The New Rules of Vacation
September 25th | 2015

If you’re on vacation and send me an email, I am 99.9% likely to send back a sternly worded message about shutting down and enjoying your time off.

I have always, always been a proponent of taking time away from work life to recharge; this profession we’ve chosen is greedy with our time, and if we let it, it will suck the life-force right out of us. For the most part, I’ve been pretty good at practicing what I preach, except for those few unavoidable times when the sky has been falling.

I know, I know, isn’t the sky always falling somewhere when you work in a service industry?

I’ve had a pretty eventful last 24 months, personally. I moved from San Francisco to Minneapolis, left one job and started working at Zeus Jones, remodeled a kitchen, lost a beloved grandmother to Alzheimer’s, turned 40, got married and became a stepmom. Life. She has not been dull.

The light at the end of the tunnel—my reward, if you will—was 13 glorious days in Spain, on my honeymoon, about half of it spent in a villa on a mountaintop with endless cheese and wine and jamón and a tiny angry garden cat I fell in love with despite her unsunny disposition. I fully intended to ignore any and all work-related business, but perhaps set myself up for failure by loading the last 10 episodes of The Good Wife on my work laptop so I could binge on the plane. “Out of sight, out of mind” only works if, you know, it’s out of sight.

At first I starting logging into Outlook each evening to keep up with all the calendar requests I saw coming at me fast and furiously via my phone. It made sense, I told myself, to accept/reject everything each evening so my calendar would be up to date. Next, I started weeding through my email. Not responding, just deleting and filing and saving for later.

At some point, I started snapping pictures of my clients’ products as I encountered them during my travels. I forwarded them back to Minneapolis with the note, “Not working, I promise!” And then, one day, I was sprawled on a lounge chair beside the pool and started composing the opening slides to a Keynote presentation in my head. It came so simply and it didn’t feel invasive at all.

It was at that point I realized maybe I had been doing this vacation thing wrong all along. In the past, I had shut down any and all work thoughts as they occurred, mentally chastising myself and causing a weird feeling of guilt and failure. I felt I had failed at vacation, which made me think about work more. A vicious cycle.

At any rate, here’s what I came to understand in the sun, under an olive tree, listening to a six-pound tabby cat mercilessly harass me for a bite of cheese:

Don’t shut it down; write it down.

I think now about all the time I’ve wasted arguing with myself about how I’m not supposed to think about work while on vacation. Instead, I wished I had just made note of the thought—maybe examined it a little, but not too closely—and then moved on with my day. Clearly the rest and relaxation created a pathway for me to consider things I had pushed aside or missed entirely. Instead of accepting those thoughts, I pushed them aside. How many problems could I have solved earlier, or at all? We’ll never know.

Keep your eyes open.

It wasn’t until I was standing in the middle of a giant megamarket staring at an endcap full of my client’s product that I remembered something about how the brand operates in Europe. For the next two weeks, I saw it everywhere. I took photos in gas stations and tiny bodegas and in the streets next door to palaces. The nuances were different than I was expecting. It changed the way I thought about things. I didn’t even feel bad about it. Win!

Guilt is for suckers. To thine own self be true.

Here’s the thing. If I had walked into my office after 13 days away—more, really, because there was a wedding, and my work-brain was operating on a need-to-know basis way before I left for Spain— without ever opening Outlook, I would have undone all the relaxation I achieved and then some. I am the kind of person who needs order. I typically have fewer than 10 emails in my inbox no matter how busy I get, and getting double/triple booked on my calendar makes me crazy-pants. It turns out I wasted a lot of time over the years making myself feel guilty for peeking at email while vacationing. A little maintenance, for me, is a stress reducer.

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It was perhaps the sheer number of days away that gave me the breathing room to come to this realization. Everyone takes a different amount of time to unwind, disconnect and refresh. Maybe mine is eight days, but yours could be more or less. Or maybe you’ve always been awesome at vacation! If so, I envy you.

The important thing, I think, is to be gentle with yourself. Don’t make such strict rules that breaking them creates angst. A fleeting work thought or a bit o’ email grooming isn’t going to ruin your vacation. It might even be good for you in the long run.