In a frenetic, overscheduled world, the fastest path to success is promising the masses a way out. It worked for Tim Ferriss, whose book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich became a worldwide blockbuster, and it’s a winning formula for a bevy of globe-trotting pundits who muse about visiting Benedictine monasteries and rocket to the top of The New York Times’ “most emailed” list with essays on “The Joy of Quiet.” I’ve even tapped into the escapist mania myself, with a popular HBR piece last winter called “How to Take a Month Off.”
Getting away from it all is top-of-mind for me right now, as I’m finishing up an enforced convalescence (I had to obliterate my schedule for three weeks to recover from sinus surgery) and planning an actual vacation later this fall. My downtime helped me realize the acuteness of many professionals’ desperation; they’re miserable, overworked, and hungry for morsels like Tony Schwartz’s recent HBR piece, “More Vacation is the Secret Sauce.”
Schwartz cites studies arguing you’ll get better health and performance if you vacation regularly. And many, including me, have seen creativity boosts post-vacation (after all, you’ll never get to immerse yourself in another culture — surely a spark to innovation — if you don’t take time off). So we should all start cashing in those frequent flier miles, right?
Unfortunately, as with many American cultural obsessions, we look too quickly for the easy answer. Stymied at work? Not as engaged or productive as you’d like to be? It’s a lot simpler to blame burnout, stingy HR policies, and a lack of beach time than it is to honestly evaluate ourselves and our performance. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge believer in the restorative and galvanizing power of vacations, especially international travel. But to earn the right to take time off, we also have to meet a few necessary preconditions in today’s competitive global marketplace:
You’ve already built your expertise. There’s plenty of buzz these days about flex-time and other innovative workplace arrangements. I’m a believer here, too; I’ve worked from home for six years and it’s made me far more productive. But some employees — who assume less face time means fewer hours worked — are in for a rude surprise. You can’t compete by working a 40 hour week, much less 35 or 30. You don’t have time to develop your famous “10,000 hours” of expertise on the employer’s clock. That’s your nights and weekends, and your vacation. In short? You shouldn’t be sipping pina coladas until you’re confident of the value you can bring in today’s economy.
Your work can’t be just work. How exactly does Tim Ferriss pull off a “4-hour workweek”? He doesn’t. As he declares in this blog post about his schedule, “the goal was never to be idle…The goal is to spend as much time possible doing what we want…” For Ferriss, on the day in question, that included radio interviews, writing a magazine article, and reviewing website designs. You’ll never get your 10,000 hours of practice if you don’t enjoy the process enough to blur the distinction between “work” and “not work.” (When I’m not “on vacation,” I’m usually working seven days a week — though on the weekends, I assign myself more enjoyable tasks, like reading new books in my field.)
Your vacation shouldn’t be just vacation. When I’m in Paris later this fall, will it be “vacation”? Certainly it will be fun, and I won’t be doing my regular projects. But it’s a project of another sort: a necessary investment in upgrading my global outlook and contacts. I’ve scheduled meetings with business school professors and authors, and have started reading up on contemporary French politics and culture. By the end of my two weeks, I’ll have done more than consume an inordinate quantity of baguettes and fromage; I’ll hopefully have a valuable new perspective to add to my skillset.
It’s easy and alluring to say to yourself, Take more vacation: you deserve it! But a better question to ask is whether you’re ready to leverage your vacation — to truly dedicate the time and effort needed to become the kind of person, and professional, that you want to be.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review site on October 4, 2012.