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In the January 2009 meeting of my monthly Executive Director’s Roundtable for Women, we talked about the work-related benefits of taking a vacation. Most of the participants had just come back from having taken time off work over the holidays. They came back feeling fresh, focused, and re-energized. They saw a noticeable difference in their capacity to think clearly, quickly, and creatively.

Taking a vacation doesn’t have to mean 1-2 weeks out of town or out of the country. Sometimes, we just need some down time – maybe a long lunch, a long walk, or a day off. The women in my monthly group have expressed that the time they spend in our 2-hour monthly meeting is one of the few times they allow themselves for stepping back from work and giving themselves time to be thoughtful, reflective, and calm.

If we know the benefits of taking a vacation, why is it so hard to do?

Group members expressed difficulty stepping away from work for a number of reasons. They spoke about feeling like they are in constant motion with the sense of there always being more work to do. (One of the participants described her work life as feeling like “a dog running behind a fire truck.”)

What was common to all of them is that they hold themselves to incredibly high standards – impossible standards in fact the need to be perfect at work and, for those who have children, perfect mothers at home as well.

This doesn’t work for a number of reasons. First, we cannot be perfect. Second, when we hold ourselves to impossible standards, the most likely result is quick burnout.

So, with fresh evidence of the benefit of taking time away from work, group members discussed ways they can keep themselves from getting back into frenzied work mode and staying balanced and effective instead.

First, is the need to reframe and realize that working hard does not mean working well. Instead of focusing on how long you are working, focus on the results of your work. Some of the group members noted that they actually get more done when they spend a day working from home. Organizational leaders need to to use this same standard with staff members as well focusing on their productivity, not merely how many hours of “face time” they put in.

Second, it’s important to catch yourself before you slip into frenzy mode. Group members discussed the kinds of things that tend to trigger their respective sense of frenzy and what they can do to head that off. They also talked about a number of ideas to help them keep their sense of perspective on an ongoing basis. For example, one individual regularly takes the rest of the day off after each of our monthly morning meetings. Another individual committed to enrolling in a 10-week yoga class.

Third, as organizational leaders, it’s important to stay balanced and healthy for the sake of their organizations as well as themselves. We all know the announcement made every time we take an airplane trip. If the oxygen level drops and we are seated next to a child or someone who needs assistance, whose oxygen mask are we supposed to put on first? Ours, of course, because if we can’t breathe, we aren’t going to be able to help anyone else.

So, are you holding yourself to unreasonable standards? Maybe it’s time to re-examine/redefine those standards. What are you doing routinely to keep yourself balanced? How are you taking care of yourself?