An article by Tony Schwartz
The last several months have been, in many ways, the richest, most exciting and most creative period of my life. Still, as I prepare to take off most of the month of August, I’m feeling edgy, worn out and a bit overwhelmed.
I’m sputtering to the finish line, running near empty.
“How often should you vacation?” I was asked after a talk I gave this week. It dawned on me that I’d let my own balance tip. My to do list had runneth over. I have not taken off more than two full days in a row for six months.
The consequence is that I feel not just tired, but less able to think clearly and creatively, more at the mercy of my emotions.
More than ever, we live in a culture that overvalues the ethic of “more, bigger, faster” and undervalues the importance of rest, renewal and reflection. I preach this lesson for a living, but I, too, can get so passionately immersed in my work that I intermittently forget to apply the lesson to myself.
A growing body of evidence suggests that more overall vacation time – intense effort offset regularly by real renewal — fuels greater productivity and more sustainable performance. No research I’ve come across defines the ideal amount of vacation time, but my strong instinct is that if you’re in any sort of demanding job, it makes sense to take at least a week of true vacation every three months.
I can choose to do that because I run my own business. Employees at my company get four weeks of vacation beginning in their first year – not just because it’s better for their lives, but also because it makes them more effective at work. The United States is the only developed country that doesn’t mandate employers to provide vacation time. Most companies do provide it, but often stingily and insufficiently.
To my fellow leaders: Two weeks isn’t enough if what you’re seeking from your people is their best. Is there any doubt, for example, that the greater the demand, the more frequent our need to replenish and rejuvenate? Demand in our lives is rising so relentlessly that I’m beginning to believe even four weeks of vacation a year isn’t enough.
The most basic aim of a vacation ought to be restoration – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. For me, that usually means not trying to do much. For you, it may mean travel and adventure, some form of physical challenge, an opportunity to learn something new or some blend of all three.
The key is to choose something you find truly renewing. At a minimum, that usually requires changing channels – not doing whatever you have been doing.
In my case, I plan to completely unplug from digital life for the next several weeks. Right now, I’m feeling the overload acutely. My brain feels like a pitcher of water filled to the brim. New information seems to spill out as quickly as I take it in.
“What information consumes is rather obvious.” the economist Herbert Simon wrote in 1970, before there was a digital life. “It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
It isn’t possible to row a boat across a lake — to move continuously toward a destination — and dive down into the water at the same time. I’m craving time free of urgent and immediate goals, so I can get beneath the surface of the urgent and swim around in the silent depths for a while.
I want to metabolize what I’ve learned over the last six months and get a sense of what I ought to be focusing on next.
For me, the luxury of taking extended time off – free from the noise of digital life and far from the madding crowd – is that it’s a chance to rest and to reflect.
We don’t get our best ideas staring at our computer screens or sitting in meetings. They occur when we’re in the shower, walking in nature, listening to music or working out. They occur to us when we’re not seeking anything in particular. Distractions fall away when we’re feeling relaxed and unhurried. The external volume drops, and it becomes possible to listen again to whatever arises inside us.
I’m looking forward to those moments. I’m also looking forward to the moments when no thoughts arise and all I’m feeling is the pleasure of spending unhurried time with the people I love most. Nothing is more restorative.
About the Author
Tony Schwartz is the chief executive of the Energy Project and the author, most recently, of “Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live.” Twitter: @tonyschwartz