What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

Reflections on rest, recovery and the need to escape.

Vikky Mir/ Shutterstock
Vikky Mir/ Shutterstock

As summer comes to an end — and the pandemic continues — we are still in a time of transition. We’re heading back to work (or some form of hybrid work), and kids are heading back to school (or some form of hybrid school). 

And in the spirit of going back to school, I’d like to share some of what I learned on my summer vacation.

I’ve just returned from a much-needed weeklong stay at a wellness retreat where the idea is, essentially, to escape from the toxins of life. There’s no caffeine, no alcohol, no sugar. The food is all vegan (and delicious), and they strongly discourage the use of technology. You spend pretty much all day outdoors, and everybody is in bed and asleep by 8:30.

In short, it’s an extreme and intense departure from what normal life is like for most of us. I had an incredible time and returned refreshed and recharged. But my biggest reflection has been about how we think about vacationing and what we’re taking a vacation from. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself since I came back.

Why don’t we build in more time for recovery?

What struck me was this question: why don’t we put more of our time and energy into designing a sustainable life we want, instead of accepting one we need to escape from? In truth, I wasn’t really escaping from my life — I just wanted to experience for myself what a detox retreat was like. But it did get me thinking about how separate periods of rest and recovery are from our periods of work, as opposed to designing a life with rest and recovery built in.

Of course, nobody’s normal work week is going to look like a summer vacation. None of us are going to be able to live technology free. But can we give ourselves permission for a tech-free day once a week, like on Saturday or Sunday? A four-hour daily hike might not fit into our schedules, but how about twenty minutes of movement? Can we connect with nature a bit more by taking an evening walk? Maybe we can’t go completely vegan — or want to — but can we find a way to add just a few more vegetables and plant-based items to our diet?

Why don’t we set more boundaries with technology when we’re not on vacation?

Technology, and how to manage it, is one of the most important aspects of planning time off. Before I left, I sat down with my team and we made a plan. Just putting up an “out of office” response isn’t enough. One of the things that keeps us from disconnecting while on vacation is less the fear of missing out than the fear of coming back to 16,000 unread emails. To lessen the stress of what’s ahead, we’ll try to whittle down the growing email pile in advance. So my team set up a process to not include me on any team emails during my vacation, and instead keep a log of what I’d need to know when I got back.

This left me blissfully free to not check my email the entire time. When I did finally fire my email back up on the plane ride home, I was shocked by how many of my emails were just reflexive “reply all” messages like, “Got it!” “Thank you!” “I’m on it!” It was probably 50% of my inbox. These weren’t from my team, but just ordinary business as usual emails. It made me realize how much of our email traffic is made up of needless reply-alls. By the time I finished deleting all of them I was ready to lead a Death to Reply All movement (which will be the subject of a later column!).

Why do we think we need technology more than we do?

My biggest tech lesson was that I can do with less of it. When I left, I thought it was going to be harder to disconnect than it actually was. In fact, I was so disconnected that one of my team members, I learned later, asked another, “do you think Jen’s okay?”

And at least a bit of that disconnection is still going. Before I left, I moved the apps for my email and social media to the last screen on my phone. I also turned off all notifications except for text messages, so I could stay in touch with my family. And while I’ve moved the apps back where they were before, I haven’t turned notifications back on — and I don’t miss them. And I find that I’m checking my phone a lot less than I used to.

Why do we assume life has to be lived at only one speed?

Another lesson I learned was about how we all move at different speeds. The daily hikes I took on my vacation were set up not by distance, but by time. Wherever you happened to be on the hike at the halfway point, the message would come through that it was time to turn around. It was a nice acknowledgement that we all live our lives at a different pace, and that our pace might change from day to day. Some days I had more energy for the hike, some days I had less. But it was a good reminder that we don’t have to – nor should we – move at the pace the world sets for us. Instead, we should listen to our bodies and adjust our pace accordingly.

Why don’t we allow ourselves to recharge once in a while?

Finally, I was thankful that I planned a slow re-entry. My first day back, I blocked off my calendar and didn’t schedule a single meeting. That was my day to catch-up. On the second day, I had a long meeting with my team to debrief. Giving ourselves that first day to ease back in makes a big difference. Then we’re ready to hit the ground running and catch up without stressing ourselves out (and negating all the benefits of the break).

So that’s what I learned on my summer vacation. Whether you were able to get away or not, I hope we’ll all be able to thrive as we head into the fall by building moments of rest and recovery into our daily lives.  

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