You packed your favorite journal and a couple of pens. You planned some time on the beach, or left an afternoon empty to find a table at an outdoor cafe where you can grab an ice-cold drink and just think. This vacation, you’ve told yourself, you’re finally going to be able to take a break and get some clarity.
But clarity about what, exactly?
It’s true that vacationing can hold some unexpected career benefits, in addition to letting you recharge your batteries and do some self-reflection about your working life, your personal life, and your overall goals. But musing on these big-ticket themes isn’t something many of us have a lot of practice doing. When you finally get a chance to do it, you might find your thoughts a little unfocused. That’s fine—mind-wandering is sort of the point here. But in case you need a little more structure, these are four questions to let your mind wander over.
1. Stresses And Worries Aside, Am I Happy At Work?
One question worth asking is whether you’re happy with your job on a day-to-day or week-by-week basis. You may find some workdays pretty stressful, and that’s normal, but do you generally find your job fulfilling to do?
Vacation is a great time to really step back and consider that, because it’s one of those rare occasions when you can step back to monitor your own reaction to being away from work. A change of pace is always nice, but at the end of your vacation, are you excited to get back to the projects you’ve been working on? If you totally dread the end of vacation, it might be time to start looking for something else.
When you’re away from the office, you can also think about which aspects of your job are most rewarding. By identifying the tasks that excite you, you can lay the groundwork to pursue opportunities that let you do them more often.
2. Where Am I Headed?
One of the most aggravating questions hiring managers like to ask on job interviews is, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Lots of people find that hard to answer, in part because a lot of the time they don’t honestly know.
That’s understandable. It can also be difficult to do long-range planning when you’re buried in the daily grind, when your goals are changing, when your industry is evolving at a breakneck pace, or all of the above. Taking some time off lets you think about whether your career is headed in a direction you’re generally happy with. To get a handle on a big-ticket question like this, try to think specifically about the skills you feel you still need to acquire to succeed.
In other words, you may not be able to see the future, but you can still think like a futurist when it comes to your own career planning. Are there people who might be good mentors (including of the unofficial kind) to help you fill in those skill gaps? Maybe it’s time for some more education. Going back to school for another degree may be daunting, but you can always start by taking a couple of professional development courses. Or maybe you just need to do a little more networking to brush up on the latest goings-on in your field.
Many companies have some form of educational benefits that lots of employees don’t know much about, let alone actually use. Maybe this vacation is the time to figure out which opportunities you can ask your HR team about once you’re back in the office. In fact, even companies that don’t offer a standing set of training resources may be willing to cover some of the cost of professional development you pursue on your own.
This is one of those items that way too few employees actually negotiate for, beyond compensation. Use a few spare hours this vacation to come up with some training options you’d like your company to help you go after.
3. Who Don’t I Know?
You have more colleagues than just the ones who work for the same company as you. There’s a whole community out there of professionals who do much the same kind of work, but most of us don’t spend enough time getting to know them. After all, networking is a tedious chore and often completely fruitless.
And sure, sometimes that’s true. But there are a few things you can do to expand your connections in ways that don’t feel like networking. One of them is pretty old-school: Join a professional society. They’re often a great source for the latest developments in your field, sparing you the need to scroll LinkedIn for industry news. And they often have local meetings where you can meet people dealing with the same issues you are, rather than blindly scouring a random mixer for them.
There are also “networking” opportunities that might be lurking in your average workday—chances to connect with valuable people you haven’t had a chance (or a non-awkward pretext) for to strike up a conversation with yet.
You’re on vacation, though, so all this will have to wait, right? Technically, yes. But one of the reasons so many people procrastinate on (or just downright avoid) networking is because they haven’t given much thought to who’s missing from their contact lists, let alone what the best strategy might be for filling those gaps. Your vacation is a great chance to consider that. Based on where you are in your career and where you’d like to be before long (see above), think about the ideal connections you’ll need to make. Here’s a handy guide for figuring out who’s most important to you at the moment and where can you find them.
4. What’s Missing?
Work is great, but there’s more to life than the things you do to make your company money. In high school and college, you might’ve spent a lot more time doing things you were passionate about—or things that helped you discover what you’re passionate about. After hitting the workforce, most of us start to shed extracurriculars. If you look back, you may see a graveyard of discarded instruments, sports, clubs, and volunteer work stretching out in your wake.
It’s great to draw a sense of purpose and fulfillment from your full-time job, but those outside activities can also be powerful sources of energy. What’s more, they can be the steam valves that give you much-needed emotional release when the pressure at work builds up. Vacation is a good time to re-engage with old hobbies and pursuits you’ve left behind. Pull that old French horn out of the closet. Brush off your tennis racquet. Find a local dog shelter that needs another pair of hands. (Puppies are always a great cure for whatever ails you.)
Don’t feel guilty about carving out a little more time away from your work to pick up these side gigs and activities. Not only will they give you a chance to develop your other interests, they’ll also give you people to hang out with who aren’t all focused on the same set of work issues that you are.
And hey, you never know; over winter vacation about 16 years ago, I started taking saxophone lessons. Not only has it been great fun, I’m now in a band!