11 Powerful Lessons from my Summer Vacation

by | Sep 4, 2012 | Science of Happiness | 38 comments

G rowing 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?