The holidays are coming, and as the year draws to a close, you may look back and realize that you didn’t take much of your vacation time. During the pandemic, most people were unable to travel, and so they may have felt that it wasn’t worth taking time away from work. The thinking is that if you can’t play hard, you should just keep working hard.
There are many good reasons to use your vacation time. In a number of ways, getting away from work can change your perspective. Here’s how:
It shows you the scope of your problems
When you go to work every day without fail, it seems obvious what tasks you should be working on. Your work life takes on a narrative that is shaped by the requests of your supervisors, conversations with your colleagues, and your own planning around what needs to be accomplished.
But it can be hard to figure out whether the accomplishments you strive for are really adding up to something significant that you will look back on with pride. Stepping away from your job for a week and engaging in other activities can break that narrative. Now, you’re talking to other people, reading other things, and remembering what it’s like to be a citizen of the world.
As you do that, you may also find that you change your mind about the overall importance of aspects of the contribution you are trying to make at work. Perhaps there are jobs that are lower down in your queue that deserve more attention. After some time away, you may find yourself adjusting the priority of some goals. That exercise may allow you to feel better about what you achieve at the end of the year.
You can better see how you allocate time
Even if you are happy with the central mission of the job you have, you may still find you have trouble making substantial progress on it. That mission that drives your enthusiasm for your work is often an abstract statement of what you want to accomplish over a long period of time. But your day-to-day work life is filled with particular emails, meetings, calls, and reports that must be completed.
When you are up close and personal with your to-do list, it can be hard to escape the lengthening list of items added to it. As a result, you may find yourself checking off a lot of boxes without actually making progress on that all-important mission.
Taking time off can help with that too. Research demonstrates that you think about things that are physically distant from you more abstractly than you think about things that are physically close to you. Your vacation gets you physically (and mentally) distant from work. As a result, you are not plagued by thoughts of specific things that need to get done (at least after the first day or so of vacation). That can allow you to refocus on that mission.
When you return to work, you can flip through your to-do list and start figuring out which items are truly important because they are mission critical—and which are not. If you’re lucky enough to control your own schedule, you can just reorder your list. If not, you might need to sit down with a supervisor to talk about how to remove some tasks that seem less crucial in order to free up time for what really matters.
It helps you understand the importance of your work
When you hang out with other people, you often adopt the same goals they do. When everyone at work is at their desk, it makes you want to work hard as well. When your colleagues stay late, you do as well. This aspect of motivation is part of what helps humans to be such a cooperative species.
But when you never take time off from work, then the people you spend the majority of your day with almost every day are people who are working. Without realizing it, the company you are keeping is reinforcing the need to make continuous progress on your work. And there are definitely times when an organization needs all hands on deck to complete an important task. In the summer of 2020, for example, many people at the University of Texas involved in planning during the pandemic (like myself) took little or no vacation, because the university had to be ready to open in the fall.
Usually, though, it’s important to have multiple pursuits in your life. Even if you can’t travel somewhere new, there is joy in reading a good book, pursuing a hobby, and taking a walk on a beautiful day. Time away is a good reminder that your life is more than just your work.