally McKenzie commented that “this trend of overworked and vacation-deprived workers is both unfortunate and, in many ways, unsustainable”.  “We end up angrier, more bitter, with less sense of doing anything meaningful,” noted sociologist Scott Schaffer.

I don’t know that this information alone would have changed my behavior – I’m pretty comfortable with my activity-holic compulsions.  My adrenal glands, to their credit and probable regret, have pretty much adjusted to this life-long pace.  What got me was a study I found on the internet, which had been published in a 2000 edition of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

The headline read: “Research suggests that working for years without taking vacations could put people at risk for an early death.”  They looked at the relationship between death rates and frequency of vacations in 12 000 men who were participating in a study looking at coronary heart disease risk factors.  The biggest difference in death rates was between the 13% of subjects who never, ever took a vacation, and the 26% who enjoyed five vacations a year.  Over the nine year period, the men who took five vacations per year had a 40% lower risk of dying versus the ones who didn’t take vacations.  Yikes.  Of course, it depends how you look at it – it may be bad news for the workaholics of the world who think they can get by without vacations, but it’s also really encouraging for those of us who wake up in time and decide to make some changes.

After all, what moments in your life do you really remember?  When I think of my childhood, I remember splashing in pools with my sisters, canoeing across lakes in the mountains, being thrilled by trail rides, and touring historic places with my parents. I remember so many of the details of those family vacations. As an adult, I appreciate so much the lengths my parents went to to take us on vacations.

I’d imagine the same will be true for my adult life.  On my deathbed, I won’t be thinking fondly of those faceless five extra weeks I spent working in 2007, but I definitely would remember the times away with loved ones, all those wonderful memories. And I would be so glad that I took the time.


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