vacation & productivity
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Vacation and Productivity: Why Time Off Pays Off in Productivity

My friend sent me a vacation picture recently, with the note, “Recharging the batteries!”  She gets it. Time away from work pays off.  What’s more, time spent with family and friends refuels the soul.  I’ve heard far too many times, “I’m too busy to take vacation.”  The fact is, it costs us dearly when we DON’T take some downtime away from the office.  The cost currency I’m referring to is productivity. And, let’s not forget the immeasurable opportunity cost of foregoing time with our loved ones when we deny ourselves vacation time.

The Research behind the Productivity and Vacation Relationship

The research is convincing and ongoing – taking time away from work bolsters productivity. The research in neuroscience and psychology on this topic is fascinating. Google “vacations and productivity” and you’re going to come across all sorts of stories and studies, but here are some of the more interesting findings I’ve seen:

  • Our brains are powerful, but they need breaks to remain operating at peak performance. The prefrontal cortex is a high-functioning part of the brain that, among other things, enables us to complete goal-oriented work. Giving the prefrontal cortex a break can restore motivation, particularly motivation for achieving our long-term goals and for completing tasks that require focused attention.
  • Research shows that having downtime gives our minds the chance to consolidate and organize memory. In other words, it gives us the opportunity to process information and to link it with other information in order to produce better ideas and outcomes. Downtime produces better learning.
  • Vacation time has been proven to lower the risk of heart attacks. Studies have even shown the decreased risk to correlate to the amount of vacation time taken. The research touts some impressive numbers with a 30 percent decrease in heart attack risk for men and an incredible 50 percent decrease in risk of heart attack for women.
  • Time away from the office reduces the risk of burnout, a guaranteed productivity killer. An article this week in the Wall Street Journal reported on what one termed the “Sunday Scaries,” the modern phenomenon of people jumping online and sending emails Sunday afternoon, anticipating Monday morning. They’re basically taking 25% of their weekend away. Weekends are mini-vacations and they carry all the benefits of time away, if you respect them as such.

About That Happy

We have the happy factor at play here, too. Vacations simply make us happy, and this happy concept is a real thing.  Research shows a happy employee is a more productive employee.  Author Shawn Achor, in his book The Happiness Advantage, says the answer is to get happy and success will follow. We don’t need studies to confirm vacations make us happy. We just need to make sure we take them! Sadly, according to recent research, 54% of Americans did not take the vacation time they earned; that’s not making me very happy.

The World Health Organization Is Paying Attention to Time Away From Work

It isn’t a luxury – time away from work is a necessity. The World Health Organization even recently addressed the risk of burnout, which they termed an “occupational phenomenon” they described as: “… a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” WHO provided the following three descriptors for burnout and I think you’ll agree they nailed it: 1) Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and, 3) reduced professional efficacy.

Time Spent With Loved Ones Is Never Wasted Time

The friend who sent me the picture above was spending time with her family at the lake.  She has two young sons and has told me how much they enjoy their time on the water.  Not only does she want to make sure the family has fun, but also, my friend said, she doesn’t want to look back ten years from now and wish she’d taken her boys on more vacations. That kind of worry and regret would not only swamp her productivity later in life, it could also result in deep sadness.

I myself just returned from Australia with my family. It was truly a trip of a lifetime. We spent two weeks down under making a lot of memories seeing a part of the world so fascinating and different from our own. Now, I may be working through a final bit of jet lag, but I’m incredibly happy and content with my time spent with the ones I love and I’m eagerly jumping back into the job I love recharged.

Do Some Upfront Planning for Time Off

With some upfront planning, the impact of being away from the office can be lessened. For example, depending on your situation, it may make sense to assign someone to serve as your proxy while you are away. You’ll want to make sure that person has what s/he needs to handle immediate needs. Let them know their decision-making authority and then let them go. Another pre-vacation task might be to alert those who need to know about your upcoming absence. This might include setting up your out-of-office reminder and voicemail greeting with a contact for emergencies and/or applicable direction on what to do in your absence. Don’t try to handle things while you’re on vacation. Doing so is not a vacation.

By the way, as you may have experienced first hand, the day before you leave for a vacation can be one of your most productive days! Nothing like an end-of-day deadline before some time off to motivate you. Put together your to-do list and start to work on it. You’ll see what I mean.

Just Take The Time Off Already

Vacation doesn’t have to be halfway around the world. It doesn’t have to involve traveling to a body of water. And, it doesn’t have to be seven full days long. Some of my most relaxing vacations have been short staycations. The key is time away from the demands of the job.

That’s a sunset in the photo above. At the end of the day, what memories do you want to look back on? Where are you going to recharge your batteries? The answer to that question is going to have an impact on your productivity, not to mention your life.

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