Vacation: Switch OFF to stay ON

An impromptu break helped Priya Kumar stay on track—at work and in life

“Take it easy”, “Slow down”, “Take a break”. I had heard these suggestions often from colleagues and friends who were witness to the amount of work I fit into 24 hours. I’m the kind of person who does not rest till the job at hand is done and delivered. And when the task is done and delivered, I’m quickly onto the next one. Fortunately, I am not alone in this breed of self-made workaholics. Most high-flying working professionals are finding it increasingly difficult to take a break and take off.

“What will happen to work when I am gone? How will it go on?” We tend to build these questions towards disastrous consequences and convince ourselves that we are indispensable. We find contentment in remaining ‘switched on’ 24x7 but see catastrophe in even daring to think about switching off for a few days. Over the years, I have learnt that no one is indispensable and guess what, if that weren’t the truth, then one would be as afraid of taking a vacation as one would be of dying. Given a fair chance, one will find equal talent and dedication in the next co-worker.

I didn’t realise the importance of taking a vacation and time off work until a few years ago, when I found myself forced into a trip with my friends. This was in order to attend a close friend’s wedding in Belgium. Right from the start, there were speculations about my arrival. I am known for my last minute drop-out status and by now my family and friends have made peace with my absence. I had cold feet from the time I booked my ticket for the 10-day long vacation. Knowing the wedding scene forward, I anticipated that I would be reprimanded for even using my phone. But I admit that those 10 days away from work was the best thing that I had done for myself in years and I vowed to take two weeks out every year to spend time with my family and friends. I realised that the toughest part was in getting there; once there, a new world of adventure opened up.

Here are some useful tips to my fellow workaholics who would rather at work than anywhere else.

Involve others in your fear of letting go of work: I could not help but keep rambling about how nervous I was about attending the wedding, knowing there would be reprimand on escaping from late night parties to check my mails and not to mention the time difference. I realised that the more I expressed my discontent about taking the vacation, the more supportive my colleagues became about me taking it. Reverse psychology never seems to get outdated. “Don’t worry, we will handle everything.” When I explained the challenges about not being accessible, they assured me that they would cover for me and contact me only if there was an emergency. I got support in winding up my work and in assigning duties in my absence. I have found that when people show care and commitment for their job, they get it back bountiful.

The first day is tough: I never lifted my head from the time I boarded the plane to the time I reached my hotel, covering as much work as I could. Keeping my phones and laptop out of reach was the toughest thing to do, since I already had warnings about carrying my work into the wedding. I remember taking long bathroom breaks to quickly read my mails and check on work. But I must admit, the compulsion eased on the second day and decreased in intensity in the days that followed. My need to be on the job all the time eased and the fact that I had the option to sleep in and not wake up by clockwork was my first delight. I was pleasantly surprised to see that work was actually going on without me and a lot of people got their due importance in my absence.

Different time zones or low connectivity helps switch off: The one thing that really worked for me was the time difference between India and Europe. It helped ease my nerves about work and made me feel less guilty for having fun at work hours. When I would wake up, the team was already ahead of me and I just needed the half hour of my morning tea-time to see that all was in order and continue the rest of the day in peace. My phone calls tuned down into instant messages and then my messages tuned into one or two emails a day. And by day four, I was officially off work. I have kept this as a tip when I plan my vacations, the further the distance and the greater the time difference, the better it is for me to really get off work and unwind. And when taking a vacation in India, I choose places with low connectivity, such as mountains, wildlife sanctuaries and cruises, so the reach between my work and me is limited.

Pack adventure into your vacation: Because I was occupied from the time I woke up to the time that I went to sleep, work stayed off my mind. We had sightseeing trips, lunches, dinners, parties and shopping sprees all planned and timed. As a person who works non-stop, I have so much energy and if I don’t plan how to expend it at my vacation, I will naturally get back to work. Now when I schedule time-off, I make sure to plan the adventure first. So even though I’m not working, I’m onto something equally exciting and that keeps my ever-ticking mind and creativity going. I must admit that every vacation that I return from, I find a whole new perspective at work, a perspective that adds greater value, for I had the distance to see that which the proximity didn’t allow.

Great ideation opportunity: Take advantage. Every vacation has given me immense takeaways that my otherwise busy life disallowed. I could ideate without the pressure of having to do so. I could understand better, being away from the tension and appreciate even the slips and falls that I had been through as a learning curve. Once away from the scene, learning became much easier.

Discovering true happiness: Over the years, being happy had become a challenge. I needed a reason to be happy. So achievement became a necessity towards that end. But when on a vacation, I found happiness without reason, and that is true happiness. The sunrise made me happy, the silence brought joy; the extra sleep brought comfort; and walking in the wilderness brought an elation that no professional accomplishment could even match. This is what I work for—the time and luxury to be free and happy over nothing at all. And I carried that happiness back to work. My colleagues would comment on how I came back calmer and happier after each vacation. My drive was always at a fast pace but my attitude had shifted towards the better.

Value-add to friends and family with your presence: Over the years I had forgotten that I had a responsibility beyond work and that was to add value to the people around me. In spending time with my family it dawned on me how much they valued me and how appreciative they were to spend time with me. They were so eager to learn from my work and me and I could see a mutual exchange of respect in getting to know them better. Over the years the primary reason of going to work [family] had become the secondary reason. I had never known that so many people looked up to me and longed to spend time with me. If my own near and dear ones never get my time, then what good is my work that never served them?

A vacation is not something that comes in the way of work. A vacation is something that is a reminder that there is a life beyond work, a life that we have long forgotten under the daily pressures and professional expectations. If someone told you that you would never get time off when you started out with your job, I can bet my life you would never take it. As much as work is important, so is your life. The ability to ‘switch off’ is as important as the necessity to remain ‘switched on’. Even a machine needs its down time, and you being the one that literally makes your world go round, need that vacation—take it as a part of your job profile. For if you don’t discover the ability to switch off, you won’t remain ‘on’ for long.

This was first published in the March 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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