A Day Away

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.” – Maya Angelou

As I was sitting in the hot tub last night looking up at the pine trees swaying in the mountain breezes I realized I hadn’t written a Monday Musing, so this one comes on Tuesday, a day away from when it usually does. One of the benefits of our annual trek to Colorado is the gift of setting aside the many necessary routines and just “being.”

Science has proven the benefits of taking a vacation, if it is done right. Studies have shown that constant stress, like the kind we experience when we are working, actually reorganizes both the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex. In words I can understand, stress changes the way we see the world around us and lowers our decision-making ability. That’s bad news. There is some good news though. Taking an extended break from that stress can restore the organization of our brains and our decision making.

If they are taken right.

Americans are allotted an average of 10 days of vacation time each year—and many of us don’t even take all of it. A Harris survey found Americans ended 2012 with an average of nine unused vacation days. While many people probably consider those vacation days a perk, in fact they are necessary for our mental and physical health.

To be helpful to our brains and our bodies, vacations need to truly be “time off.” This seems to be really difficult for us to manage. With laptop computers and cell phones, every part of our world is connected and available no matter where we are or what time it is. This is great when my son locks himself out of the house while I’m in Colorado and I can answer the doorbell, find out he needs in the house, and open the garage door, all from apps on my phone while I sip coffee and look at the mountains. It is not great when that same technology reaches out to us on vacation and keeps our brains engaged in the same stress and work that we were doing in the office. Location isn’t the key to a successful vacation, changing what our brains are doing and experiencing is the critical component.

At Kimray we do what we can to create the opportunity for our team members to take vacations and get the break their brains and bodies need. Our vacation policy is generous, but more importantly it is “use it or lose it.” This encourages us to take our time off and reminds us that it is not just a perk or extra pay, but rather something we need to use.

We cannot control the way people behave when they are on vacation, but we can lead by example. As a leader, it is your responsibility to leave your people alone while they are off. It is also your responsibility to take your time off seriously and not “check in” or do work and mail it in while you are supposed to be on vacation.

This behavior has to start as a daily habitat. We should not be texting or emailing the people on our team work items in the evenings or on the weekends.

Use the schedule function to send that email you needed to create, to “get it out of your head and off your plate,” the next business morning. My executive administrator often finds emails waiting for him on Monday morning that I scheduled to send during his drive to work.

Avoid texting your team members, if it’s work related, outside of regular work hours. I have read many articles about creating an environment where people know they don’t have to respond to stuff sent in the evening until the next business day. I have even seen texting acronyms people have created to signal when a particular thing should be dealt with. The problem is that getting the text is what triggers us to think about the work and in most cases, we are not capable of disengaging from it even when we are told we can. Just don’t send it. Leave your team members alone when they are not at work.

If we appropriately disengage from work, and let people know we are unavailable while off, we set the expectation that this is normal and right. Our people will then be more likely to allow themselves to disengage and take the break they need.

So, I can hear you asking, “why are you writing this then?” Well, it turns out that writing is one of the things that is “rest” for my brain. The opportunity to share what I am thinking about and the practice of writing (mostly in my journal, but also using a keyboard) clears my head and helps me be more focused when it is time for me to turn to the decisions and systems that I am responsible for.

For these next several days, the most difficult decision I intend to make is what to have for dinner. I will not read or respond to work emails, I will not text anyone about work, check-in, or engage myself in the “business.” That doesn’t mean I won’t ever think about it at all, but I will be intentional about getting away from it. I need the break in order to be my best self when I return. And so do you.