(part of the Africa series, written on Friday and posted after we are off the grid for several days)
Since we are now roughly halfway through our vacation, I suppose it’s time to talk about…vacation. First things first: it has taken me some time to get used to unplugging from our life in Abilene (which we love very much) and leaving for weeks at a time; despite how we look now, we have not always been road warriors. Our first ‘marathon’ trip was three years ago and we spent a month in Pennsylvania, an area we had never really visited. This was the conversation we had (more than once) with Pennsylvanians:
Them: “How long are you here?”
Us: “Four weeks.”
Them (looking stunned): “Why did you choose Pennsylvania???”
Us: “You need to work on your marketing skills.”
Seriously, it was like they couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to spend a month in their state, which is about 10% Pittsburgh Steel Mills, 10% crowded interstates near the large cities, and 80% beautiful green hills with lakes and hundreds of miles of rideable bike trails. So we rented a tiny house and spent a month seeing the state.
Part of that adjustment to travel is knowing that all your ‘stuff’ is there at home without you to take care of it. I used to get really stressed about leaving the house alone for that long, but now we have a good friend go check it once a week and it will be fine; if not, that’s why we have homeowner’s insurance. After spending an entire year renovating the house I have had to come to grips with the fact that sooner or later it will be damaged, and that is just how it goes for possessions. Of course it is probably less likely to happen if I’m not there to cause the damage! Ironically, during our Pennsylvania trip, Abilene endured a massive hail storm (the kind that breaks car windshields) and our car was unscathed…because it was in Pennsylvania!
This summer’s trip is eleven-ish weeks, and that is bumping up against the max we can do in a summer while still allowing a little breathing time in ABI. Again today we heard from a local here that we were going to see more of his country than he has seen, which just confirms our way-outness when it comes to travel. So while you may have no interest in traveling as much as we do, here are some good thing to keep in mind as you take control of your life and your time and try to find that mythical balance that can be so very elusive.
A. The average American took about 16 paid days off last year. What does that mean for you? Absolutely nothing; it’s just an average. What is more important is that half of us left vacation untaken, which means we are making a choice to vacation less than we could. Here are a few details from Lydia Dishman:
- Senior leaders take less vacation than those below them (a reversal from a century or ago when affluence brought was defined by having ‘leisure time’).
- The top two reasons people don’t take time off: fear of returning to a mountain of work, and the fear that nobody else can do the work.
- Unused vacation varies by state; residents of Maine use more than anyone else (not surprising for a state whose official slogan is “Vacationland”).
- If Americans began to take all their allotted time off, their recreational spending would pump almost a quarter of a trillion dollars into the US economy. If you need an excuse to vacation, do it for ‘merica!
B. Vacations can actually send you home more intelligent than you were when you left (especially if it’s emotional intelligence we’re discussing). Here are three ways (from Harvey Deutschendorf):
- Spend some time reflecting on yourself (something you may otherwise never find time to do). Think about what kinds of people annoy or intrigue you. Consider what activities in your life energize you, and which ones drain you. Assess your current state of mind (and heart) to see they are healthy or not. Ask if how you currently spend your time matches your values. Note: to do this you will need to spend some time alone, without people or the web.
- People watch. When you are in new settings you often pick up on subtle differences (in South Africa, many merchants hand you your change with one hand, while simultaneously placing the other hand on top of their elbow, for reasons we have yet to learn). Beyond just seeing people, try to imagine what they are experiencing and feeling, which can help you become more empathetic.
- Take an inventory of your life and your goals. Vacation is the ideal time to really consider the treadmill you are on, since you have at least temporarily stepped off it. Vacation may be the time to be honest with yourself about the job you hate, or ways you can more fully engage in a job you love, or habits that have slowly claimed a big chunk of your life without you realizing it.
C. OK, you’ve bought into the benefits of vacation and you’re making serious plans (or at least thinking seriously about making serious plans) to get out of the office. Here’s how to get the most bang for the buck, according to Jill Duffy. Remember it is possible to come back from vacation feeling more tired and overworked than when you left, so vacation smart! Four keys to real renewal are:
- Detach. In study after study, this seems to be the biggest key to getting the most from your break. You have to do the unthinkable and make work and all its related issues…unthinkable! If you are so indispensable that your company will fold up and die without you (really?? seriously??), limit yourself to checking email once per day. Tell someone you are traveling with and be accountable to them for it. They included airplane mode on your phone for a reason.
- Relax. Our friends relax by reading on the beach, while we relax by hiking and cycling. Figure out what is relaxing for you and do lots of it. Some vacations are more relaxing than others (family holidays are relaxing for some people and stressful for others–depends on what kind of family you have!) so make sure that you have some genuine relaxing time every year.
- Avoid sources of stress. Laura and I love to travel together, but we have clued in that she needs less sleep than I do, and if Daddy ain’t getting enough sleep, ain’t nobody enjoying the trip. So we plan a schedule that lets me get enough sleepy time, and Laura gets up early and composes sonnets or something while I snore. The result is a better trip for everyone. Figure out what causes trip stress for you and work to eliminate or minimize it.
- Maximize the benefits. The ‘vacation effect,’ which reduces stress and lower rates of burnout, typically lasts about three weeks after the trip ends, so over the course of the year you will get more bang for your buck by taking three five-day vacations than by taking one 15-day one. I also find that it takes me 2-3 days to relax and get into a true vacation mindset, so don’t plan out your entire year’s vacation as a long series of 3-day weekends, as these don’t allow time to really disconnect.
I hope all this analysis doesn’t “harsh your mellow” when it comes to traveling and vacationing. But since you have only so much time available, it seems like you should make the most of it!
Laura and I are blogging across Africa. Follow her posts here.
BONUS: Here are two articles about some super-travelers who got paid (not very well, but enough) to travel to amazing places and blog about it. In the first article, they learned after seven years of this that when vacationing is your job, there is no way to take a vacation from it. In the second article they describe how they became unhealthy and unhappy, and had to separate for a while to get grounded again and learn to balance. They are now married and traveling again, but with a better perspective.