Decorating your cruise ship door is a popular activity – something I found out on the first of my many Disney cruise vacations. People get downright crazy about finding the perfect theme and matching elements and even vote on their favorites. For me, participating in this tradition helps signal it is time to relax – a visual reminder that I have transitioned from daily life to vacation mode.
But I haven’t always been good about taking vacations. My family seldom took real vacations when I was growing up, and with that example, I didn’t take them as an adult either. I always felt I was too busy and had too many commitments to be able to take time off. I didn’t want to let anyone down at work who was depending on me. I also didn’t feel I had money to “waste” on a vacation when there were more important priorities to pay for first. I couldn’t afford to take any time off, couldn’t afford to work a reasonable number of hours, and couldn’t afford to go on a vacation.
Sadly, I am not alone in this approach to vacations. Many Americans are especially bad at taking time to relax and recharge. I recently saw a post on social media that went like this: European out of office message: “Sorry I missed you. I am on vacation with my family, please contact me after Aug. 31.” US out of office message: “Sorry I missed you. I had to go to the hospital for emergency surgery but should be in recovery and available in a few hours and will reply to you then.” Having lived in Europe for a couple of years, I was amazed by how much better they are at setting the boundaries between work hours and personal time, and about taking vacations.
Taking time off is leadership
It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I truly discovered just how beneficial vacations can be. When we create breaks from the norm, we give ourselves a gift of recharging our batteries and resetting our energy. When we do that, we are able to see life circumstances in a more positive light and have more perspective about what is important. Everyday dramas don’t have as much impact on us, nor do they seem overwhelming. Once I understood the benefits of taking time off and setting boundaries between my work time and personal time, I realized that my reasons for not doing it were just excuses in disguise.
As a leader, I felt responsibility to always be there for my team and for my bosses. I felt I was putting an extraneous burden on those I asked to fill in for me while I was away. In reality, by taking time off not only was I benefitting, but I was giving someone else the opportunity to stretch and grow and show themselves and others what they could do. It is better to do that in a planned way, like taking a vacation, than in an unplanned way like needing to be off work because of a medical issue caused by too much stress and too few breaks!
Burning the proverbial candle at both ends – a cautionary tale
One of my clients, a leader of a large department, shared that she hasn’t taken even a few hours off, in years. She was losing her paid time off regularly because she had accumulated the maximum allowed, and in her words, “just didn’t have the time because so many people are depending on me.” She was under a lot of stress at work, short-staffed, and kept getting more projects piled on the ones she already had. At home, she also was dealing with pressure because she felt responsible for doing everything to take care of her family and all of their activities. She was burning the proverbial candle at both ends.
She got a wakeup call in the form of a medical issue that kept her out of the office for almost a month. She realized that while she was out of the office, life still went on and nothing fell apart. That medical scare caused her to rethink her routine. She asked for help, both at home and at work, and the family set a plan for regularly spending time together. Leaders can’t take care of their team and do their job well if they aren’t taking care of themselves first. Now she is taking care of herself, getting what she needs, and is setting a good example for her team and co-workers.
Setting clear boundaries – leadership goals
A wonderful example of setting boundaries is a leader I met many years ago. He would be in his office every day at the same time and depart every day at the same time. Everyone who worked with or for him knew that he wouldn’t be available outside of those hours. Some people made fun of him behind his back, saying he’d never succeed in getting promoted because he wasn’t “willing to go the extra mile.” He always seemed calm and in control, and I admired that he didn’t seem stressed out like so many other leaders I worked with.
One day I was sitting outside eating my lunch and enjoying the sunshine when he walked up to a grassy area near my picnic table, took off his shoes and walked around on the grass barefoot for a few minutes. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me that walking barefoot in the grass helps keep him “grounded” and in touch with nature which he believed made him a better leader and better person. This guy really knew what he needed and was disciplined in setting his boundaries and creating his own success. Despite the predictions of others, he got promoted several more times, and retired as an executive. Setting and honoring his boundaries didn’t hold him back.
Tips to taking “me time”
Everyone has a different life situation, and while none of these will look the same for everyone, everyone can benefit from self-care (I call this “me time”), taking breaks, and taking vacations. Here are a few tips for making these breaks part of your regular routine:
1) Self-care: Schedule time each week to do something for yourself – “me time.” Start small and plan ahead to designate one hour each week that is yours to do with what you want (take a walk, exercise, meditate, read, etc.). Make it clear to others (including family) that it is a keep out zone and don’t accept interruptions during that time. The world isn’t likely to fall apart with you out of touch for one hour and you’ll feel better for having taken better care of yourself. Expand on that hour and make it a more regular practice.
2) Boundaries: Setting (and honoring) boundaries: Set your calendar for the times you want to / have to be at work. For anything outside of those boundaries – leave it until the next workday. There will always be exceptions to the rule of course, but what gets us in trouble is when the exception becomes the rule. You have control over what boundaries you want to set and over whether you honor those boundaries.
3) Vacation: This doesn’t have to be expensive; vacation time can range from a “stay-cation” where you stay at or close to home and just suspend the regular routine to an elaborate getaway vacation. It can be a long weekend or a couple of weeks. You get to define what your vacation looks like and how much it costs. The important part is to truly disconnect from your “normal” life for that time so you can recharge your batteries.
When we as leaders take care of ourselves, we are better able to lead and take care of our teams because we have so much more energy. We also get the chance to let others shine while setting a great example for others to follow, helping them learn the importance of setting boundaries and taking time off.
For more tips on setting boundaries, read this other post on our blog The Almanac: