September 26, 2010

Vacations: Two Weeks or Two Minutes

Okay, I’m breaking my own rule right now, but I’m thinking about this so it’s time to take action—that’s another rule that I try to live by—so here are my thoughts about vacations.

I’m spending a week away from my therapy practice, away from my life as an educator at The Evergreen State College, and I’m enjoying the company of friends and family in a setting that almost demands relaxation and reverie.  What occurred to me is that this is such a rare experience for most people—rare for me, too—and that without a plan and practice, slowing down is tough to do.  I know that I’ve written and talked about how our brains grow tired in much the same way that muscles wear down from overuse and strain.  We take on greater and greater responsibilities, almost without recognizing that we’ve added one more thing to our plate of obligations, and we tend to fulfill our commitments at work, and at home, but gradually as we take on these additional tasks, concerns and cares, the ability to manage competing demands is diminished.  

Roy Baumeister conducted the seminal research that offers great descriptions of how human mental facilities decline when overused.  It reminds me that we shouldn’t—we can’t—continue to perform, produce and push toward goals and achievements without taking care of ourselves.  As a fledgling guitar student myself, I guess I’d compare that kind of dogged effort to someone who continues to strum away on their guitar as the strings break.  Taking care of your brain—giving it the opportunities to completely rest, completely relax, let go of the cares that furrow your brow—is the only way to be ready to return to the routine with fresh perspective and purpose.  As I take this time out, I am thinking of those in my practice and in my circle of acquaintances, who have been unable to leave the workplace or the family commitment that is depleting them right now.

How is it possible to set aside those essential duties of life in order to recover one’s energies and zest?  Here are a few quick suggestions:

  1. Take “mini-vacations” throughout the course of every single day: focus on your breathing (cool air in, warm air out) while sitting at a stop light,  or use some relaxing or positive imagery while standing in line at the grocery store; wherever and whenever you find yourself able to disengage.
  2. Look for ways to bring laughter and humor to what you’re doing: passing the humor along helps too, when you recount something funny to a friend later in the day.
  3. Recognize the positives that you’re grateful for.  There’s good research behind this statement: if you “count your blessings” just one time a week, you’ll be lifting your mood over the course of a month or two.
Though these suggestions may seem simplistic, or even silly, the research is clear that it is these tiny thoughts and actions that lead to lives of less stress. They will reduce depletion in small ways, and can prevent some of the damage (physiological, psychological, and social) done to us by our demanding lives. AND, we also need to find ways to extend these to more significant periods of relief.
As I’ve had more time to slow down and reflect on the value of vacations during the few days that I’ve been away, I realize that it isn’t possible to put the brakes on my thinking process in the same way I do in my car.  While it’s true that I can physically stop doing the activities that usually fill my daily life, it is much more difficult to slow down mentally, or to slough off my sense of “hurry” and “responsibility.”  The work I do brings me great satisfaction—I find meaning and purpose in just about every aspect of the roles I fill as therapist and educator, as husband, grandfather, friend and neighbor—but sometimes it’s important for me to rest from those roles and re-discover inspiration, motivation and vitality.  The goal of taking a week away from the routines of work and home life is a good one to aim for—two weeks would be even better.   How can this be accomplished?
Make it a priority to have planned “down time” each year. If necessary, contact a friend or relative who also needs to increase their relaxation time, and suggest that you help one another.  If childcare is an issue for both of you, trade off the care of children so that each of you get a break.  If you both have the option of scheduled time away from work, but you are feeling overwhelmed with home upkeep, maybe there are tasks you could exchange to lighten the load for both.
In discussions with your co-workers and supervisor, consider making a statement something like this, “My plan is to get away for a week or ten days in the summer, and then again in the winter this year but I want to be sure this doesn’t create a problem at work.  Could we agree to create some scheduling that will allow all of us to get some of the dates we want for vacation?”  Making a “public declaration” of your intention to prioritize time away will help you follow through.
For many adults of the so-called Sandwich Generation, both childcare and elder care make it difficult to take time away.  This is a real issue, not to be trivialized by offering a one-line solution—but it is imperative that you find ways, make ways, to lift the responsibilities that you carry.  My best suggestion is to remember that you cannot give what you don’t have.  In order to have something to offer to others, you must take care of yourself.
I say I’m breaking a rule by writing an article while I’m on vacation.  True, this could seem like a contradiction.  But as I write this note to you, I am also reminding myself of the value of taking time out.