There's a photo in my stash of vacation shots that I pull out from time to time as a refrigerator-magnet-style reminder to myself. It's a picture of me from the late '70s crashed on a bench in London's Victoria Station, my head cocked back against a wall, eyes closed in total exhaustion, clothes rumpled. I look quite wasted.
I used to love that shot. I set it up myself to capture a vacation well done. I'd just finished storming through England, Germany and Poland, and I had made a flight from Berlin to London by about a millisecond. The photo was proof of my leisure output: Miles covered, sights seen, terminals raced, goals achieved!
Back then, I was a vacation sprinter. Maybe you're one yourself, going at your holiday with a productive vengeance, jamming it with back-to-back sights or activities or interrupting your fully scheduled day with calls to the office to make sure you aren't missing anything while you are gone.
As we've stumbled out of our workplaces to hit the vacation trail this summer, lots of us have taken along an extra bag -- dead weight that I call non-performance anxiety. This tiresome companion has a habit of dooming trips to fits of guilt or frantic attempts to vacation in job mode. In a culture where we define ourselves by what we do -- putting in 60-hour weeks while working out daily -- free time can be a source not of fun but of torment. Busyness has become our nation's real business, a goal in and of itself.
I learned the exhausting way that the juice of the journey isn't in the sights notched, but in the unscheduled moments. I came to realize that, like a jazz concert, a vacation isn't about knocking off songs, it's all in the playing.
But our work habits keep many people from seeing that. Case in point: a vacation that Faye Rogaski, a New York public relations entrepreneur, took in February with her parents and brother to the Caribbean island of St. Martin, where holiday-makers can linger over such grueling decisions as whether to float in the bathtub sea or grab a cold one at the poolside bar. But for Rogaski, the choices had nothing to do with the island's decelerated offerings. They were dictated by that exasperating stowaway in her luggage.
Her first dilemma was whether to stay out of touch with her office or scour around for an Internet outlet. It was no contest. Rogaski described to me how she prowled the island for her electronic fix. She tracked down a connection and was soon embroiled in a "business crisis" some 2,000 miles away. It led her to cut the trip short, ruining the family vacation. "I brought my office life into my vacation," she told me later. "I realize I am completely uncomfortable relaxing, which is quite frightening."
Just how frightening, this chronic over-scheduler found out earlier this year, when her workaholic ways came to an unscheduled stop -- from a stroke. Rogaski is 29 years old. Her doctors, she said, attributed the stroke at least in part to her tendency to overwork.
I can't tell you how many people I've talked to who are dogged by the downtime killers of leisurephobia and productivity paranoia. The need for constant activity comes from "the belief system that I have to perform to be okay," says Steven Sultanoff, a psychologist in Irvine, Calif. "I'm supposed to perform, I'm supposed to do. And if I'm not doing, performing, accomplishing some visible task, then I lose my value. People who have that real strongly have a difficult time taking vacations, and some never take a vacation."
Indeed, a survey from the American Management Association shows that 58 percent of managers planned to stay in touch with their workplaces while on vacation this year, and only 31 percent were taking more than a week off at a time. Apparently panicked that there's too much work to do, American workers say on average that they'll give back 50 percent more unused vacation days this year than last, according to a survey by Internet travel company Expedia. The same company's polling found that two-thirds of Americans wish they had another week off.
The conflict between the time off we want and the guilt we feel when we actually surrender to leisure is a long-running battle for 20-mule-team American Dreamers. But it has gone to absurd new lengths in a volatile economy driven by 24-7 technology tools and an over-scheduling mania that has made many feel as if free moments are a descent into terminal vagrancy.
Some plan every vacation moment before they even leave the house. Consider Amanda Vega, a marketing executive from Scottsdale, Ariz. To guarantee that her time off is action-packed, Vega leaves nothing to chance. Before she and her husband take off, they plot activity options, from meals at certain restaurants to museum visits, as if they were preparing a report for the next week's budget meeting. "I spreadsheet them into a document by time/day and then optimize that spreadsheet in an order so that I can make sure we get the most done in our time allotted on a vacation," she says. "It kind of takes the fun and whimsy out of it, but I think I would be really, really nervous if I didn't have some sort of plan."
Nicole Miller, a publicist in Milwaukee, told me how she wrestled with her productivity paranoia during a week's trip to Europe. For the first six days, she says, she felt "really antsy. I remember sitting in a cafe in Amsterdam having a beer with my friends, and my lower back was just shaking. It was that uptight feeling, like shouldn't we be going somewhere?" But on the last day of her trip she got a surprise as she moseyed through a flower garden in Holland. "It was such a strange feeling that I remember thinking to myself, 'Wow. This is what relaxation feels like.' "
You know the old adage that work expands to fill the available time. With today's technology, that has come to mean all the time. But we don't have to turn into hard drives with hair. It is possible to relax before the grave, if we can just move beyond the new standard default behavior (where work always takes priority over our personal lives) and do for ourselves what we do for kids: Set boundaries.
Granted, it's hard to let up when you've been programmed not to. That hard-wiring comes by way of our original taskmasters, the Puritans and Calvinists. Their central tenets -- that work is an end in itself, that idle time is the Devil's time, and that all spontaneous enjoyment should be strictly avoided -- morphed from sacred to secular proscriptions that still run us today. Except that instead of the fear of God controlling the show, now it's the fear of worthlessness, a belief that our identities are riding solely on the tally of what we produce each day. Of course, productivity paranoia isn't all self-inflicted. It's aided and abetted these days by a workplace culture that would like you to believe that advancement depends on your being welded to a work station.
Research now shows, though, that leisure can do something job titles and money can't: Deep down, everyone knows you need time off to make your life better. We don't believe it, though, until some study tells us so. Here it is: A new study by psychology professor Tim Kasser at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., reveals that, as work hours go up and leisure time down, feelings of life satisfaction and vitality plummet while health problems and negative emotions increase. Other studies have shown that actively indulging in leisure increases initiative, self-esteem, leadership, perceived competence and adaptability and promotes positive mood and well-being, because it builds lasting self-worth that is not dependent on the ephemeral approval of others.
The productive yardstick simply doesn't work on holidays, because vacations aren't about output; they're about input -- exploring, learning, reflecting. The good stuff on a holiday has nothing to do with end results or tallies. The magic is in the experience itself, which, like life satisfaction, can't be quantified, only felt.
Over many years and many voyages to exotic ports, I've come to see that the best part of a vacation isn't getting somewhere else, but being where I am, fully immersed in the experience. The urge to check off items on the agenda, I've learned, torpedoes the two key ingredients of a memorable trip -- spontaneity and discovery, which come from the almost extinct practice of lingering.
It's here in this scary non-production zone that I've been swept up by a parade of random strangers and adventures that have yielded invitations to homes and cane farms, to watching primal scenes on African savannas, to finding secrets off the beaten tourist track, wretched and sublime local cuisine, musical happenings, impromptu parties and gilded Alpine sunrises.
All of which, if it makes you feel less guilty, could be considered productivity of the highest order.
Author's e-mail: Joe@worktolive.info