By Ashley Stahl
Originally Published in the Thought Catalog
It’s the end of the workday and you’re sitting in the same spot you’ve been sitting in every day, five days a week, for months on end: in your cubicle with the fluorescent lights buzzing overhead and the glare of the computer screen burning your eyes.
You can’t focus on whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing so you alternate between scrolling your Twitter feed and watching cat videos on YouTube just to keep yourself from banging your head against your desk.
When you get home at night, you repeatedly check your emails until you fall asleep. You wake up the next morning, stumble back to the office, and repeat the routine.
This pattern of over-working and over-stimulation depletes your energy reserves. You end up feeling exasperated, angry and hopeless. You feel deeply annoyed by your cheerful coworkers. You forget all the reasons you ever liked this job. You’ve reached the point where you no longer even care about the work you’re doing.
It’s officially time for a vacation.
You’re not alone. According to the American Psychological Association, 69 percent of employees report that work is a significant source of stress. Furthermore, one-third of U.S. employees are chronically overworked. The troubling picture portrayed by this data is one of an overwhelmingly boundary-less American workforce.
Unfortunately, most professionals don’t do much about it. Relaxation time is rare and vacation is usually a foreign concept. The average American worker has 14 vacation days per year; most employees only use 12 of those days. Worse than that, about 25 percent of Americans don’t take any vacation at all.
For the small minority that does get away, many of them spend much of the time working and checking in with the office via email and social media. They find it virtually impossible to detach from the stress. One of my clients dreaded having to be out of the office because she experienced “guilty work FOMO” (an acronym for “fear of missing out”). Considering that the high stress atmosphere in her office was the source of her unhappiness, I asked her why she checked in during her few days off. She couldn’t come up with an explanation. “I want to get away” she said, “but I just feel bad if I’m not there.”
Many employees are stuck in this masochistic mindset, but the reality is that vacation is good for you. One study compared women who vacationed at least twice a year to those who took one every six years or less. The women who did not vacation annually were almost eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack. Another study done with men who had an elevated risk for coronary disease showed that those who didn’t take an annual vacation were 32 percent more likely to die from a heart attack than the vacationers.
Most people don’t have the time or resources to fly to Hawaii whenever work stress takes starts to take its toll. However, there are choices and changes you can make right now that will help you achieve the clarity and refreshed feeling that comes from a relaxing vacation. Here are my top suggestions:
1. Buy a one-way ticket on the no train. Most of us strive to be “yes” people, meaning that we willingly take on more than we can possibly handle. Oftentimes, we equate our value with being busy, so we say yes to everything, even though it translates into utter exhaustion. For what? “Busy” has become a trendy code word for “successful”, but you’ll be more productive in the long run if you can learn to say “no” to the activities and commitments that drain you mentally and emotionally. What do you actually have to do? Focus on getting those things done while you’re in the office so that you can honor yourself as soon as you get home. Look at Beyoncé, for example. She has the same 24 hours as the rest of us! Work on identifying what has to get done and practice saying no to the rest.
2. Know your productivity times. If you’ve ever visited a Starbucks during the mid-afternoon rush, you’ve probably stood on line with crowds of caffeine-starved, bleary-eyed professionals trying to power through the rest of the day. According to scientists, we tend to feel most exhausted around 2pm. This may not be true for everyone, but it is important to determine your own productivity times. For example, I’ve come to realize that I get the most meaningful work done between 6pm and midnight. Now I schedule coffee dates and other social activities in the morning so that I’m free for the creativity to flow at night. Ultimately it’s about knowing what works best for you so that you can make the best use of the hours in your day.
3. Take some breaks. Have you ever had a breakthrough moment at an inconvenient time? For example, when you come up with a great work-related idea when you’re in the shower, or driving on the freeway? You might think it’s bad timing, but it’s actually a direct result of the “on break” brain. The unfocused brain supports your creativity, so don’t write off breaks as a waste of time. Learn to step away, even for just a few minutes. That means really disengaging from whatever you’re focused on, so don’t use that time to call or email your friends to complain about the project or assignment you’ve just stepped away from.
4. Exercise. There’s no question that breaking a sweat is good for you. Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, reports that exercise decreases stress and anxiety while improving memory and the part of the brain associated with critical thinking. After a long day at the office, getting on the treadmill is probably the last thing you want to do, so look for ways to incorporate it into your workday.Start a walking group with your coworkers or stash light free weights under your desk for long conference calls. If there are no opportunities for exercise at the office, research local hiking trails or join a local kickball league. Exercise is too important to neglect, so find activities that fill you with excitement, not dread.
5. Batch your to-do list. I like to schedule my days according to the type of task. For example, I have business development days, consultation days, and days reserved for client meetings. If you don’t have full control of your schedule, consider other ways of managing your workload and competing time demands. Perhaps you can’t designate an entire day to catching up on old emails, but set aside an hour or two each week for this task. The important thing is to designate a time for each task so that you can focus your full attention on it without feeling distracted or overwhelmed by everything else that needs your attention.
6. Get in touch with your core values. There’s a way to tap into abundance now, rather than on vacation. But that means you need to tap into your core five values; there’s a great list here. Your core values are ultimately the ingredients to a healthy and fulfilling life and career. Once you have identified your core values, keep tabs on them. When you’re not feeling in sync, chances are your values are not being fully honored. Check-in every Sunday night (or at some designated time) to assess where you might have overlooked one during the week. It’s important to be aligned within yourself, and that means knowing your values.
So many people are in the habit of spinning their wheels at their desks because they’ve come to believe that quantity is more important than quality when it comes to the time they spend at work. Your exhausted presence in the office isn’t adding zeros to anyone’s bottom line. The reality is that your work speaks for itself, and it will carry far greater impact if you are approaching it with a focused, uncluttered mind.
Fortunately, that’s more likely to be achieved with an occasional white sandy beach and sunny skies.
Practice saying no; learn to recognize when you need a break; and pay attention to your own body clock so that you can maximize the times that are best for you, not everyone else. Don’t get me wrong – I believe everyone should take vacations, but breaking the bad habits that keep you locked in an unhealthy cycle of stress, guilt, and exhaustion can do wonders for your productivity, output, and happiness.
The best part? It’s free.