The No Vacation Nation

Our relationship with time is embedded in our culture. It is never so apparent than in the different ways in which people view vacation. For some, vacation is a luxury; for others, it’s a birthright. One glance at this chart reveals how diverse our perspective is about taking time off. It shows the number of mandatory vacation days per year. France wins – hands down – with 30 days. The United States lands on the opposite end of the spectrum with exactly zero.

vacation days 2015

 

After seeing this chart, I got curious.  John Piana, a veteran of Corporate America with over 20 years of experience and a work-life balance proponent, approached me with some of his ideas as to why Americans don’t view vacation as a necessity. He calls the United States the No Vacation Nation. It is so deeply entrenched in people’s minds that anything other than working is considered “time off” (even hospitalization – I swear I can’t tell you how many of my American friends told me to enjoy my time off and to consider it a mini-vacation when I went in for surgery– are you serious??).

Power of Slow: Do you think Corporate America will ever introduce mandatory paid vacation? 

John: If it does happen, it will be awhile.  In order for a fundamental change like this to take place, it needs momentum.  Right now there’s little to none.  And even when momentum begins to build, it will still have to overcome the powerful business lobbyists who will likely keep legislators from getting behind it.  Until the issue gets to the point of a social uprising, mandatory vacation will just be coffee shop talk.  However, I think a potential wildcard is social media.  I’m amazed at how many times social media has shown the power to turn public opinion almost overnight.  A social media firestorm could quickly transform the mandatory vacation landscape.

PoS: What things can leaders do to stay offline and in life while on vacation?

J: Simple.  Make the choice!  Prioritize it.  Set the expectation and precedent beforehand with your manager and with people reporting to you.  Explain you will not be calling or logging in during vacation.  Or if that is an impossibility (which I don’t buy), begin to take back control by severely limiting the contact and explain to others you will be checking in very infrequently, perhaps even defining the specific times of day you will check messages.  When an employee leaves the company, everyone always finds a way to get things done without that person.  It should be no different when an employee goes on vacation.

PoS: How should employees address the lack of vacation issue?

J: Set boundaries and priorities in advance with your manager and co-workers.  Once they know that vacation is a top priority for you, it becomes your holy grail.  Not only should you get fewer interruptions during vacation, but it also can become a motivational/reward tool to be used by your manager.  As far as simply asking for additional vacation, I think that may work in a small business setting only.  Large and mid-size companies will simply give a corporate-speak answer and say their hands are tied due to company policy.

PoS: Is mandatory vacation truly needed?  Does the government need to get involved to correct this?

J: Neither government nor corporations will solve this issue (see my ‘Work-Life Balance Advice That Makes Sense‘ post).  The US government won’t get behind it for reasons I mention above.  Employers long ago abandoned their long-term commitment to employees.  This is no more evident than seeing defined benefit pension plans being phased out.  Also, employees aren’t sharing in the ‘good times’ like they once did, but definitely feel the pain of the ‘bad times.’  If the company had a great year, that 2% raise becomes a 2.5% raise.  However, if the company had a bad year, there’s a good chance you’ll be shown the door.  Definitely not an equal risk-reward trade-off.  However, in general, I think free markets and, more importantly, the will of the worker should be sufficient to address this issue.  Again, I think social media could be a wildcard.

***

Social media has toppled empires. It could topple the belief that vacation isn’t important too. I advocate posting as many palm tree pictures this summer as possible, people. Let us rise up to celebrate our lives — both in and out of the office!

Island Time

The United Airlines clerk looked puzzled.

“Um, you want to go to Boston?” he click-clacked on his keyboard. His furrowed brow told me my flight wasn’t going to depart any time soon.

“Not from this airport. You’re in Richmond. Your flight leaves from Washington, DC.”

Funny.

Thankfully, we were driving my mother’s Crown Victoria, the type of car reserved for sheriffs and other persons of justice who need to drive fast.

By some miracle, we made it to the right airport – on backroads — in record time. We actually did the speed limit and somehow the traffic lights gods were with us.

Rushing through the massive international airport, I even made it to the gate in time. Only to learn that the flight was delayed by an hour. Then another. Then another.

We got on the shuttle to the airplane, only to be asked to turn around. Thunderstorms hindered take-off so we waited another hour. Then we got to board.

I sat next to a lovely student of veterinarian medicine. She lived on the island of Grenada and was as relaxed as I had ever seen a person be.

The airplane hopscotched across the sky. My guess was the pilots were trying to dodge the lightning. At one point, I asked her if I could hold her hand.

“Sure,” she smiled.

In that moment, an enormous lightning bolt flashed dangerously close to the left engine. I saw my life roll before my eyes to the beat of the thunderclaps. I really thought we were going to die.

I am not the greatest fan of air turbulence and I was grateful for her kindness. It had been, after all, quite a day. And I thought it wouldn’t be nice to end it with a crash landing or anything like that.

“You sure are calm,” I quivered as I eyed more lightning from my window seat.

“Once you’ve lived on an island, where everything moves slowly, you just learn to go with things. We’ll be fine. Trust me.”

Her depth of belief moved me. Sure enough, we landed safely and I invited her to my book signing the following week.

“Oh that’s my birthday!” she exclaimed.

I thought for sure she wouldn’t show.

But she did.

I will never forget that moment. Island time made her happy. I wanted what she had. So I started to think more carefully about how I perceived things.

Wrong airport? No problem. Get to the right one, then see what happens.

When you’re open like that, you meet the most amazing people. I’m looking forward to my island time this week. Kissing the Spanish sun is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Ya, man.

A little bit can go a long way

My friend’s face loomed large on my iMac screen. She had forty minutes before her next appointment. It had been too long since we last spoke. And now, because I too had been ten minutes late, we had less time together than planned.

“How’s life?” I asked.

“Too fast,” she said.

She listed all the things she had to accomplish, in a vague, distracted way. It wasn’t clear to me why she was overwhelmed exactly. Yes, having two school kids and a part-time job can be stressful, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it herself. We talked about how fast life is in the US – how incredibly crushing it can be to go from one activity to the next. All the while trying to look good and perfect and sensible.

I shook my head with empathy.

“It’s exhausting. But somehow everyone is stressed out. It’s as if you aren’t a good person if you’re relaxed.” Her story isn’t the only one I have observed. Others from my circle of friends and family complain about how hard it is to keep pace. When asked what they are keeping pace with, I watch them turn their heads slightly, as if the air to their left will somehow give them the answer.

“I don’t know,” I hear over and over again.

Peer pressure. Societal pressure. Cultural demands. They all confront us with specific expectations. Most of us don’t even realize we are subjected to those subtle vices strapped tightly around our thumbs, those digits that are usually cradling a smartphone to help us gather more input than we could ever register.

How often do we ask ourselves: “What are we racing toward? Why are we checking our Facebook status — again? What is missing from my offline life that I need to get one online?”

I recently had a conversation about the differences between European and American expectations around vacation. In the Europe, it’s considered a human right. In the US, it’s considered an inconvenience. I even talked to one client who is getting married and is ‘dropping by the office’ on the way to his honeymoon. He is taking two weeks in Italy. But first, he’s going to check on that report.

Yikes.

I am all for personal responsibility, for giving our children a better life, and for doing an excellent job at work. But I also declare a new way of thinking about taking time off. That includes Friday night and weekends. A little bit can go a long way to keep us sane. Walking a balance beam requires skills, concentration and focus. But we need the strength to do that too.

How can we possibly remain strong when we never, ever let up?

 

Taking the Slow Train

Nothing reveals more about human beings than physical discomfort. Trapped in an overcrowded train with no air conditioning as it stood still on the tracks for over an hour, I realized how quickly things can turn sour when things get a little uncomfortable.

Pont d'Arc, Ardèche, France

Pont d’Arc, Ardèche, France

People shouted. The conductors hid in the safety of their locked cabinet, giving us periodic updates that said nothing. A medical emergency ensued. It was chaos for a while until one guy said he’d either call the police or see why the train hadn’t moved in an hour. I went with him. We quickly discovered all the other wagons had air conditioning. We got the conductor to make an announcement for passengers in our wagon to move elsewhere. And we decided we would cheer once the train got moving again. Another thirty minutes passed and the train moved forward. We applauded, laughed and jumped for joy. Until the train stopped again for another defect. At this point, I had already hugged the conductor, who was rather shocked by my response.

After a two hour delay, I made it back to sweet Freiburg to meet my son whose bus, by some miracle, arrived with a similar delay fifteen minutes after I did.

As the train rolled into the central train station, I told a fellow passenger that this experience had changed my perspective on Monday morning. After two weeks frolicking in the South of France, I felt a deep reluctance to return to my work life. But after realizing how good I actually have it — with clients, friends and family I deeply love — I happily returned to my every day life with renewed gratitude for cool spaces, calm surfaces and meaningful work.

Sometimes it takes the slow train to remind us of what we have. I am grateful for the experience and for the goodness of this life.

 

Out of Your Mind

The tingling sensation of true mind suspension is a delightful thing indeed. I am not talking about dropping acid or snorting something funny. I am referring more to the restorative powers of taking time off.

You haven’t heard from me in a while — in true slow style I took a much-needed online break, also known as vacation. And it was delightful. Admittedly, I wasn’t 100% offline because, after all, we had to post some of our snapshots on Facebook, then delight in people’s reactions. It is a different world now and the pull to share is strong. So we did. A little bit.

But the main focus of our vacation was conversation, sunshine, warmth and, yes, a glass or five of wine. We allowed ourselves to drift away from the every day problems of raising children, negotiating work or the rest of our lives for that matter. We filled our heads with new ideas, sights and smells. We ate whatever we wanted when we wanted it.

It felt good to be that free.

Moving out of our minds and into our hearts was a welcome, relaxing change. It filled us and gave us memories, which will last a lifetime.

The most delightful part of being away was coming home again. The flavor of warmth was similar to the Floridian skies — a calming sense of familiarity washed over me despite the distance of days that had separated us. My apartment felt strangely cold and empty, awaiting our return to replenish the laughter these walls have often absorbed.

It is good to be out of our minds for a little while, to turn the lights down low and to reconnect with the deepest part of ourselves. Removing distraction is healthy and, in today’s hyperconncted world, a necessity for mental health.

When we fill our well to the brim, we have more to share with others.

Replenish your soul often. It is what will give you the strength and courage to go on — no matter what.

Vacation Deprivation

Florida. White beaches. Rolling waves. The smell of sea salt tickling your nose.

It is a beautiful place, a warm haven for ‘snow birds’ who come down from the North for a winter reprieve.

Ironically, it is also one of the places where employees take the least vacation days. According to a recent TriNet survey, folks in Sarasota, Florida took an average of only 2.9 days of paid vacation annually, followed by workers in Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale, Arizona with 3.6 days of paid leave. All of these places are sunny. It makes me wonder if they are overworked or just feel no need to go anywhere because where they are already is just fine indeed.

But if that theory were true, then San Diego, California wouldn’t have an average of 10.9 vacation days taken. Perhaps it is the West Coast mentality that drives people to take more time off.

The value of vacation is indisputable. It is essential. It renews the soul. It regenerates the spirit. It is time we spend on our own well-being. As I always like to say, “A well-rested worker is a productive worker.”

If more employers were to realize the benefits of vacation, they might be a tad less stingy with their employees. And the word ‘time-off’ would no longer be whispered at the water cooler.

I’m headed to Florida for a nine-day respite myself. After life’s long winter, it is time for sun, sand, and rest.

Time invested in yourself is time well-spent. In fact, it may just be the best investment you could ever make.

 

Bon Voyage!

“The voyage itself is not important, but rather the one with which you travel that counts.”

Travel is one of the best ways to see how slow you can go. Waiting in line to board planes, buses and trains is a great opportunity to test your patience; you might also be confronted with a new culture, even if it’s in the same country.

I am reminded of the microcosm that is Bavaria every time I travel outside its boundaries. From where I live, you can go as little as two hours and be in an entirely different world (and country).

As you travel this summer (or winter for folks way down South), notice how the pace of life changes, depending on where you are. For someone in New York, their slow might be your fast (or vice versa, although I doubt it!). It is possible to live at your custom speed no matter where you live. While the world is unfurling its chaos, remember to drive just a little slower. You’ll get to where you are going faster if you go slow.

Trust me on this.

How to Reach for the Limitless Sky

It’s one thing to take a day off on the weekend, but entirely another when you decide to take a mid-week break. For those of you new to The Power of Slow, it may seem like a daunting task to even consider taking a day off “just because”. If panic is seizing your throat as you read this, hear me out for a moment, okay?

This past week I opted to explore a new area smack dab in the middle of the week simply because I wanted to. Husband was travelling, the kids were at school for their only ‘long day” until 3 pm (don’t get me started about half-day schooling in Germany!) and I saw no reason to sit on my fanny in front of my computer when I have an iPhone to check in for any client fires I might need to put out.

And so I tapped in an address that looked fascinating in my GPS and, as my mom likes to say, took a God trip for the entire day. As if carried by angels, I maneuvered through traffic and reached my destination with plenty of time to enjoy the day. A nice walk through the park, a delightful lunch and some cherished alone time in my car as I listened to my favorite music, made me a patient, loving person again. Because let’s face it: too much stress, too many demands and too little fun are not conducive to a balanced life.

When I got home, the kids happily greeted me, did the chores I asked them to and seemed genuinely grateful to see me again. And you know what? No one died, my clients didn’t fire me and I had a song in my heart from all the fun I had that day.

If you’re thinking “yeah, but that can’t apply to me” right now, here’s the thing: it’s about creating the opening for new things to come into your life. When you say “I can’t do that,” “It’s too difficult,” “I don’t know how so I won’t even try,” you are creating the mental parameters for your predictions to come true. In other words, you are right! But if you approach your life with possibility, with the thinking that “This is what I want and I envision a world in which it happens,” there’s no arguing with you. You’re right again. With that kind of thinking, the sky is the limit.

I promise you this: if you create sacred space for your own evolution, the world will adapt to you instead of you always having to adapt to it. And who wouldn’t want to live a world of their own making? The truth is we all do. The question is what world do you want to live in?

Life’s a Beach

Last month Expedia.com released its 2012 Flip Flop report. Seeing as I developed a flip-flop method for measuring your pace of life, I feel it’s only appropriate to post this nifty infographic.

Germans top the list of beach-loving nations ~ it could have something to do with the fact that summer is typically measured in days, not weeks or months here. Pardon my cynicism, but honestly~ 20°C does not equal warm, folks.

Note the Brazilians’ attitude toward the beach. They like to dance, relax, sunbathe and dine there. Anyone care to do a little Samba along the coast? In my view, the Brazilian attitude toward relaxation wins hands down!

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Slow?

Husband shuffled lethargically from the car to the house and back again. Three hotels and 1,000 KM later, he had had enough of vacation. Admittedly, ten days is a long time of non-stop togetherness. Eager to return to my every day life myself, I predicted he would be out of the house before 8 a.m. the next morning.

He was. :)

Is there such a thing as too much time off? While I am a true advocate of frequent breaks, vacation and extended periods of rest and play, work drives meaning just as much as our playtime does. It’s undeniable. And I must admit I truly missed my life (including my dear friends, pets and even my clients!) after taking time off from it all.

And that’s a good thing.

So to answer the question: can you have too much Slow, I would say no, you cannot because slow means mindfulness in this context. Being mindful is the path to great happiness. Working mindfully is a part of that too.

For instance, are you mindful after you’ve had a vacation about how you feel when you return? Have you ever taken time off, only to dread returning to your daily grind? That’s when you know a sabbatical itself won’t solve your issues. In that case, it may be time to reevaluate your life in general.

Consider:

  • What’s working for you today?
  • What isn’t?

It is easy to get overwhelmed when reflecting on how you might make changes in your life. Maybe it isn’t your actual pace of  life that is tripping you up, but perhaps it is the content with which you fill your days. Dread, in any case, is a good indicator that something is awry.

Here’s a quick dread test (as found in The Power of Slow): when you consider doing something, does it make your heart sink or sing?

That’ll tell you a lot.

How might you move your life from dread to delight today? Hint: Do one thing that excites you. Then tell me about it. Because here’s the thing: when you share your excitement, it spreads like wildfire. And who wouldn’t want to be on fire with your special kind of enthusiasm?