I love my work. I like to think of myself as not delineating the work part of myself from the non-work part of myself (see The Whole Person). So I started thinking the other day: what makes vacation special?
We shouldn’t have to contrast the happiness of vacation with less happy times at work. We celebrate many positive emotions in the workplace: feelings of accomplishment, of having excelled, of great teamwork, and of seeing satisfied customers. Vacation is supposed to make us happy, but few of us associate it with accomplishment, excellence or teamwork. However, the contrast may not be as stark as we imagine. Many use vacation to pursue excellence or accomplishment in pastimes like extreme cycling, mountain climbing, or participating in a tennis tournament.
I have an ongoing argument with the vice president who hired me for my current engagement. I feel strongly that an agile team should account vacation as it accounts work — e.g., to make vacation a Product Backlog Item. Why? Partly because it makes it easier to adjust production schedules for time off. Partly because a great enterprise sends a signal that it values personal well-being on a par with the bottom line. And it’s partly because it’s difficult to separate these two. Maybe I program at work to help the company serve its clients. But maybe I also program on vacation to create a video game for amusement or just for the satisfaction of having done it.
I think the distinction between time off and work time isn’t so much the activities themselves as what vacation portends for routines, focus, and goals. Maybe we need to be refreshed with new life rhythms that afford us the time to sleep in or to act on whims rather than scheduled ritual or duty (see The Tyranny of the Urgent). Though we come to relax at home at the end of a work day, and there’s no place like home, there’s something about the routines and focus of home life that takes us far from home for our vacation plans. While on vacation I should be free from any goals of my boss or workplace, so I can be selfish for a while and focus my daylight hours on my own aspirations and the other people in my life.
A wise person, however, probably uses such opportunities to broaden the self beyond what workplace activities allow, and to feed a part of ourselves that otherwise is nourished only on evenings and weekends. It’s hard to separate work from any notion of a future objective, but vacation begs that rare human state of living in the now. Reading fiction and poetry, engaging nature, and experiencing new lands and cultures are the common diversions. But wander more deeply into emotional and spiritual explorations as well. Take time to pause in life and just soak it all in. The more goal-driven will build on those reflections to chart new life directions. But on vacation, perhaps as more broadly in life, the goal isn’t necessarily to have a goal.
Be generous to yourself with your time, and don’t hesitate to plan (but not over-plan) free time (see To Everything There is a Season). Europeans seem better to understand this, or are at least better to realize it, than Americans. Our traditions in Europe come close to closing down the entire nation for about a month — July in the north and August in the south. And don’t feel guilty about enjoying your work. Whether at work or on vacation, you deserve the best for yourself.