Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Vacations (page 1 of 2)

How to have a more restorative vacation

Erica Alini interviewed me a couple days ago about rest and vacations, and now how an article in Gobal News about “The smartest vacation: How to get the most R and R, according to science.“

It’s a more important subject than you might think at first, because so many of us overwork and treat vacations like a Miracle Cure-All, a couple weeks when we can de-stress, relax, recover the energy we’be poured into our jobs, and generally make up for months of overextension and mistreatment.

But too often, we design vacations that don’t do us as much good as they could. We overstuff them with activities, or sneak in a little work, or do other things that degrade the restorative value of our vacations.

On a recent episode of my podcast I talked with Jessica de Bloom, a psychologist who specializes in vacations, about her research and findings. She has a number of insights about what makes vacations truly restorative, and some excellent advice about how we can better approach vacation design.

One thing she highlighted was the importance of control as something that affects whether a vacation is good or bad. If you do what you like and don’t have to face unexpected problems, you’re a lot more likely to rate vacations as good, and you’re more likely to benefit from them. This helped me explain why over the years I’ve gone from taking vacations that were really packed with activities, to vacations that feature one or two big things a day (at most), and more time for either doing “nothing at all,” or for exploring things we discover on the ground. If you have a crazy vacation schedule (kind of like your normal life!) and feel like you need to see Absolutely Everything in order for it to have been a success, two things are likely to happen. First, you’ll fail to cross everything off your list, and that will affect your level of satisfaction with your vacation. Or, you’ll push to do it all, but turn the vacation into a slog.

The most interesting thing de Bloom said was that her research has led her to take non-vacation rest more seriously. The more she gets into the science of recovery, and understands the factors that make vacations successes or failures, the more de Bloom appreciates the value of taking evenings off, of putting work away on weekends, of cultivating hobbies. Vacations are great, but maybe the biggest problem with them is that we expect too much of them.

I certainly understand the temptation to Do It All, especially if you want the kids to be exposed to new things, or you spent a lot of money to get to your destination; and if the point of the vacation is to educate your kids, or to see lots of things, then go for it.

But if the point of your vacation is to actually recover the energy you’ve drained while working, or to step back from the precipice of burnout, then you could be better off doing less.

New things on vacations

I’ve been thinking a bit about vacations, partly because I’m off to England tomorrow for some research, some interviews, and a little time off with my wife.

Big Ben and Parliament

My latest piece on Thrive Global is an argument for ignoring your children while on vacation:

Since my kids were old enough to pack their own suitcases, I’ve had one ironclad rule for family vacations: “I’m not responsible for your feeling entertained.”

What this means is, you’re old enough to be bored if you want, or not bored. You can choose to engage, or not. You’re in charge of your feelings.

I also talk about the science of vacations with University of Groningen postdoctoral fellow Jessica de Bloom on my podcast. De Bloom is a psychologist who’s looked at a number of important issues– when our happiness peaks on vacation, how long the benefits of vacations last, and what factors go into making our time on vacation seem good or bad.

Kauai

I think her work is very interesting, partly because some of her findings are kind of counterintuitive, but it’s also worth using it (and all scientific research on human subjects) with a grain of salt. For example, when you measure the amount of happiness that being on vacation generates and how long those benefits last, her work indicates that shorter, more frequent vacations are better for us. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on long trips: for example, you can get immersed in a culture, or forge deep friendships, or have other experiences that more than make up for the extra weeks.

My new Red Oxx bag

Travel and vacations can be complicated things, and  rewarding for all kinds of reasons; and I think what’s good about this work is how it helps us think more clearly about how we balance different demands and possibilities. The science doesn’t provide fixed recommendations; it clarifies options.

Anyway, I’m off to England shortly, to put some of those ideas into practice….

Lin-Manuel Miranda: “I should take more vacations”

Hamilton
the room where it happens!

It’s always worth repeating: Lin-Manuel Miranda came up with the idea for Hamilton while taking his first vacation since In the Heights. Now that Hamilton is opening in London, it’s worth revising the story.

As I explained in Rest,

Lin-Manuel Miranda had the idea for Hamilton when he read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton during a vacation to Mexico. He had been working for seven years on his play In the Heights, and as he later put it, “the moment my brain got a moment’s rest, Hamilton walked into it.”

Miranda is one of many people who had great ideas on vacation: Princeton physicist Lyman Spitzer came up with the design for a fusion reactor while skiing in Aspen; the agile software development manifesto was written at a ski lodge in Utah; and 20% of startup founders say they got the idea for their companies while on vacation.

Fortunately, while he’s been busy taking advantage of the crazy variety of offers that the success of Hamilton has brought him, the Guardian notes that Miranda recognizes that rest is important, too:

These are manic, sometimes confounding times for Miranda. Hamilton took the best part of six years to write but now life seems to be happening in fast-forward…. He would also like to start work on a new musical, but he probably just needs to lie in a pool to figure out what the subject is.

“You’re right,” he exclaims, “I should take more vacations, thank you! Yeah, that is the hardest lesson to take hold of: the good idea comes when you are walking your dog or in the shower or resting. And waking up from sleep. I don’t believe it’s an accident that on my first vacation from In the Heights, the best idea of my life shows up. So I have a couple of ideas, but I’m waiting to see which one grabs hold and doesn’t let go.”

So Lin-Manuel fans, don’t worry too much; the odds are good that at some point he’ll slow down, go on vacation, and figure out the next musical.

Things to do the night before your vacation starts

A good complement to my recent discussion of vacations: this piece on Business Insider on things to do “before you jet off to some sunny shore:”

you need set your affairs in order at work.

The night before your vacation is a crucial time to prepare.

Effective planning will give you peace of mind while you’re catching some rays, and it will prevent problems from cropping up when you drag your sunburnt self back into the office in a few days.

Talking about restful vacations on CBC Ontario Today

Scenes from Kauai

I was on CBC Radio’s call-in show “Ontario Today” earlier today, talking about “The key to a restful vacation.” You can listen here:

It was a fun time for me at least, partly because it involved more interaction with an audience than many radio interviews, and because I actually went into it with a certain amount of apprehension. To be honest, in Rest I have about six pages about vacations, so I was concerned that I’d have enough to say!

Fortunately, guest host Amanda Pfeffer was outstanding, and did a terrific job of guiding the conversation back to the book. I also do a fair amount of prep before these interviews, and now have a decent system for working through my notes and thinking about my responses, as you can see.

HipstaPrint

The Stanford Video folks (who are outstanding– they’re all the kinds of low-key professionals you want to work with during stressful situations, or just during moments when you need to be totally focused and on) keep a sheet music stand in the studio, and I make good use of it.

Beforehand, I’ll take some time to write out some notes, the key ideas I want to repeat or return to, and reminders to keep my answers short, stay on point, and let the host guide things. It’s usually the same set of notes, the same points, and same reminders every time (I am talking about the same book, after all); but it helps to write them out every time, to keep them fresh in my mind.

I also carry a copy of the book into the studio, though frankly I don’t refer to it during a live show– there’s not time to page through it.

You’ll notice a couple post-its, which have the host’s name– you never want to get that wrong– and the schedule for breaks.

I also keep my small notebook handy (in my lap), and write down the names of callers and the main points I want to make in response to their stories or questions. The virtue of this is that if I have only one or two points to make, I’ll make them more quickly if I can write them down and refer to them, and I’m less likely to strike off on some digression. I’m also more likely to get people’s names right if I write them down and can refer to them. Finally, if I can connect points that two callers 40 minutes apart make, I look like A Freaking Genius.

Today’s setup is not unusual for me. I’ve learned that interviews go better if I have some aide-memoire to jog my memory, or anchor the conversation. This was the desk when I was interviewed by Bob Edwards about The Distraction Addiction:

Bob Edwards interview

 

I’m very big on note-taking as a tool for thinking more clearly, as the book below illustrates, so realizing that doing it for interviews would help was a significant thing.

Reading is a martial art, 1

I think I’m getting better at interviews, though it’s like being a musician or teacher: it’s one of those pieces of craft that you can refine and improve for a lifetime. But at least I recognize that it’s a craft, and I’m learning how to build a structure that helps me do well and improve. (So I hope.)

Vacations, boredom, and stress: Recent articles and an upcoming radio show

Scenes from Kauai

I like to tell people that the only bad vacation is the one that you don’t take. There’s a ton of research on the benefits of vacations, both in the short run and the long run. But Quartz reports that “Going on vacation is stressful, according to recent surveys of workers:”

A poll of 1,000 UK workers conducted by Britain’s Institute of Leadership and Management noted that just the prospect of an upcoming vacation made 73% of respondents anxious. One 2015 survey from US medical information site Healthline found that 62% of over 2,000 readers who responded had “very or somewhat” elevated stress levels during winter holiday vacations. Finances are a major driver of vacation-related stress: CNV Vakmensen, a trade union in the Netherlands, surveyed its members in 2017, and found that being forced to take vacation at certain points of the year, such as the long summer break when children are out of school, stressed people out. Accommodation and travel options tend to be in higher demand during this time, which raises costs.

Then there’s the disruptions vacation can cause: In 2013, the Huffington Post surveyed 1,000 adult US workers, and found that having to work longer hours in the run-up to a vacation and longer hours afterwards to make up for lost time, stressed out potential vacation-takers.

I’m not going to alter my recommendation, because the virtues of time off from work are in my view way too well-established to argue that the potential stresses of vacations outweigh the gains.

Embankment

Rather than give up vacations, it would be better for us (and for companies) to learn how to deal better with the financial and logistical challenges. If you prospect of getting stuck at the airport or dealign with rental cars stresses you out, or paying for an expensive vacation keeps you up, the solution isn’t to stay at work: instead, it would be better to make more modest plans, but still take the time off.

San Gregorio State Beach

As a parent, I discovered that not being too worried about, or letting myself be too responsible for, my kids’ emotional states was important for me enjoying my vacation. In particular, I decided at a certain point that if my kids were bored, that was their problem; so long as they didn’t break stuff (or each other), they could be bored.

This is one of the big ideas behind Sandhya Nakani’s “Discover the Perfect Gift for Your Kid This Summer,” which applies some of the ideas in REST to kids and vacations. As she rightly notes, when a kid announces that “I’m bored!” it’s partly a declaration, but also “a challenge, with an embedded invitation for me to find something for her to do or to entertain her.” And it’s liberating to realize that it’s not a challenge we have to accept.

We go on in the article to talk about the role boredom and dealign with boredom plays in creative lives, and the role of down-time in kids’ psychological development.

The wave that may have killed my camera

If you want to skip the neuroscience and child psychology and just go for the listicle, I also offer “5 Summer Vacation Tips for Getting Serious About Rest,” starting with “take rest seriously” and ending with “let kids be bored.”

Finally, I’m talking about this tomorrow on “Ontario Today,” a call-in show on CBC Radio. Tune in and call in!

“It might be that rest, more than work, is the ultimate source of big transformations, life-changing disruptions.”

Novelist and critic Nilanjana Roy has a nice essay about vacations and REST in the Financial Times. Normally I quote the parts that say really complimentary things about the book, but this piece is so different and colorful that I’m throwing aside my usual habit:

Behind our cottage, high up on the crest of the hill, a leopard saws into the night. It’s New Year’s Day. I listen to the big cat for a while, alert but deeply content. When I go back to sleep, my dreams are filled with forests, trails and all the large and small creatures that belong to the jungle.

We come back home not just refreshed but rebooted by our short holiday in Gwehri, above an Indian national park. My mind feels on fire; all of last year’s tiredness is blown away like clouds driven by the high mountain winds….

Could the art of rest be as important as the art of productivity?… [F]rom reading biographies of writers, architects, artists and others, I know that a lot of the truly great professionals seemed to plan leisure and creativity-boosting breaks. They viewed time off with the same seriousness and thought that they brought to their work, whether it was Georgia O’Keeffe, travelling in her later years, or Le Corbusier’s compact, kitchenless cabin in Roquebrune, where he spent time while working on some of his most important projects.

I should write something on these kinds of retreats: Wittgenstein spent several years in a little shack by a fjord, and plenty of other people have done great work on writers’ retreats and in similar spaces.

Driving back through the forests of Uttarakhand, stopping to let two elephants, a mother and her calf, have right of way, I’m thinking about the restaurateur Ferran Adrià’s practice of closing El Bulli down from mid-December to mid-June, so that he and his staff could work on the ideas that drove his food. He followed this innovation by taking a two-year sabbatical that stretched to three years. When he came back, he didn’t restart the restaurant; instead, he opened the El Bulli Foundation, a kitchen of ideas instead of food, which is still developing and taking form.

As well as taking time off, Adrià took on a bigger risk than most people might be willing to. The long goodbye from work is exhilarating but ushers in change, too. It might be that rest, more than work, is the ultimate source of big transformations, life-changing disruptions. The chatty leopard is, of course, optional.

I confess I’ll probably never get to Gwehri or any Indian national park, but I love the idea of the book going places without me. When I was an academic I was usually writing for an audience of about twelve people, or for a tribe whose members I could identify instantly; the great virtue of Rest, in contrast, is that people can make it their own, and (I hope) take it places I would never think to go.

Parenthood and the need for recovery: we need time away from even our most meaningful work

Slate has a piece by Elissa Strauss explaining “Why retreats for moms are a terrible idea.” I’ll admit that I’d never heard of retreats for moms, other than the kind that are self-organized and often involve booze, but apparently they’re A Thing.

The light snark of the title aside, the article actually makes a good point:

We live in an age in which motherhood has morphed from a biological fact to an all-consuming lifestyle which demands that women be all in, all the time. If moms need to decompress—and they probably do considering American parents are some of the unhappiest in the world—then it would behoove them do so in an environment in which they could leave their mom selves behind. Instead of talking to other moms about motherhood, they’d be better off trying to forget their kids existed for a short time. Ideally, this would involve hanging out with human beings who are not moms, or other mothers who are equally committed to taking a respite from thinking about their kids. Some temporary exposure to everything that exists outside the realm of motherhood will be more restorative than any lecture or journaling session at an organized retreat.

Indeed, we have a century of research by engineers, psychologists, social scientists, and most recently neuroscientists that measure the negative costs of overwork and burnout, and the positive benefits of time off on our happiness and productivity.

For one thing, chronic overwork is counterproductive. Short bursts of overwork may be sustainable, but long periods of overwork lead to higher rates of mistakes that erase productivity gains, fatigued workers, and even an increased likelihood of cheating. Long-term studies over ten or twenty years show that people who don’t take vacations have increased risk of poor heath, depression, heart attacks, and higher mortality rates. So in the short run and the long run, overwork is unhealthy and actually counter-productive.

Another set of studies have measured the benefits of downtime, of vacations and time off. Scientists have found that activities that provide the most recovery are active and engaging, offer opportunities for exercising control and mastery, and provide psychological detachment from work. For example, many scientists are avid musicians or chess players, and they find those activities restorative because they are mentally absorbing and challenging. Active breaks are especially important for hard-working and ambitious people, because they’re the most likely to burn out. The more you love your job, the more you need to take a break from it.

Long-term studies measuring people’s health, mental states, and careers over decades reveal that people who exercise have healthier brains, better brain structure, and are less affected by age-related cognitive decline than people who do not.

Parenthood is a perfect example of an all-consuming job that can be super-rewarding, but which you really should take a break from. Having an identity that isn’t tied to your kids can make you be a better, more resilient parent. For your kids’ sake, and for your own, having a life outside the school and playdates and singing circle, that that doesn’t involve other parents or comparisons of schools or summer plans, is a really good thing.

When taking a vacation is good for democracy

Slate reports on the Post-election plans of campaign staff and journalists. tl;dr: Almost to a person they’re going to take some time off, and try not to think about politics.

Which is good. Even if you like your job, it’s healthy to get away from it. And overwork doesn’t lead to terribly good decisions and analysis, as recent history has shown.

Besides, some of history’s greatest politicians have been mindful about their need for recovery.

“vacation is serving their business, and their productivity, and their success at their work”

“If a vacation is done well, it gives your ego all this extra time to refuel, by not trying to manage your brain, not trying to be on task, not trying to maintain the sort of memory trails that you maintain when you’re at work,” says [Amanda] Crowell. “The problem is that people go on vacation and they feel guilty about it. They don’t seem to recognize that the vacation is serving their business, and their productivity, and their success at their work. So they’ll check their email once a day, or they’ll take a quick call, or they’ll be thinking about work.”

Source: A vacation re-entry survival guide: Return to your regular life filled with new energy and perspective — Quartz

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