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Growing up, my Dad told me over and over, “Work smarter, not harder.”

Like most kids, I ignored him.

Decades later, after pursuing a career I didn’t love and then almost burning out on one I did, I acknowledged something had to change.  So I decided to perform some radical experiments and in the process, hopefully get smarter.

It started with taking 5 weeks of summer vacation.

As an over-achiever and workaholic by nature, I thought that much time off might kill me.  As the saying goes, it only made me stronger, in addition to healthier and happier.

Here are 11 powerful lessons I learned from what turned out to be my best vacation ever–and how you can avoid my mistakes.

1. You don’t realize how much you need a vacation until you take one.

I read a lot of blog posts these days (like this one) that implore people to work harder to accomplish their goals and dreams.  Apparently there are a lot of lazy people wondering why they can’t gain any traction in life.

I don’t doubt those people exist.  I just think the readers of my blog have exactly the opposite problem: they’re working hard, quite possibly too hard, and often on the wrong problem.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Intense, prolonged work eventually makes you less productive.  Sometimes the problem is a corporate culture that thinks they can create efficiency like cold fusion.  Sometimes the problem lies within.  As much as I enjoy checking off items from my to-do list, relaxing, I mean really relaxing, for the first time in over a year, felt epic.  It was what I imagine the astronauts felt after landing on the moon (or something like that).

If you wait until you’re thirsty to drink water, you’re already too late–you’re dehydrated.  The same is true of waiting until you feel like you need a break.  Take Jon Acuff’s advice and build your own Central Park.

2. Utilize eco-therapy.

Speaking of parks, a recent article in Time Magazine reveals

A new and growing group of psychologists believes that many of our modern-day mental problems, including depression, stress and anxiety, can be traced in part to society’s increasing alienation from nature.

This is the kind of advice I’d normally roll my eyes at.  For one thing, I’m not your typical outdoorsy type.  I burn easily, I hate bugs, and it’s hard to type on your laptop while walking.

That said, the absolute best parts of my vacation were spent outside.  Hiking and kayaking in Norway.  Walking through Hampstead Heath everyday for a week to drop my daughter off at summer camp.

Finding peace in the fjords of Norway

What’s clear is that I owe the eco-therapists an apology.  Being outside brought me a profound sense of peace.  Your time outdoors needn’t be expensive or grand.  In fact, it’s the other way around–you’ll probably reduce your need for expensive and grand interventions due to stress later.

3. See people, not places.

For 8 weeks, we planned our lives around the people who mattered to us most.

We gave my adopted parents the insider’s tour of London.  We visited cousins related through my husband’s great-grandfather in Norway, who showed us the farm that had been in the family for 13 generations.   My daughter was inspired to learn to play the violin by watching her cousin.  I caught up with a former roommate.  We tasted teas with Leo Babauta at Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco.

I’d rather visit the hearts of 10 dear friends than 100 historical monuments.

4. Don’t worry, be happy.

When we lived in the States, I avoided international travel because of our young daughter.  I worried it would disrupt her schedule and leave us all cranky.  I imagined her throwing a fit right after passing through the turnstiles of some cool museum or castle.

It turned out to be nonsense.  Not only did she charm the socks off everyone we met, she managed the jet lag from crossing 8 time zones better than I did!

Most of our concerns are like that.  You’ll never know if you’re holding yourself back unnecessarily unless you put your fear to the test at least once.

5. Do less, accomplish more.

Before my vacation, I often felt frantic.  So much to do, so little time.

My summer vacation was not all about playing.  I did set aside time for work, usually a day or two a week while we were home.  With less time available, I became more strategic. My to-do list got shorter and everything felt easier.  I’m not saying I can run a business on only two days of work a week (at least not yet!), but the general principle is applicable even beyond vacation.

6. Everyone loves a dream.

Watching the Olympics reminded me how much everyone loves cheering for dreamers, like the “deafening cheers” given Paralympic runner Houssein Omar Hassan after finishing 7 minutes behind the rest of the field.  No one thought he was a loser.  They cheered because he didn’t give up.

Need a little encouragement?  Show people how committed you are to your dream, and watch how committed they’ll become to your success.

7. A little exercise is better than none.

Most of us know the benefits of exercise, we just have a hard time sticking with it.  We figure if we can’t go to the gym for 30 minutes, it’s not worth going.  This is the kind of thinking that occasionally leads me to sloth.

This summer I implemented a very simple work-out plan: every day I did 10 push-ups and 30 sit-ups.  It takes minutes and can be done everywhere, which has meant I’ve stuck with it for more than 8 weeks.  Now I can do 20 beautiful push-ups and my core muscles are a lot stronger. Seeing my progress not only reduces stress, but makes me proud.

8. Be childish.

I grew up an only child, so if you ask me for “a few of my favorite things” I’m likely to list things like engaging in deep philosophical discussions or reading a book.

Thanks to my daughter, I now have a good reason to be childish on occasion.  And it’s wonderful.  Every place we went, we tried to find a place that would appeal to my daughter.  Time and time again, it ended up being one of best parts of the trip, like visiting the troll forest in Bergen.  How can you not smile at a place like this?

Having fun in the troll forest of Bergen

9. Sleep better, sleep deeply, sleep more.

The most vivid indication my vacation was working its magic was that I was able to stop wearing ear plugs at night.  The outside world didn’t get quieter, but the voices in my head gradually did.

The more I slept, the more light-hearted and productive I felt.  The more I appreciated my family and all the other treasures in my life.

Sleep is the miracle drug of the 21st century.  It’s capable of solving nearly all the problems that modern day, first world citizens face.  And it’s free.

10. You can’t (and don’t want) to do it alone.

Delegation is one of the most underdeveloped skills among professionals.  The key is not to just get rid of annoying admin (though that’s a good idea too), but to also take big projects off your plate.  For example, I hired Caroline to write case studies about some of my most successful clients.  I felt a little guilty and worried about hiring someone else to do a writing task. Wasn’t that my job?

But she surprised me with the insights she was able to garner.  In retrospect, I see that I was likely too close to the relationship to capture it as objectively and engagingly as she did.

Another reason you need a community is that no matter where you are on the proverbial ladder, you still have a lot to learn.  For example, thanks to Corbett Barr, I enjoyed a power lunch with bloggers Danny Iny and my dear friend and mentor, Jon Morrow.  Not only did I receive thousands of dollars worth of good advice, but I got that emotional jolt that comes from working with people you admire and respect.

11. Grow inside, grow outside.

What if instead of working so hard to push yourself out, you spent the same effort drawing others in?
Jonathan Fields

When I first read this tweet from Jonathan Fields, my thought was, “Great idea. How do you do that?”

The answer, of course, is to live a life worth talking about, both personally and professionally: to walk into your fear again and again, to challenge yourself without overextending, to share your successes and failures, and to dedicate yourself to helping others do the same.

Too many over-achievers make the mistake of equating struggle with success, and in the process, drive themselves into the ground.  I don’t mean to suggest living a full and fulfilling life is necessarily easy, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be stressful.

I discovered that happiness is not just the result of being productive, but also the wind that fills your sails.

Don’t worry, be happy.

And I was.

Question: What lessons did you learn this summer?

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38 Responses to 11 Powerful Lessons from my Summer Vacation

    • On
    • September 4, 2012 at 8:59 am
    • Jen Zeman
    • Said...

    I’ve always been a huge advocate of vacations – they are gifts to the soul! I agree with everything here and hope you continue taking vacations. Oh, and about sleep – so true. I refuse to sacrifice sleep or exercise for anything. If you don’t have your health, then you have nothing.

    • Jen,
      I think one of my realizations was that while I’ve always been an advocate of vacations too, they were almost never relaxing. This summer was the first time it felt like my time off was restorative. It was long enough to do me good, and I didn’t try to pack too much in (except for a week in the States where we visited A LOT of people!). It’s a pity that Americans, who probably need vacations the most, are by and large so bad at making the most of them.

    • On
    • September 4, 2012 at 11:25 am
    • Carmelo
    • Said...

    Welcome back! Yes, since Jon Morrow “introduced” you to me I did notice you were gone!

    Great lessons here, Jennifer. Vacations are so vital to our overall health and mental well-being. I loved how you discovered that the great outdoors isn’t so bad after all!

    Our son got married this summer (last month) and that was really our big vacation. Lake Tahoe was the venue and that in itself was awesome. The lesson? Well, there are new beginnings wherever you want to look and new beginnings are powerful.

    Oh yeah, and so are naps 😉

    • Thanks for noticing, Carmelo. It’s always good to be missed!

      Great point about new beginnings, and looking for them in unexpected places. It’s why Spring has always been my favorite season. How can you not feel renewed when everything is springing to life?!

    • On
    • September 4, 2012 at 2:24 pm
    • Natalie
    • Said...

    These points really resonate with me today. It’s funny I’m reading this on the morning after getting back from a trip that has left me in serious need of a vacation.

    While a family wedding trip isn’t the ideal getaway we had hoped for this summer – it still could have been a mini break had we allowed it to be.

    At first I thought the lack of sleep was to blame but I know realize it’s our absolute obsession with keeping our 1.5 year olds ‘schedule’ in tack. It’s to the point where I think we are starting to become crippled by it, no longer feeling like we can enjoy the things we used to… heaven forbid a nap is missed or bedtime pushed back.

    The funny thing is on this short vacation our son did great with no naps and late nights – it was my husband and I that didn’t. Because we were so wrapped up in the stress of being off the ‘schedule’ we weren’t able to enjoy the little things like time with family and time away from work.

    The lesson for us this summer was that we need to let go and just take things as they come rather than spend our time worrying about things that probably won’t happen to begin with. the worrying is what is preventing us from having fun on vacation – not our little boy.

    • Natalie,

      Yes, I have had the same experience. It’s my own expectations of a schedule that are the problem, not my daughter’s. I’ve noticed that much of my stress comes from my work not progressing the way I planned–interruptions drive me insane! I doubt I’ll ever eliminate that from my personality, but by being aware of it, at least I can moderate my frustration. And committing to fewer plans has helped me a lot. If you had asked me a few years ago if I wanted to go to another country without reading up on it and creating a complex itinerary, I would have looked at you like you were nuts. We do have the power to change!

    • On
    • September 4, 2012 at 3:07 pm
    • Cindy
    • Said...

    Welcome back, Jenn! Missed you, but I am glad you had a wonderful, well-deserved break. This summer I learned to embrace set-backs and plateaus. That was my focus. To have a set-back does not mean you should quit or beat yourself up. You are just taking a mini-vacation in place for as long as it takes to refuel.

    • Thanks for the welcome, Cindy!

      I was just thinking of personal set backs yesterday, how it’s kind of like the stock market. No one (with any sense) expects the market to only go up. There are peaks and valleys. Sometimes there are deep recessions or even depressions, but the market always comes back because there is something of innate value there that cannot be kept down. I think the same is true of life.

      Keep being kind to yourself!

  1. Vacation or not – these are great ways to live every day. The more we can get back to basics and focus on the important things in life (health & our important people), the happier and healthier we can be.

    We live in the mountains of Colorado – a place where most people come for vacations. Sometimes it’s hard to stop and “smell the roses” that are all around us. I can get so wrapped up in work sometimes and have to remind myself to stop for a while and take a walk through the woods. That and some time on my yoga mat completely change anything wrong into everything right.

    Thanks for these great everyday ideas Jen!!

    • Paige,

      Yes, I probably should have stated that more clearly. My summer vacation taught me how to live better year round. :)

      I didn’t realize you were Colorado. I lived there for many years, down in C Springs. It’s true, you have to get yourself out and enjoy it. We have a 600 acre park near our house here in London and I’m always incredulous that I don’t spend some time in it every single day. I mean, how much luckier can I be?! lol

  2. Jen, thank you so much for the mention and the link – what a lovely surprise to find myself a part of this post!
    I enjoyed getting a ‘tour’ of your summer vacation and the lessons learned along the way.

    This summer, I’ve learned the power of patience and doing a little bit each day (through working on long-range projects, including a book proposal). I’ve also come to a deeper appreciation of the power of play (through a new kitten, Bootsie)!

    • Yeah, Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird approach is something I have to remind myself of whenever I feel overwhelmed. That’s a good add!

    • On
    • September 4, 2012 at 4:35 pm
    • Kristy
    • Said...

    Loved this so much and think it’s all wise, great advice. And, also wanted to share that I got a jolt of excitement myself when I saw you were back in my Inbox today. Welcome back!

    • Aww, thanks Kristy. That just totally made my day! :)

  3. Hi Jen,

    Sounds like a brilliant holiday and thank you for telling us to work less! Love seeing your family in the pics:)

    • You and I have talked about this before, but I know our achiever natures conspire to get the best of us. Someone had to tell everyone to work less (and to love the work you do)!

      I’ve been hesitant, for unknown reasons, about sharing pictures of my family. This was a test to see if anyone noticed and liked them. Thanks for the data point! :)

  4. I am so glad you are blogging again! I so appreciated my vacation and I find that I need at least a week or two over the summer to just veg out. I appreciate my job and my vacations so much more this way. I also love family vacations. Its the memories with my loved ones that I treasure as time goes by.

    • The best thing about taking a blogging break is that it helps everyone appreciate it more. I love coming back to my writing refreshed and just bursting with ideas, and I think it helps readers too. Kinda of like that icy dish they serve in between courses at fancy restaurants. A break refreshes your mental palate.

    • On
    • September 5, 2012 at 8:00 am
    • Mica
    • Said...

    I’ve learned many things this winter…see I am living in Australia and you know it’s the opposite season! Nevertheless, I have started a new chapter temporarily here, and just being here, adjusting, having patience, not giving up, learning when to say no and when to stick up for myself…well it has been a very interesting few months to say the least. Happy Return to your blogging :-)

    • Ah yes, that’s a whole ‘nother post, isn’t it? Moving to a foreign country is exhilarating and maddening all at once. At least for me. You’re right, it’s another great way to learn these lessons. Where did you move from?

  5. Pingback: Mid-Week Balance: 5 September 2012

    • On
    • September 5, 2012 at 11:23 am
    • Barbara
    • Said...

    It was great to find this in my inbox today Jen. It sounds like you are really enjoying your life and appreciating your gifts. That’s a wonderful thing for you and for your daughter to observe.
    Welcome back!

    • It’s great to BE in your inbox, Barbara! In fact, I was thinking of you as I wrote this. I can’t remember exactly when it was that I said to myself, “Barbara will be so proud at my progress!” LOL. Good to know I was right. :)

    • On
    • September 5, 2012 at 2:37 pm
    • Ayngelina
    • Said...

    Taking 5 weeks off, that is my dream but not one I can do right now. For now I am settling on non-digital weekends although I did see that good.is is launching a 30 Day Digital Makeover to get people working smarter not longer.

    I think I need it.

    • Well, I haven’t mastered non-digital weekends Ayngelina, so maybe we can help each other. I’m certainly happy to cheer you on!

  6. Jennifer, your article was as inspiring as it was practical. I especially liked how you would “rather visit the hearts of 10 dear friends than 100 historical monuments.” It seems too often we chase a living, instead of a life. Your summer was a good reminder for us all on just what is really important on this earth: joy, peace, adventure, awareness, love, laughter and the pursuit of, as you so aptly put it, “a life worth talking about.” Thanks for the gift.

    • Exactly, Bill. Even though this blog is about professional fulfillment, it is also about getting a life, just one that happens 24/7 instead of only on the weekends. I like to say I don’t help people change careers, I help them change their life. And it’s true! :)

  7. Wow Jen,
    Where do I begin? So many things resonated with me. This summer we decided to take a break from the south of France. Now most people would say, oh wow, you live in the south of France why would you need a break. Because, i started falling into a routine like i was in when i lived in silicon valley California working my corporate slave job. I stopped doing something scary everyday. I got comfortable. So we took a break to go to Berlin for a month and it was the best thing we could have done. I didn’t know one word of German, I just did a bunch of stuff that i would not normally do. Basically, i just decided to say “YES” more often and waited to be surprised. It was the best thing i could have done.

    The best part was I got to write on the BERLIN WALL and now my families names are part of history all because i say “YES”.

    • Love that you added your names to a part of history. I remember so distinctly where I was when I first heard the Berlin Wall had fallen. It’s a place I need to go.

      I will say that one doesn’t necessarily have to travel to move themselves out of routine and comfort. I was just thinking that I needed to reinvigorate the Everyday Courage challenge series by demonstrating a few myself (and maybe having readers send in videos of their own). I think it would be fun!

      • Jen,
        You’re so right, one does not have to leave the area or country to get out of the routine. I just have a wanderlust spirit. My husband is happy gardening and plant a new tomato plant when he hits that routine wall.

        ps. Video is always fun and ALWAYS a good idea in my book. so i think having readers send in their videos would be fun to watch. Plus it might help readers conquer there fear of video. ( or is that just me that had that fear in the beginning?)

    • On
    • September 6, 2012 at 9:48 pm
    • Chelsea Bush
    • Said...

    What a lovely post, Jen! I always feel uplifted after a visit to your blog. I learned a similar lesson when I packed up and went to Siberia for 6 weeks this summer. I was surprised to discover that it is totally possible to put a 60-hour-a-week business on hold for 6 weeks. Possible, and fabulous. :)

    • Oh wow, Siberia! I wanna hear about THAT! And yes, it’s easier than any of us think to put our work on hold. The bittersweet truth of it is: when we’ve done our job right, it carries on without us. :)

        • On
        • September 11, 2012 at 6:05 am
        • Chris Lappin
        • Said...

        Your post is beautifully written Jen and gave me both inspiration and goosebumps! It forced me to stop and reflect. Your time out sounds amazing.

        I share a similar personality type and find it hard to stop rather than start. For various reasons I haven’t taken a holiday this year. When I finally gave my permission to take a few days off I was ill.
        Lesson: If you don’t know when to stop, your body will tell you to!
        And so so true about a good night’s sleep. No better medicine for the mind, soul and body.

        I too live somewhere beautiful, by the sea, that I take for granted. So I’m switching off my laptop, taking a lunch break and going for a walk!

        • I couldn’t ask for a better response, Chris. I hope you enjoyed your walk!

    • On
    • September 11, 2012 at 10:29 am
    • Reaksmey
    • Said...

    This summer I learned to not pack my schedule with social engagements. Meaning, handpick the people that bring out the best in me and spend time with them. I make sure my time is spent doing and being with others that make me happy. I discovered that taking vacations that allow me to be with nature means more to me than being in a big city that is full of tourism. Lastly, this summer I committed to starting my own blog that I had thought about for some time. Thank you for your post; the lessons you learned are valuable and I hope others grasp onto them for themselves. Life is so precious. It needs to be well-spent and well-enjoyed.

    • Yes, this is wonderful. That’s a lot of growth! I find the lesson of not packing my schedule with social engagements the hardest. I am blessed to have many wonderful friends, and always worry I am neglecting them. I have to remind myself that if I were (or if it were perceived that way), I probably wouldn’t have so many! :)

      Thanks for sharing your terrific insights.

  8. Love the charming picture of your daughter in the troll forest of Bergen. Also, appreciate the Jennifer Gresham magical it’s-ok-to-relax spell you’ve cast on your readers.

    Albeit I’m a towheaded blonde, my first language was Japanese. I was 18 when I left Tokyo to go to UCLA. Battling desires of the body (like sleep and food) seemed to be expected. I carried my samurai businessman ways into college and into the corporate world. But, as you so eloquently expressed, productivity is not enhanced with such behavior.

    After many years, I’m finally learning to listen to the little voice inside who beckons me to play, to rest, and allow creativity to lead me out of the forest of a tired mind into inspiration. And to sites like EveryDayBright.com!

    • So glad to hear that my magical spell is working! Muwahaha! :)