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The new vacation.

A recent article in Fast Company about vacations brought back some memories from my former life. I once ran an operations department at a big bank where we did things like payroll processing for state governments. The stakes were high every day, and if something blew up, I could literally get a call from a very cranky governor. No pressure, right?

As you can imagine, between the daily cliffhangers and the mountains of emails, I felt an immense need to be available 24/7. Vacations were always fraught: my manager duly recited the corporate script about the idea of unplugging while also suggesting “…but I’ll smoke you on your review if you’re not around.”

You pay for vacation became a phrase that echoed in my head during the weeks surrounding my alleged time off. It’s true for a lot of us. Between the stressful pre-vacation week of trying to get ahead of the curve and the inevitable stressful post-vacation week of catching up, sometimes the best you can hope for is to break even.

But then once you add in the feeling that you’re supposed to be fully unplugged and relaxing, the cost goes up even more. Now you’re on vacation, working even though you already worked extra hard so you wouldn’t have to be working now—and you feel terrible because you’re not doing it right. What the hell is that?

If we’re ever going to enjoy vacations, we need to liberate ourselves from the pressure of trying to live up to what we ought to be able to do. We’re stuck between an idyllic, almost nostalgic, vision of unfettered family vacations; the mandate that wellness or self-care requires unplugging (and that we’re failing if we don’t); and the realities of our work life.

Letting go of my expectations gave me the space to reframe what this time actually was or could be. What worked for me was thinking of it as leisurely work time. For that week, I didn’t have to be “on”; I could report in from the beach, or a relative’s house, or even my own house, with my feet on the coffee table and a sense that I was being virtuous. What this looks like for you could be vastly different, but that’s what is cool about it—you get to make it yours.

The point is: vacations are meant to be time for you to rest and reset. It’s okay to let catching up on emails or working on your latest draft be part of that. Giving yourself permission to work when you’re on vacation helps you to see it as a choice you’re making, not just another obligation in a life filled with obligations. Making working a choice in turn enables you to set the terms of how you’ll get that work done and experience satisfaction while you’re doing the work. You might even enjoy it.

We all have preconceived notions of what vacations should be. The sooner we can recognize what those are, the sooner we can find our own peace—and allow vacations to give us the renewal we need.