July 23, 2018
The onset of summer brings equal parts joy and dread. The “lazy days of summer” are often a misnomer as for many, there’s nothing lazy about it. Instead the responsibility for shuttling offspring between a patchwork quilt of camps, practices and sleepovers is layered on top of an already jampacked calendar. Beautiful weather beckons from outside your cubicle with its promise of rooftop happy hours and neighborhood softball games, but you can’t quite get there because you’re racing towards fiscal year close or another last minute deadline.
We welcome summer as a great respite from a busy year and then suffer through it because we neglect to take advantage of its full potential. Where have the vacations gone?
According to a study by Project: Time Off, American workers left 662 million unused vacation days on the table in 2016. This data reflects a disturbing fact — we’ve become so intertwined with our jobs and our devices that we prioritize them over connection with our families and with ourselves. Why are we doing this and what is it costing us?
The trend towards forfeited vacation began to take a noticeable uptick in the year 2000, just as mobile devices began to truly enable our 24/7 always connected workplace. While assignments and expectations used to come through face-to-face communication, now there are a multitude of ways that work can find you. Many of us return from a break to find a mountain of now overdue requests lurking in our inbox and the resulting anxiety is so acute, we’d rather not risk it. In fact, fear of returning to a “mountain of work” was the number one reason cited for not taking vacation at all.
But there is a hidden cost of soldiering through without a real break: brain fatigue. Many of us — myself included — treat our brain like a laptop — and only shut it down when something starts to malfunction. Otherwise, it’s there, always on, if occasionally in sleep mode.
But science has inarguably demonstrated that downtime is essential to getting the most out of cognitive capabilities. From an article in Scientific American: “Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.” Without meaningful downtime, we can lose access to the highest order executive functions of the brain — the ones for which we are truly valued and rewarded.
Forfeiting vacation is one of those decisions where we perpetually underestimate the cost and overestimate the gain. One of the reasons for this is that we continually defer the decision, waiting for the “right time” when the right time will only occur by intention. While there’s no stemming the tide of work while you are away, here are strategies you can use to minimize the downside of using your vacation time:
• Schedule It Well In Advance. In order to take a significant break – one of at least 10 days – you’ll need to book it with no less than 6 months notice. This gives your colleagues plenty of warning so that they don’t schedule critical offsite meetings or important deliverables during that time. It has the secondary advantage of giving you access to top notch rental properties and premium seats on the airlines because you’ll be well ahead of the last minute planners. Once you choose a vacation time and duration, book it in your calendar immediately and make sure to mark it as “Out of Office.”
• Contract With Your Colleagues. Form an alliance with the people on your team that will allow you to mutually protect one another’s vacation time. If you feel confident that someone you trust is watching over your projects, you’re much less likely to give into the temptation to check in daily. If there is too much high stakes work underway to completely go dark, consider scheduling a short call every few days with either a trusted colleague or your administrator to hit the high notes without having to fully dive into the fray.
• Consider It An Investment. Giving yourself time to fully disconnect and recharge makes it possible for you to perform at your best once you’re back at work. If innovation, quality, or problem-solving is an element of your job description, then you owe it to yourself and to your organization to optimize your performance. That means fully disconnecting from your day-to-day responsibilities (and your devices) and immersing yourself in the joys of a real vacation.
Don’t dread the season; embrace it by reinstituting the abandoned summer ritual of a real vacation. Whether you take it in an airstream or a gulfstream, turn off the noise and be in the moment. Your brain and your employer will thank you.