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!

The Naked Turtle

Sometimes it takes a good long while for things to sink in. You go days, weeks, months, struggling with an issue that just won’t let you go. You wrestle with it this way and that. You wake up suddenly at 2 a.m., thoughts holding your mind hostage until the wee dawn light.

Then, a sliver of realization slits your brain wide open. It filters through you like light piercing through a room gone dark too long.

“What if I were to simply let this entire thing go? Walk away. Say goodbye. Turn a corner. Never look back. Move forward. Take a whole new path?”

It’s a frightening notion indeed.

But then you see you really have no choice. The realization is there, standing in front of you like a war-weary soldier. You cannot ignore it. In fact, you cannot look away. You feel the shudder of truth ring through you.

In that moment, vulnerability enters the room. You are stripped of every mask, every reason why it should not be so. You are a naked turtle without its shell, completely exposed to That Which Is.

It is a moment of liberation from your hibernation. And it takes courage to see that moment through to the next one, which calls for you to act on the very thing that scares you most.

When faced with difficult situations, I often get nervous. My heart starts to pound; my palms start to sweat. But then I ask myself: “What am I afraid of losing?” The answer is always the same. “The only thing I have to lose is my own fear.”

It is worth taking off that mask to reveal your true self. In fact, in calling forth that part of you, you have already emerged a little stronger than you were before. Along with such experiences comes the marvelous opportunity to show empathy for others who are struggling too.

We are in this together. Our shells may provide us protection, but they also hinder the good stuff from coming in too.

It’s time to get naked.

Now.

 

Difficult Conversations

The year 2014 is coming to a close. In a few weeks the holidays will be upon us.

I have never been happier to say farewell to one of the hardest years of my life.

In many ways, it has been a good year. I have developed new, positive, life-sustaining relationships that have given me so much strength in a time when I’ve really needed it. I have also had to allow some relationships to change dramatically, in the form of little to no communication and a distant well-wishing to ensure a healthy, new way of being.

Change is always difficult because it brings up a lot of things we’d rather not examine. It calls up our weaknesses and our blind spots. We are confronted, challenged and greatly unsettled by the newness of it all.

And yet change is also a way of tilling the Earth to bring in new, fertile ground. It is as necessary as oxygen. In a way, change means evolution. If we aren’t changing, we aren’t growing. And if we aren’t growing, we are dying.

And no one really wants to live in a state of death.

Ironically, change also brings death, the ending of the way we used to be. We have the opportunity to alter our thoughts, actions and behaviors to become more aligned with who we truly are.

Forgiveness can help.

It seems as though 2014 has been the Year of Difficult Conversations. I have had a lot of them – as recently as last week when a client admitted to me that he was sorry the way our project failed; that he appreciated my professionalism through it all; that he is embracing the Power of Slow as his world topples too. It was a magical moment of grace as I realized he could actually hear me say, “It was frustrating to know that my best didn’t yield what you were looking for.”

It was a conversation of forgiveness – and it moved me in ways I have yet to fully realize.

What I have also learned this year is that while difficult conversations may sting like hell, they are like wildfires that burn away the debris for new life to emerge. If we don’t express what we truly think and feel, those words burn us from the inside out.

Speaking your truth takes a lot of practice. A few things have helped me along the way whenever I’ve had to have an uncomfortable conversation:

  1. Prepare your key message. Practice what you are going to say. Start from the ending. How do you want the conversation to end? Begin it with that intention in mind.
  2. In some cases, it is helpful to actually say, “No matter what I am about to say, I want you to know that I care about you/the project/our collaboration, etc. You matter to me – my telling you this is actually an act of trust that you can hear me.”
  3. Do not take anything the other person says personally. It is not about you, your worth or your position in life.
  4. Actively listen to the other person. Do not allow distractions such as your smartphone or Facebook status get in the way. It shows respect when you give the other person your full attention.

You may feel like a toddler, waddling from one piece of furniture to the next as you hang on for dear life whilst falling periodically on your butt. But I promise you it will get better, your relationships will grow stronger and the ones that end as a result of your honesty were not meant to be in your life anyway.

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?

 

power of slow book cover

Life as a Playground

Life offers multiple opportunities to play, even at work. It really comes down to how you approach things.

According to research, our brains are sharpest 2 1/2 to four hours after waking up. So if you are an early riser, you’re looking at your peak time before noon. I am one of those people. I craft my most creative work before 10 am, then slump by 2 o’clock. That’s why I usually save my mundane tasks for the afternoon when smart thinking is less needed.

If we are familiar with our biorhythm, we will stop fighting against our own nature and work according to our inner clock. If you are lucky, you will have a boss that understands this.2014-02-23 15.28.58

Does work have to be hard? No, it doesn’t. I don’t know who made up that rule, but it seems to have seeped into our collective psyche that work has nothing to do with life at all – that life equals pleasure and work equals everything else. Thus the term work-life balance. As if work wasn’t a part of our lives, but something that offsets it.

As my daughter thinks about her own future, I try to convey to her that while there are certain things she won’t like about her job, she should at least love some parts of it. In fact, if you love most of what you do every day, you are going to be a much happier person.

Joy can be had wherever you are – even at the auto mechanic’s. Spread it far and wide. Dance in the light of your own private celebration of life, which includes work and the people that populate that space too.

Life can be a playground if you let it – even at the workplace.

The Balance Between Boredom and Überbusy

“One day we’ll catch our breath, right?” I sighed into the phone as my friend listened intently.

“Face it, Christine. You’d be miserable if you were bored.”

She’s right. Being challenged is an integral part of my happiness. Sitting around and navel-gazing isn’t really my thing, although there are some days when I’d love to issue one-way tickets to the moon to some of the less reasonable clients in my life.

But then where would I be without the daily slog of emails, press releases, content creation and the ensuing joy of making people famous?

The answer? Most likely, I’d be somewhere much warmer, sipping something wonderful from a coconut.

Or would I be?

The state of überbusyness we find ourselves in has a lot to do with our 24/7 availability. It’s so easy to check in with international clients instead of getting those continuous eight hours of sleep. I have had to force myself to place my cell phone in another room — turned off — completely. Airplane mode doesn’t count, people.

And for what do we drive ourselves insane? Why do we need to know what our clients are thinking at 3 a.m. our time?

We do not.

We are often so fearful of being bored that we’d rather run on the hamster wheel for the sake of movement than actually slow down, sit still and listen.

In this insane worldview, to be in the know is somehow better. Even if you can’t do anything about it because every other sane person in your part of the globe is actually sleeping.

Admittedly, I wrote the principles I laid out in The Power of Slow four years ago to remind myself that there is more to life than getting things done. In fact, more often than not, in doing less we get more done. It’s about smart energy management infused with an unstoppable joy for simply being alive.

Just for fun, let’s list those principles here.

Ten Steps to the Power of Slow

  1. Reframe your definition of time. It does not equal money. It equals your existence.
  2. Multitasking is a myth. It has been scientifically proven that heavy multitasking does not make you more efficient.
  3. Examine your habits. Which serve you? Which do not?
  4. Just say ‘no’ with a smile. Remember: saying ‘no’ to others often means ‘yes’ to yourself.
  5. Slay the inner pig dog by leaving Procrastination Station for good.
  6. Take time for leisure activities that feed your soul. A well-rested worker is a productive one!
  7. Mini time-outs help sustain your energy level throughout the day. Take an occasional breather to regeneration your mind, body and soul.
  8. Manage expectations. Clear communication can save you a ton of time!
  9. Focus by eliminating distraction. Discover when you are at your most creative. Schedule your activities accordingly.
  10. Delegation is not dumping, but playing to others’ strengths so you can play to yours.

We all walk the balance beam between bored and busy. If you topple to one side or the other, that’s okay. Just remember that it is easier to cross the beam at a slow pace. Running won’t get you there nearly as fast.

 

The Progress Principle

Being at a standstill can be the most frustrating experience for a recovering speedaholic like myself. Although I know there is power in slow, there are moments when setbacks make it feel like the world is going to end.

Apparently, I am not alone in this. According to Harvard’s Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, setbacks are one of the major causes of ennui and disengagement amongst workers.

People need to feel they are moving forward with things, even if it is slow-going.


Collaboration helps. According to the authors, deep engagement and creativity stems from a collaborative work setting in which you don’t feel alone. I know I always feel better when my team is sharing the burden of the work, not just me.

Real progress triggers positive emotions like satisfaction, gladness, even joy. It leads to a sense of accomplishmnet and self-worth as well as positive views of the work and, sometimes, the organization. (page 68)

Poor managers forget the importance of giving meaning to the work people are doing. In fact, most still think people are motivated mostly by extrinsic rewards such as higher pay, bonuses or other benefits. People are actually more accutely motivated by a positive inner work life; that is, when they feel they are contributing to something greater than themselves, feel recognized for it and can have fun while doing it.

The book outlines four ways to negate meaning:

  1. Dismiss a person’s work.
  2. Take away ownership from the person.
  3. Doubt that the work will ever come to fruition.
  4. Menial tasks for which the worker is overqualified.

The progress loop, on the other hand, requires, well, progress, a feeling that you are getting somewhere and that your efforts are meaningful. That fosters a more positive inner work life, which, in turn, contributes to more progress and so on.

Setbacks are the major progress killer, leading to negative emotions and disengagement.

Great leaders are catalysts for positive change or even emotional nourishers.They recognize the human component and its importance in their organization.

Never underestimate the power of sincere acknowledgement. If someone in your life is doing something you appreciate, tell that person. It’s amazing how you will rock their world with your words.

The human connection is so valuable in our lives. If you feel disconnected from your job, consider how you might measure some progress in it. Reach out to a colleague. Exchange ideas. It can take you out of that vicious cycle into a virtuous one with more joy than you can imagine.

The Phases of Our Lives

“It’s just a phase,” I would hear my mother say to her friend on the phone. As teenagers, my sister and I had no idea how much we put our mother through and while she says now we were just fabulous, I know the teen years are far from it.

With a teen of my own, I get to experience several phases at once: the remembering phase (“God, was I like that?”); the mothering phase (“Because I said so.”); the daughtering phase (“Mom, I am so sorry if I ever, ever said something like that to you.”); and the mid-life phase (“What do I want out of  life?”).

All that rolled into one makes for some interesting times.

A friend of mine once told me I could choose how to view this phase of parenting: as either a gift or a curse. I have chosen to look at it as an opportunity of self-discovery as I witness my children grow into the people they will become.

Whether you have children or not, we all go through phases in our lives. Sometimes we are up; sometimes we are down. Sometimes we are suspended on a tightrope, daring ourselves not to look down.

While work-life balance experts will tell you that equilibrium is the goal, I disagree. Alignment with your truest purpose, and all the hills and valleys, are what you are here to experience. So what if you topple off that balance beam? Maybe it’s just what you needed to get a different perspective.

When we take back our lives with clarity and vision, those valleys seem less frightening. Grab yourself some sentries in the form of friends and loved ones who will stand by you in stormy times. Reach out when you need it. We all deserve that kind of support.

Do it with love. Do it shamelessly. Hug out the pain until it slides back into the shadows.

We’ve got this life, broken down into units of time. Take it all. It’s yours.

 

Ain’t No Such Thing As Work-Life Balance

Gazing at the picture of my thirty-year-old self with a baby in my arms, I had no idea what life had in store for me then. Soon after the picture was taken, I was confronted with the dilemma so many working women face today: dueling priorities of both work and home life. Having arranged a part-time position in the marketing department of a major investment firm, I managed to work a forty-hour job in thirty. There was no balance: just 5 a.m. wake-up times, baby fevers and early pick-ups at child care in the middle of the day.

It was a nightmare.

In the sage words of Vickie L. Milazzo in her 2011 release Wicked Success is Inside Every Woman, “[i]f you haven’t been reduced to your breaking point one or more times in your life, you’re either very young or probably not a woman.”

Forget what self-help gurus tell you. Work-life balance does not exist.

In my view, work-life balance is a media sound bite that tries to remedy the conflicts working parents face every day. It is a myth primarily because the image evokes the sense that work and life are on opposite spectrums of our existence. In fact, they are not.

Anyone with a smartphone will tell you work bleeds into life after hours. If you are an entrepreneur or freelancer, such as myself (I soon discovered Corporate America would not support mothers they way I needed it to), you find yourself working at odd hours. Partly, it’s because we are passionate about what we do. Partly, it’s because our global world demands it.

What is possible is aligning your life with your truest purpose. Everything else cascades from that centerpoint. If you know what you are passionate about, your focus will be laser-like and the extraneous distractions that tug at your attention will fall away.

I recently chat with CBS This Morning correspondent Lee Woodruff, who is doing the opening keynote address at the upcoming Women’s Leadership Conference in Las Vegas August 14-15, 2012. When she offered up her view of work-life balance, I sat up and listened because her priorities have really been put to the test in her life. For those of you who are familiar with her husband’s story, Bob Woodruff replaced Peter Jennings in the ABC news anchor chair. For 27 days. That is, until a bomb in Iraq struck him while reporting there in 2006. His amazing recovery has been recorded in various places. Here’s one.

For someone who has been to hell and back, Lee is a remarkably resilient personality whose sense of humor is certainly her recipe for success (just ask her about the power of flannel nightgowns). Spending a few minutes on the phone with her was enough to boost my spirits skyward. Her writing will do the same for you. She’s just penned her first novel entitled Those We Love Most, which will be released in September 2012.

According to Lee, “there isn’t a balance. It’s a myth that we’re chasing. And we’ve done women a big disservice to say they can have it all.” She referenced a recent Atlantic Monthly article by former director of policy planning at the State Department Annie-Marie Slaughter that claims the current workplace and society at large are not equipped to deal with family life as a holistic part of an employee’s existence. The personal and the professional are held separately and not valued equally. Slaughter suggests that someone who trains for a marathon and puts in the early and late hours to reach his goal is considered disciplined, committed and admirable. Someone who puts in the same hours caring for a family is not regarded the same way.

Glibly put, family life, should it interfere with work at all, is regarded as an unspeakable part of yourself, like gastrointestinal issues. In current times, it is unprofessional to mention you might have a life beyond your cubicle.

Society dictates that you are ‘less than’ when you show you have family commitments outside of work. You are somehow subpar to those who really ‘dig in’ and don’t let pesky distractions such as a sick child or school matters interfere with more noble pursuits such as the bottom line. In fact, I have been told to say I have an off-site meeting to clients when really I’m attending my child’s concert. I was instructed that it is unprofessional to speak of such matters because it would indicate my attention is not 100 percent on the client himself. No one places 100 percent of their attention anywhere. That, too, is a myth.

We need to redefine what professionalism means. We are not robots. We are social beings in a broader network with other social beings. When will family life be as hip as Facebook?

Lee admits that she cannot have it all and that, whilst on the speaking circuit, her children aren’t going to get that home-cooked meal. She says you can still be a great mother and miss a few sports games. The trick is self-forgiveness.

“We’re calibrated as working women to have an entire sense of guilt because we can’t chase it all. Once we become kinder to ourselves, the whole thing is a lot easier to manage,” she admits.

In those moments when she has her kids on the phone complaining that she’s not there for a special event, she gives herself a pep talk afterwards. She knows she is there for the big things in their lives. With twelve-year-old twins and two older children, Lee has come to realize they will survive without helicopter parenting. In fact, they will do better as a result.

“Stay the course,” Lee advises. “We are the best judge of what is going on with our children.” Mindful parenting does not mean you are a hovercraft.

It’s time to toss the balance beam out the window and get real. Alignment with self, family and work is where it’s at.

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?