Mark R Lindsey

The decreasing quality of vacation

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2007 at 8:06 pm

It’s Christmas Eve. Most folks I know take today off of work. A lot are taking the rest of the week off. Some have vacation for nine days in a row, given the present alignment of Christmas and New Year’s Day on Tuesdays.

But what it means to take vacation or take time off is not what it seems. In my neck of the woods, co-workers and my customers often talk about taking along a laptop to get some work done. They’ll plan conference calls during the vacation. Or they might not quite admit that it’s vacation, saying instead that they’re “working from home” as a circumlocution.
This is certainly not the absolutely-freed-from-work vacation. This is a vacation laced with constant reminders of work, and guilt for not accomplishing work.
When I was in school, my “vacations” often had work involved. I usually had a project to do over Spring Break and Thanksgiving Break. But between semesters, though, I was truly free of commitments to school. So breaks during my school career were often filled with guilt because of work I ought to be doing.
On returning from an anniversary trip with Hayden in October, I had voicemails and emails from some of my colleagues. They went like this: “Mark, I know you’re on vacation, but I really need your help to . Please let me know.”  It pleased me a little to know that they got no reply, and that I had successfully not received their emails until I was back at work. Yet, there are two pathetic presumptions in these requests:
  1. I would be checking my work email and voicemail while away on vacation. 
  2. I would be willing to do work while away on vacation.
When a colleague or customer tells about how they always end up doing work while on vacation, I wonder if they’re bragging a little. Maybe they’re saying, “I’m too professional to actually take uninterrupted time off. I am always diligent, always working, always ready. My duties and tasks are more important than anything else I do. Bad things would happen if I actually went away for a while.”
To my dismay, I’m falling for this attitude some. Over my vacation, I have at least two work related tasks to do. Together, they’ll take about three hours. Plus, there was the email I replied to today, because two others from my company are “on vacation”, only in the sense that they’re working inefficiently.
I’m planning to take a total of a week off around Christmas. So what’s the problem with these few hours? I don’t even have to count them as vacation, so I can retain those vacation hours for another time. The question is really: are contiguous hours of time away from work actually important? 
Yes, I believe so. I think that longer stretches of time off are disproportionately more valuable as vacation. Up to some limit, each additional day of time off from work is actually more valuable than the previous day. E.g., I feel less vacationed if I take day from work on five different weeks, than if I take a full week off once. Of course, this is not scientific or verifiable. But I do know that just one day off feels like Saturday, whereas a few days off helps me be more excited about work when I start back. I get new ideas. Sometimes I get time to do reading that makes me more interested and more interesting, and that always helps my work.
This goes to another point: vacation is an actual benefit to my work. Some people seem to act as if vacation is just culturally-required waste of time that should be working. The thinking is something like, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve got to offer our employees vacation time, or we won’t be able to recruit them. We just do it to keep employees.” But this is wrongheaded, because at least among people with jobs that require thinking, the vacation helps us to be more effective.(1)
US News and World Report cites an American Express study, wherein, “more than a third of small-business people say their best ideas—the ones that lead to business growth—come not at work but during their downtime.” (3)  Lots of people agree that time off helps makes them more productive (4), but this is hardly proof that it does.
At what amount of vacation is effectiveness maximized?  I don’t think “more” is always the answer. If I’m right to say that the amount of contiguous vacation matters, then the way we take vacation could be as important as the quantity, once some minimum quantity is reached. (5)

So why do we tend to do work during our vacation time? My guess is the biggest reason is just simple habit. We’re used to working on these things all the time, so we want to keep working on them. We want the comfort that comes from our ordinary routine.
Another big reason I’d guess, is that work is also a hobby. We basically enjoy what we do, or enjoy how doing it makes us feel. And often it’s a hobby that’s easy to succeed in. Compare this to successful relationships with family and friends, where it can be very difficult to succeed. If  you’re the brilliant type, then it’s likely you’re much better and much more respected at work than you are at home. So why wouldn’t you want to get a hit of that while on vacation?

Gaebler Ventures provides this chart: (2)

United States 1,966 10.2
Japan 1,889 17.5
United Kingdom 1,731 25
France 1,656 25–30

Do folks in the UK get 2.5-times as much effectiveness benefit from vacation as do folks in the US? Who knows. This kind of chart can be misleading: it only considers “vacation days”; most everybody gets off a couple of days a week. The true range of time off is very narrow; using the data, US employees work 22% of their lives, and French employees work 19% of their lives.
(1) I say “effective” rather than “productive”, because — unless you’re manufacturing widgets — “productivity” is ill defined. Just billing hours isn’t being productive. See DeMarco and Lister, Peopleware.
(4) February 2002 Xylo Report: Vacation Habits of Working Adults. Cited here:
(5) I can’t find any sources for this hunch. It’s just a hunch until I do some actual measurements. (And I don’t mean surveys.)
  1. Yet another reason to chuck it all and move to France.

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