I’m sitting in the cozy living room of a house perched on the side of a steep hill overlooking Skaneateles Lake. (Pronounced “skinny-atlas”, it’s the second easternmost of New York’s Finger Lakes).
From my comfortable wide-armed mission chair I have a 180-degree view of the calm, glistening water through the windows that surround me on three sides. There is no sound except for the gentle lapping of the waves, the chatter of a kingfisher, and the clicking of the keys on my computer.
I am on retreat from the office, from my complicated schedule, from being flat out.
My decision to come here was a strategic decision, and I use the word “strategic” intentionally for three reasons.
First, because one of the best things I can do for my clients (and myself) is to leave them periodically.
Second, because how I “lead” in my personal life is just as much a function of being a leader as how I run my business.
And lastly, I have to use the same care and diligence in planning renewal time as I do in planning any other element of my professional life. It’s the only way I can keep it from slipping away from me.
When you think of it strategically, a vacation becomes an opportunity for discovering ways you want to live differently. It’s not simply leisure. It has a end goal, to hold on to some of what you practice while you’re away and integrate it into your “non-vacation” life.
Notice that I said planning “renewal time”, not “vacation”. I don’t put time away in a separate category from time spent on professional pursuits. I see it rather as a requirement for sustaining them.
The more I try to accomplish in my life, the more important it is for me to be strategic about locking in space for a range of renewal activities, from full-fledged vacations in tranquil locations such as this, to afternoons spent standing before a masterpiece in an art museum, taking a walk to watch the leaves tinged with fall color sway in the breeze, etc. These are the things that restore my perspective, energy, and creativity.
USE OR ABUSE
When you think of it strategically, a vacation becomes an opportunity for discovering ways you want to live differently. It’s not simply leisure. It has a end goal, to hold on to some of what you practice while you’re away and integrate it into your “non-vacation” life. A “strategic” vacation is about reshaping your life for the long haul. It is not a quick fix.
Your success in bringing back a new behavior or discipline that supports the accomplishment of something that is important to you—spending more time with the kids, writing a book, experiencing more peace and centered-ness in dealing with the demands of your everyday life—is the principal indicator of whether vacation time has been used strategically as part of a continuum of self care or as a stopgap in a pattern of self-abuse.
I have clients who talk about insane travel schedules, unrealistic performance expectations, unrelenting pressure from customers and staff members, etc., and then in the next breath they talk about an upcoming vacation as if somehow by magic it will make all those problems go away and not be there when they return.
Holding on from vacation to vacation in a role where you routinely give yourself away to the point of depletion makes getting away not a source of renewal but a part of a cycle of abuse.
All I can think of when I hear about people abusing vacations this way is an alcoholic who goes into a rehab to dry out, feels a little better, and comes out and drinks again.
The dependence on periodic vacations to rest up from a persistent condition of overwork is not all that different. Eventually it will get to the point that even the most luxurious or exotic leisure destination will no longer do the trick. The “fix” will stop working.
STRATEGIC VACATION PLAN IMPLEMENTATION
The implementation of a strategic vacation plan requires data collection and monitoring.
I do the data collection by “circling back” to myself on a regular basis to find my “exhaustion threshold” and recognize when I’ve crossed it.
When I journal before going to bed, I check in with myself and note my physical and mental state next to the date and description of the day.
I write something like, “Lovely late summer day, too busy to enjoy, very tired”, and after a while, the simple act of repeatedly writing words like “tired”, “exhausted”, “busy” begins to speak to me about needing to rearrange my schedule so I can plan a day, a weekend or a week away to do something that refreshes me, even if it’s just spending an afternoon in a coffee shop with a book.I also have what I call a “burnout check” set up for the end of each month as a recurring task in Microsoft Outlook. When it comes due, I usually ignore it, but after it sits there colored red in the uncompleted task list for a while, I open it and answer the question: how mentally fried am I? 20%? 30%? 50%?
I’d like to tell you that I always take action when I reach the 20-25% mark, but I don’t. Sometimes I push myself to the point when I really need some kind of renewal if I’m going to remain productive.
Still, my burnout check is a quantifiable way of making myself accountable. As the numbers go up I become increasingly aware that I am trying to do 100% of the work with a smaller and smaller percentage of my available energy.
The monitoring relates to the goals I set for myself around vacation. Whenever I go away, I like to identify two or three personal growth “souvenirs” I want to bring home with me.
For example, I have decided that, as a result of my stay here in Skaneateles, I want to retain three things: saving morning time for quiet reflection and writing, taking long walks, and keeping the television turned off.
Each of these will have to be modified to fit the restrictions of my workday life, but my commitment to working toward them will be reinforced by periodically measuring, just as I would in any strategic process, performance against goals.