My mother and some of my friends who grew up in North Carolina recall that it was commonplace for families to take at least two weeks, often a month or a whole summer and go to the beach every year. Of course an annual retreat for relaxation and rejuvenation is routine in Europe; businesses there will commonly shut down for the month of August. Unfortunately, in our youthful American enthusiasm for getting ahead, we have forgotten the value of balancing productivity with plain old rest and relaxation.
Even when we do take “downtime” our consumer-driven culture has managed to make us feel as though we need special clothing or herbs or scents to relax correctly. And as far as I can tell, vacation has become a myth…some fantasy for the future that we use to justify working too hard now. The people I know with salaried positions or who own their own businesses often accrue more vacation hours than their responsibilities could ever allow them to actually use. So what if your benefit package includes 5 weeks of vacation a year, if you never actually feel that the company could live without you for that long? Even if you do decide to take time off, you often decide in the end that it’s just too much work. By the time you prepare yourself to leave and then work late catching up once you return, that week at the beach feels more like a hassle than a getaway.
Then there are the people who work in blue collar jobs who can barely go to a doctor’s appointment without threat of being fired. With the threat of plant closures and downsizing, many of us are left feeling as though we must sacrifice all other parts of our lives in order to stay employed.
And yet, as trite as the new age jargon makes it sound, balancing work and play really is crucial for our health and wellbeing. In medical literature, psychosocial stress is accepted as a significant risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Giving our central nervous system a break by slowing down both physical and mental activity allows our entire system to function more smoothly. Digestion and sleep are improved, our immune system can respond appropriately and we become able to think more clearly.
With rest, our brain can become more creative, seeing solutions that simply weren’t there before. Athletes know that optimum performance comes when you are able to get in “the zone” when your body is doing what it needs to without your brain having to think through the motions. Other work is the same way. We all have access to brilliance, but being able to focus that “knowing” into our work requires that we periodically take a step back and do nothing, just as an athlete would stop training and rest before a big competition.
So how do we integrate rest and relaxation into our lives with the kinds of intense schedules we have created for ourselves? I recently discovered a solution that I’m calling the “mini-vacation.” Rather than try to plan the perfect getaway, I simply take a day off every so often. When that day rolls around, I simply do whatever I want. Recently, I decided to spend the day with my daughter and just be with her. Without the usual pressure of feeling like something else needed to get done, we had a glorious time. Even though being with a two year old is often exhausting, I felt refreshed at the end of that day and more in love with her than ever.
On other days, when I take her to her usual babysitter, I intentionally do not plan to run all my errands that day, or to catch up on anything that feels like an obligation. My mini-vacation is a day of pure presence, of listening to what inspires me in the moment. I might spend the day leisurely reading or seeing movies or having a nice lunch with friends. Sometimes I might even do research or clean out my file drawers, but it doesn’t feel like work because the only rule I impose on this day is that I don’t schedule anything (except maybe a massage!). Instead, I just allow myself to do whatever it is I feel like doing that day.
As a result, I find myself looking forward to this day off as if it were a trip to the beach. Unlike a trip to the beach, however, my mini-vacation has only minimal impact on my schedule, it isn’t expensive, I don’t have to pack, and when it’s all over, I’m not disappointed because I can already see the next such adventure scheduled on my calendar! As the day approaches, I’m always excited by the prospect of what I might make of the day. And once it’s over, I feel grateful and re-energized about my work. This is not to say that I won’t schedule a beach trip this summer as well–I really do believe that we need extended time away from work periodically. But these mini-vacations work beautifully to keep me from wearing myself thin the rest of the year. Even if we aren’t able to truly “balance” work and play, at least we ought to have a time-out every once in a while to reconnect to our own brilliance.