A number of studies have shown it to be true. One published in 2014, for example, reported that a vacation could increase creativity by boosting cognitive flexibility when employees returned to work.
Other studies have reported that catching up on sleep, getting “away from it all,” taking time in nature, and even spending time with kids can all help refill the creative well so we return to work with fresh ideas.
Something writers and other creatives need regularly, right?
But according to “Project Time Off,” 40 percent of American workers leave vacation time unused. A more recent Harris Interactive survey found that American employees use only 51 percent of their paid time off. Worse, nearly two-thirds work while they’re on vacation.
I’d venture a guess that writers and other self-employed creatives, even though they rely on their creativity, have just as much difficulty taking time off—especially time that doesn’t involve working while they’re away. After all, we have to keep up with social media, blogging, marketing, and all the rest, right?
On top of that, because we’re self-employed, we often have difficulty taking time off, because it’s unpaid. That can cause a serious financial set back if we’re not prepared.
Yet a “working vacation” isn’t really a vacation. It doesn’t give our brains the time they need to truly relax, zone out, and experience something entirely different—all critical for renewing creativity. If we stay slaves to our smartphones, we’re still working, just in a different location.
Why are we so terrible about taking time off, especially when we need it for our creative work?
Why It’s Hard to Take Time Off
The U.S. Travel Association says that a third of us feel we can’t afford it, 40 percent of us fear coming back to a mountain of work, and 35 percent of us fear leaving our work in someone else’s hands.
Seventeen percent worried about losing their jobs.
It’s time to turn this around. This summer (or fall or winter if you prefer), I encourage you to make vacation a priority. Your brain needs downtime to keep up with your creative demands. Says Ferris Jabr in Scientific American:
“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”
So with that in mind, try these tips to increase your odds of getting away soon.
This is especially critical if you’re self-employed, but even if you’re not, it can be a good idea.
Decide how much you need for a two-week vacation (less if you have to, but realize that two weeks is the gold standard to truly refresh your body and mind), and then backtrack to your starting date to figure out how much you need to save per week.
Planning your vacation ahead of time can help motivate you to put that money aside. Saving money can also make your vacation plans seem more doable, adding to the momentum.
It can be too easy to forego your vacation if you don’t get it on the calendar.
I usually make reservations for my next year’s vacation at the end of the current year’s stay, so that I’m “locked in,” the dates set aside and scheduled with hotel reservations and all. The one year I failed to do that, I didn’t take the vacation, and I felt burned out and overwhelmed as a result.
Decide when you’re going. Consider the ebb and flow of your work, and plan your vacation during non-peak times to increase your odds of having everything go smoothly.
Then block it out on your calendar. You don’t even have to know where you’re going, just name the dates and then imagine it’s written in stone.
Part of me dislikes getting ready for vacation because it takes a lot of work. I usually double up on assignments so that I’m sure my clients are taken care of while I’m gone.
It can get tough—and I understand why some folks avoid vacation for this reason alone—but it’s so worth it. When you’re driving down the beach with the windows down or heading out for a new hike through a national park, you’ll be grateful for the extra time you put into getting your work done.
Plus making sure your projects are well in hand eases your state of mind while you’re gone—and helps you to avoid those compulsive email checks.
It used to be that my clients assumed I would be available while I was on vacation. I would tell them I was going to be gone, and then inevitably get emails about “emergency” projects that just couldn’t wait.
After a few of those occurrences, I made it plain in my communications beforehand that I would not be available while I was gone. I offered to do any projects that needed to be done before I left, and then I set up an “out-of-office” email message reiterating the fact that I wasn’t working while I was on vacation, so it was clear.
Once I did that, my clients knew the drill and didn’t bother me until I returned to the office. Amazing how those “emergency” projects just disappeared!
Nothing ruins your away time more than feeling like you “have” to respond to a client’s request. You know your business best, but I’d advise you to set clear boundaries while you’re away, if you’re serious about refreshing yourself.
Just don’t answer those emails. The second you do, you ruin everything you set up before you left, and you destroy your chances of having a work-free vacation now and in the future.
Set your “out-of-office” message and forget it. I’d go so far as to set up a separate email accounts for your work contacts and your friends and family (if you haven’t already), and then deactivate the work one from your smartphone while you’re away.
You may feel too nervous to do this initially, but if you communicate clearly beforehand, letting your clients or boss know what’s up, you may be surprised at how easy it is. Did you know that in France, over half of vacationers take their time off in August—most of them the whole month? Only in America do we feel we “have” to be on every day of the year.
I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for over 17 years now, and I’ve never had a client leave because I wasn’t available to work while on vacation. You deserve to take time off—without working while you’re gone.
If you’re in a situation where you can, hire some help—someone who can keep the wheels rolling while you’re gone.
A personal assistant or temp worker may be able to do the minimum projects, such as answering emails or managing social media, so that your entire business doesn’t come to a screeching halt.
Freelance writers often trade off with each other, stepping in where needed with clients while each is away. If you have some creative friends that you feel may work well with your clients, this may be an option for you.
Here’s a tip—if you’re going to be back on a Tuesday, tell your clients you’ll be back in the office Thursday.
This isn’t to be sneaky, but to give yourself the time you’ll need to catch up when you get back.
Managing their workload upon their return is one of the main reasons people gave for not going on vacation in the first pace. Make it easy for yourself. Give yourself at least a day (or two) to catch up on emails, get yourself organized, unpack, and get settled back into your routine before you have to deal with new work requests.
I’m not one to say that three or four 3-day weekends is the same as a two-week vacation. They’re not, and they don’t give you the same benefits. You need a full two weeks to really unwind and regroup, at least once a year.
That said, shorter breaks can help you cope with a heavy workload and keep your creative gears turning smoothly.
Don’t cancel your two-week break, but do consider planning a few 3- or 4-day breaks throughout the rest of the year. Take advantage of national holidays and other common slow times to give yourself a long weekend to do something besides work.
This is another trick that really helps.
I have found that when I leave on a Wednesday or Thursday, I have the first few days in the week to make sure all my clients are good to go, and I’m more likely to leave without projects hanging over my head.
Returning mid-week also makes it seem to my clients as if I haven’t been gone as long—a bonus.
Mid-week airline flights can also be a lot less expensive than weekend ones.
It’s easy to feel guilty about leaving work.
Most of us are conscientious about getting our jobs done, and done well. Unfortunately, that means we’re the ones checking our emails, making calls, and researching stuff online while the beach beckons out the window.
If you’re someone who tends to feel guilty about enjoying some real time off, think of it this way: you’re a creative person. Time off is critical to your productivity, and in essence, your ability to succeed as a creative entrepreneur.
If you start burning out and running short of ideas, your business will go down the tubes in a hurry, and your clients (or readers) will not be happy.
Investing in some time off is investing in your future—it’s that simple.
When are you going this year?
Do you have a hard time going on vacation?
Jessica de Bloom, et al., “Vacation from work: A ‘ticket to creativity’?” The effects of recreational travel on cognitive flexibility and originality,” Tourism Management, October 2014; 44: 164-171, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261517714000685.
Project Time Off, “Overwhelmed America Infographic,” http://www.projecttimeoff.com/resources/infographics/overwhelmed-america-infographic.
Quentin Fottrell, “Americans take half of their paid vacation, but Chinese take less,” MarketWatch, September 11, 2015, http://www.marketwatch.com/story/americans-only-take-half-of-their-paid-vacation-2014-04-03.