The Stress of Taking Time Off

I never knew that preparing for some time off would be so incredibly stressful. But it is not a problem unique to me, as noted in the article I read this morning, published by Harvard Business Review, titled “How to Take the Stress Out of Taking Time Off.” I wish I had read this BEFORE my trip last week. It might have saved me some worry.

“Over half of Americans leave vacation on the table.”

The article said that over half of Americans leave vacation on the table. They cited worry over leaving unfinished work and not being in the office, which was related to being seen as replaceable.

In an early phase in my life, I was good at planning and taking my vacation time. When I was limited to only two and then three weeks, I would plan my time off around holidays to maximize the time away from my desk using a minimum amount of my paid time off.

Setting Work Time

And then I started working for myself. I was good about setting work time and non-work time, which was well defined for me by the needs of my family. But taking time off changed. Rather than having to strategically plan to optimize time away, I began to take it in smaller bites.

Changed Approach

And later, once my children were in college, my approach to time off changed again. When I was traveling almost every week to New York, I realized that instead of heading home every weekend, I could occasionally hop the pond and spend a long weekend in a city in Europe. I had miles with an international airline. I had hotel credits at an international hotel. And so, I explored Milan solo. I visited friends in London several times. I saw Amsterdam and Barcelona and Paris. I treasure those memories.

And then I started my company, and I took investor money. So, my travel stopped. And my time off stopped. I simply had too much to do.

I’m no stranger to hard work and long hours. But doing it continuously for years has taken a toll.

Time for Planning

So, I’m back to planning time off like I did early in my career because I need it. I now take two trips a year, without a computer, and without phone access. I used to do this when I would go backpacking with my San Diego friends. But I don’t have the time to prepare, measure and weigh everything going into my pack for another one of those glorious trips. Maybe someday, but not now. Preparing for backpacking is stressful. You can’t go to the store if you forget something. You must prepare for emergencies. You must think carefully regarding whether that ounce of stuff you plan to pack is an ounce you want to carry uphill for miles.

In my current travels

I have found that the peaceful trips on a steam-powered paddle wheeler on the Mississippi, where they feed you well, you visit americana along the way, and the shoes of choice are sneakers is much more my style. I’ve shed the stress of what to pack—they have a self-service laundry if needed and I can always take an Uber to a store if I forget something.

But still, I found it stressful getting ready. Because I was behind in my work.

I had a trip planned that I could not reschedule without significant financial penalty.

My stress was centered around leaving things unfinished. I seriously considered cancelling it. And then my body spoke up.

Listen to your body

The two weeks before my trip I’d been hunched over my computer, working to get caught up before leaving. It was a hopeless task, especially when several special requests came in last minute from clients. I spent long hours at my computer, getting work done but also worrying about what I was going to leave undone. That focus triggered something in my neck that started giving me vision issues three days before my scheduled departure. I called my massage therapist for an emergency neck and back massage that helped. But I could still feel the edges of a potential migraine if I didn’t extricate myself from my computer. I’ve had a full-blown migraine once, an experience I hope never to have again if I have any control over it. My simple goal became to tame the stress so I would be able to get on the plane for my vacation.

I lost two workdays before departure due to the tension and vision issues which only added to my anxiety. My body was telling me I had to take the time off and go. As much as it unsettled me to leave the work behind, I didn’t have much choice. I couldn’t sit and do it anyway. So, I stretched and walked and got ready.

I took a bag of clothes that I planned for. The stress baggage invited itself.

Healing spaces

I credit Old Man River with providing the healing qualities of slowing time down and transporting me to a healing space. Instead of staring at my computer, I watched the riverbank float by. I saw pusher boats with their huge loads of barges pass. We passed through about 20 locks, celebrating by waving to the locals who came out to see the boat and listening to the calliope play patriotic and old-time songs as we leave a lock. After a few days of down time, I was able to stop taking the muscle relaxers.  

The trip was great. It was truly a vacation. I walked. I saw museums and stained glass and spoke to mid-westerners and watched locks and dams in action. I learned about the river from the historian and former river pilot onboard. I even won the big jackpot in Bingo, for the second time. It feels good in the moment, but then I had to endure the other passengers giving me the eye since they didn’t win. To make up for their negative attitudes, I am a very happy winner.


I didn’t open my computer until I was on the way home. I wasn’t distracted by my phone because floating down the Mississippi you don’t have cell coverage.

When I got home, all that work I was stressing over was waiting patiently for me. Nothing had gotten old, or stinky, or was a problem because I took some time for myself. No one was angry. In fact, they were supportive that I had taken the time, since they know what I put into the job when I’m working.

Start Fresh

I’ve reconfigured my desk, so my laptop screen is much higher. No more hunching over the keyboard and display. My posture is better, I’m breathing deeper, and I have an energy that I didn’t have before I left.

I also have memories of the wonderful people I met, even those Bingo losers. And I have the next trip booked.

1How to Take the Stress Out of Taking Time Off (hbr.org)


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