Have a Guilt-Free Vacation This Summer

“I hate vacations. There’s nothing to do.” David Mamet


For at least 20 years running, I hardly took time off at all — and when I did, I spent at least half the day working. In retrospect, I see the error of my ways. By indulging the notion that my business couldn’t get along without me, I penalized myself, my family, and my business too.

You don’t have to be European to appreciate the benefits of protracted time away from work. Even if you are surrounded by workaholics, don’t give in to the guilt trip. Take your two or three or four weeks off and enjoy them.

As an out-of-the-closet workaholic, I’ve documented in past ETR messages my efforts to take time off. When I first began writing ETR, I felt guilty taking even a two-week vacation each year — and I ruined those vacations by spending four to eight hours a day working. Nowadays, I take more time off — about four weeks of “real” vacation and another two weeks or so of “working vacations.”

A real vacation for me is one in which my goal is to work about two or three hours a day. A working vacation is one where my goal is to pretty much put in a full day of work, while still managing to have a good time. I’ve found that two hours of work is a great goal for a real vacation. If I work less than two hours a day, I feel irresponsible. If I work a little more — three hours, say — it’s fine. But when I find myself working four to six hours a day, I get upset because I know I’m stealing time from my family.

Working vacations are, for the most part, full-time in terms of hours worked. (At least by normal, eight-hour, standards.) The main benefit of a working vacation is the fun of being in an exciting place. My home in Nicaragua (where I am right now) is a favorite. I also like to work from the big cities — especially New York, Paris, and London.

The secret to making a working vacation work is twofold:

1. Don’t work more than eight hours a day.

2. Do something fun, cultural, or otherwise personally gratifying each day.

When I work at my client’s headquarters in London, for example, I make it a point to visit a museum or a favorite cigar store or maybe catch a play every day. With something like that to look forward to — and some good work to challenge me during the day — my 40-hour workweeks in the U.K. do seem a bit like vacations.

If you have trouble taking vacations, do what I’ve done:

  • Plan ahead. If possible, go when your workload is moderate.
  • Get help. Solicit colleagues and employees to take over work you can’t get to. Give them plenty of room to make mistakes.
  • Communicate your absence. E-mail has made vacations much more manageable. By leaving automatic messages asking correspondents not to contact you during your time off and directing them to whom they can go instead, you will diminish considerably the backed-up e-mail that will collect in your mailbox each day.
  • Limit e-mail severely. Basically, you should engage in no routine correspondence. Handle only emergencies.
  • Leave big projects at home. They will find a way to haunt your thoughts anyway, so don’t make things worse by bringing along plans, memos, etc. that will stimulate that thinking.
  • Take some work with you. Bring along important but not overly taxing work, but plan to do no more than about two hours of it every day. There will be days when you’ll have to spend more time — but if you aim for two hours, you’ll feel comfortable.