Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Seize the Moment (or "How to Get an Uninterrupted Vacation")

By now, I’m sure that most of you think that I’m just working 24/7, without any time for friends or family, and utterly focused on each of the ten-or-so projects that I have up-in-the-air right now.  Obviously, this can’t be the case.

Though I do tend to work hard on several writing, podcasting, and entrepreneurial ideas every day, people only have the capacity for so much work before they have to recharge.  I’m no different than anyone else.  Yes, I’ve focused on becoming more efficient, so that I can be more productive in less time than I used to be, and thus able to enjoy some time with family and friends whenever I feel like it.  But after a hard-charging stretch of work, even I need a few days to play a few games of Civ 4 or watch a few Netflix movies.

As Americans, we’re conditioned that more work is necessarily better.  That Puritan work ethic has been instilled in each of us from an early age, unless, of course, your parents are a couple of unreformed hippies and your name is “Star Child.”  Many a clueless manager has bought into this Puritan ideal fully and taken advantage of this mindset among his employees, basing their opinions of people on “time spent working” as opposed to a more results-driven paradigm.  The legal industry is notoriously harsh in this regard, as “time spent working” is how law firms bill their clients and ultimately collect revenue.

The result of this system is that people give their lives over to their employers, thinking that a strong work ethic will necessarily result in a meteoric rise through their company.  They neglect their family, their health, and their mental well-being, all in the hopes that their employer will notice these sacrifices, and reward them accordingly.

The only problem is that your employer doesn’t usually give a shit about what you’re sacrificing.  So you spend your days working harder and harder, yet never see any benefit other than maybe a token promotion to middle management.  All the while, the other things that used to matter in your life fall by the wayside. 

So, instead of falling into that trap, make time for the things that matter to you.  If you want to go climb a mountain, or spend more time with your family, just go ahead and do so.  This doesn’t mean be tethered to your smartphone while letting the Sherpas carry you up K2, either.  It means be actively engaged in whatever activity you are involved in, to the point where you can appreciate what you are experiencing.  Don’t just “go to your kid’s baseball game” so that you can be yelling at some poor sap in China the entire time and miss your kid’s clutch hit.  Don’t just hike to the top of Hale’akala to see the sunrise only to have it ruined by thoughts of the “big deal” you’re putting off.  Make a conscious decision to immerse yourself in the moment and appreciate its true value, and to disregard those things that really aren’t that important for the time being.  If all you’re concerned about is the next “work thing,” you’re missing out on a lot of life, and a lot of what you truly want to be doing.  Sure, work is important, but it’s just as important to have “work time” and “personal time.”  Without the break between the two (and for Americans, that divide grows smaller by the day), you run the risk of making “work” far more important than “family” or “friends,” which is a slippery slope toward a miserable existence.

“But D.J., how can I possibly do this?”  In a word, tell people exactly what you’re doing.  Unless you have the worst boss in the world, as long as you let people know where you’re going to be and what you’re going to be doing weeks in advance, you’d be surprised at how a company can continue along just fine without your input.  I think a lot of people think that they have to be tethered to their jobs all the time because on some level they think, “Ah!  I’ve been working so hard, I’ve made myself indispensible!  I have to check in constantly!”  I have bad news: unless you’re Steve Jobs, or similarly crucial to your organization, that’s probably not the case.  And even if it is, it’s your job to surround yourself with capable people that can watch the shop when you need to step out and recharge for a while without being micromanaged. 

So stop to smell the roses occasionally.  Put down the phone and think about how you got to this point in your life, and what is truly important to you.  Appreciate the current moment in your life, and gain a better perspective on where you’ve been and where you are headed.  Besides, “now” only lasts for a nanosecond, but what you gain with a little introspection, combined with some appreciation for the moment, can be far more valuable going forward than any paycheck or TPS report.

Action Item: If you find yourself saying “I need a vacation” far too often, plan one six weeks in advance, preferably for at least two weeks, and ideally in an exotic time zone.  Let people know that you’ll be gone for a while and you’re happy to work on projects ahead of time to get them where they need to be before you leave.  Also, tell them you won’t have reliable internet access, so you’ll “try to check e-mail at least once per day.”  Then, go on the trip and enjoy whatever it is you really want to do.

Have you ever had a moment where everything came into focus, and it seemed like you finally were able to get your priorities properly aligned?  Let me know in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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