Take a real vacation -- and stop working

Last weekend, a friend of mine described her recent "summer vacation" in Washington, D.C. "It was great," she said. "I was able to work out of our firm's D.C. office during the day and visit with friends and relatives at night. My phone number didn't even change, so no one realized I was out of our office."

I was horrified. If you take a break, and no one realizes it, did you really have a vacation? While I'm sure it was lovely for my friend to visit with folks in the evening, she didn't reap any of the physical or social benefits that can result from a vacation. Because those benefits only accrue if you actually stop working.

Those benefits are well documented. An annual vacation can cut the risk of a heart attack in men by 30 percent, and 50 percent in women. They can also help prevent depression and decrease stress. And the whole family can benefit. Parents learn new things about their children while on a family trip and report feeling more affectionate. Finally, vacation even makes you better at your job. A 2014 study concluded that vacations boost energy reserves, requiring less effort to get work done upon return.

This research all feels pretty obvious; the conclusions are intuitively apparent. The benefits of vacation are even the premise of my favorite movie, "Enchanted April." In the film, four women leave their rainy world (1920s England) to spend April in a medieval castle on the Mediterranean. The plot follows their (slow) process of unwinding and relaxing. They emerge better people. I watch the film annually, mostly because I love it, but also because it reminds me that people need more than a long weekend to really unwind.

So why don't I always take an annual vacation? The Internet is full of articles on the subject. But these articles mostly assume that folks skip vacations because of corporate policies or pressure from higher ups. Unless we are in-house, however, lawyers don't usually report to any one person. Lots of us are our own bosses. For many lawyers, myself included, the fault lies not with our employer, but with ourselves. And this is a harder problem to solve.

I serve clients for a living. And I love it. I want to be available at any moment if a client needs me. I know my matters better than anyone, and I believe I am best situated to assist in the event of trouble. For this reason, my family sometimes has trouble prying my iPhone away from me.

But, while I can tell myself a nice story about my dedication to client service, I also know that my desire to remain permanently connected is also related to my own anxieties and need for control. Remaining permanently connected ensures that I will know immediately if a problem arises. When I put down my phone, I am left to worry that the world is exploding without my knowledge.

Many a logical person could have this conversation with herself and rationally decide to leave her iPhone at the hotel during a family vacation. I know myself. I can't. But I can set up systems that will ensure a successful vacation.

My favorite solution is expensive (and probably not what you were expecting). European time zones. Right now, it's 7:30 a.m. in Minnesota, and it's 2:33 pm in Rome. On a European vacation, you can check your email in the morning, and rest assured that you probably won't get another one until mid to late afternoon. Check again before bed and you're done. You don't have to spend the day worrying about work because, for most of the day, everyone is Minnesota is asleep. It also helps that I love France, Italy, and the United Kingdom and could happily spend every free moment returning to Europe. If your favorite vacation destination is Lake Superior, however, my proposal is pretty useless.

My second solution involves engaging a deputy. My legal assistant has full access to my emails, and she will immediately call me, if necessary. If there is no phone call (which there generally never is), I can relax knowing that someone else is standing guard. I take my email off of my iPhone during the day and only look at my phone if I get a call.

Of course some trips aren't vacations and some vacations may require emergency work. But when I take a real vacation, I like to fall back on my coping mechanisms. I sheepishly admit that both of my methods are cop-outs. The women in "Enchanted April" had no one checking their emails and they never did any work after the kids fell asleep. But they also weren't lawyers. My methods help me to relax and be present with my family on vacation. And that's really the point of the whole thing, isn't it?

Published: Wed, Aug 26, 2015

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