My first vacation epiphany occurred while taking my two dogs for a walk on the beach at 6 one evening in early August. I’ve always considered walking the dogs obligatory but not especially enjoyable, and I fobbed it off on my wife as often as possible, since she seemed, mysteriously, to enjoy it. But on this early evening, with the waves lapping on the shore and almost no one in sight, I found myself in a state of deep quiet and contentment. I was happy, nearly rapturous, just walking and taking in the scene.
I fully recognize it is a great privilege even to be able to take a vacation like this one, but I also know I’m far from alone in not fully appreciating such opportunities.
I have spent much of my adult life struggling to believe it is acceptable to simply, and deeply, relax. I come by this conviction honestly. Both my parents worked obsessively. I grew up believing my value was inextricably connected to what I accomplished — with my brain — in every moment. If I wasn’t producing something tangible, I quickly began to feel anxious and unmoored.
Fifteen years ago, I came across evidence that elite athletes practice something called “periodization” — meaning they manage their work-rest ratios. In simple terms, that means they give as much emphasis and priority to resting and recovering as they do to practicing and competing. Taking regular time to renew, it turns out, is critical to high performance.
Intrigued, I began to build short periods of renewal into each day at 90-minute intervals, in alignment with the body’s intrinsic rhythms. I felt justified — even righteous — about taking a short nap in the afternoon when I felt fatigued, knowing that I would be far more productive in the subsequent several hours for having slept even for 20 minutes.
I had always needed eight hours of sleep to feel fully rested, but I became meticulous about getting at least that amount, and preferably more, every night, no matter what, even if I was traveling. And after decades of taking only short vacations, I started experimenting with three weeks, and then four, during the summer.
Sure enough, the more renewal I built into my life, the more productive I became. Because I rested more regularly, I found that when I worked, I was more energized, focused and efficient. I got more done, at a higher level of quality, in less time. I built a company to teach these principles to others, and encouraged employees to make time off the job as important in their lives as time on the job. For starters, we give all of our employees at least five weeks off a year.
I felt justified in taking time off — and providing it to others — because it fueled productivity. What never occurred to me was that taking time off might be something worth doing for its own sake, and as part of a more nourishing life.
It was my younger daughter, Emily, who brought this to my attention. We work together. “Dad,” she has said to me countless times in recent years, “you don’t always have to be accomplishing stuff. It’s fine to just do something purely because you enjoy doing it.”
I understood the concept. I just couldn’t quite access the experience. Even as I began extending the length of my time off, for example, I spent most of my vacations reading books, one after another, often connected to work. I truly love reading, but I also took comfort in the fact that it kept my brain engaged and made me feel productive, even on vacation.
I’m not sure precisely what shifted during that first walk with the dogs on the beach. I do know that I volunteered to take them again the next evening, and the evening after that, and then regularly, with my wife and by myself, over the next several weeks. The feeling of pure enjoyment persisted.
Then, I began to notice that I was more relaxed over dinner, with my wife, two daughters, and their husbands. I was used to eating quickly. Instead, I found myself lingering, hanging around, not inclined, as I usually was, to immediately clean up and move to the next activity.
I also began taking ballroom dance lessons, something I’d done in my 20s, loved and had intended to return to for decades. For an hour at a time, I felt completely immersed in the music and the movement. My mind rested, but my body felt awakened.
To my amazement, I found myself savoring each day off, one after the next. By the end of nearly every previous vacation I’ve taken, I find myself hankering to get back to work. Not this one. On the final evening, my wife, daughter and I took a last walk on the beach with the dogs, and then went out for a leisurely pizza dinner. I can’t remember a word of discussion about work.
I love what I do, and I was excited on Tuesday morning to return to my office. Within a short time, I felt happily immersed. What I’m hoping is that I’ve found a new balance. When I’m working, I’m all in. And when I’m relaxing, I’m all out.