Build a Life You Don’t Need a Vacation From (And Take Vacations Anyway)

In the personal finance classic Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin make an important point about “escape entertainment.”

Notice that common phrase, “escape entertainment.” Escape from what? What is the prison or restrictive circumstance from which you must flee? If your experience of life were consistently fulfilling and exciting, from what would you escape? Would those hours in front of the television or movie screen be necessary?…How much of your weekend entertainment do consider your just reward for sticking it out at a boring Job?

Your Money or Your Life (1993 edition), page 62

Most of us have jobs where we get weekends, holidays, and two weeks of vacation off. And it still isn’t enough.We spend eight hours at work, come home beat, then go back again the next day.

Clearly something is broken.

The Futility of Escapism

While I fully believe in a natural balance between work and recovery, the damage we do at work can’t be recovered from in our time off.

The stress that accumulates from the daily grind of a job that you hate lingers. People don’t come back from vacations happy, healthy, and hale, they come back just as fat, sick, and chronically stressed as when they left.

In the fitness community, they often point out that an hour a week of exercise isn’t enough to combat 167 hours a week of a sedentary lifestyle. One hour of correcting your posture doesn’t counteract 40+ hours of sitting. There’s a similar principle at play here.

Of course, when it comes to the battle between being active and being sedentary, there’s actually two dimensions where you can attack the problem:

  • Increase active time and decrease sedentary time
  • Make your sedentary time less sedentary

It’s the same with escaping the stress of your life. You can either (1) increase vacation time or (2) make the stressful parts of life less stressful.

The problem with the first approach is difficult because it’s hard to get more time off. The second approach might not be easy, but you can make progress over time with focused effort.

You can build a life you don’t need to vacation from.

Finding Flow

In the classic book Flow, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that there are two main strategies you can use to improve your quality of life:

  • Try to make external conditions match your goals
  • Change how you experience external conditions to make them match your goals better

In creating a life you don’t need a vacation from, you will likely need to employ both strategies. You’ll have to first change how you interact with the circumstances of your life. Then, over time with effort, you can work to change the circumstances themselves.

It might be that in the long run, you need to change the circumstances of your job. You either need a new job or to escape traditional employment entirely. But first you can change your subjective experience at your place of employment. You can find a new career at the same job.

The best way to do this is to resolve to stretch your abilities at work by committing to becoming a lifelong learner. Chances are if you hate your job, you’re just “going through the motions” and managing the whirlwind of emails and minor emergencies. You are subjected to a constant low level of chronic stress.

Learning is a healthier form of stress. Instead of spending energy fighting the whirlwind, you invest energy into challenging activities that force you to grow as a person.

The Psychology of Optimal Experience

The benefit of embracing challenging activities is that it provides you an opportunity to enjoy an optimal experience where the challenge is well-matched to your current level of capability. Think about a competitive game like tennis. It’s not fun if you are far better or far worse than your opponent. But when you are so evenly matched that no one has a clear advantage, you’re dialed in. You’ve found flow.

The thing about flow is that it provides a deeper satisfaction than the pursuit of pleasure. It pushes you towards mastery, provides a sense of autonomy, and paradoxically gives you a deeper sense of self by temporarily losing yourself in what you are doing.

The sense of satisfaction that comes from willingly engaging with something challenging is powerful.

Creating Career Capital

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport makes the argument that the best way to create a fulfilling career…is to become so good they can’t ignore you.

Specifically, he says that you should adopt a craftsman mindset over a passion mindset.

  • The craftsman mindset focuses on producing a quality output
  • The passion mindset focuses on what your job offers you

A craftsman mindset is a generous focus on what you can offer the world. A passion mindset is a selfish focus on what the world can offer you.

Fortunately for you, the generous mindset is the rare one, while the selfish one is all too common. This means that not only will challenging yourself to produce quality work make your subjective experience better, it will make you objectively more valuable in a free market place.

The career capital you develop by producing high-quality work gives you the leverage to change your external circumstances.

Crafting a Career

We all know that a career is more fulfilling when you enjoy what you do, but most of us don’t know what kind of work we enjoy.

It turns out that the secret is that you enjoy work that you’re good at. And you get good by practicing.

For me, writing is hard work. But it is satisfying to engage in the hard work that it takes to get an article published. As I keep writing, I get the sense that I am improving (especially when I compare my current output to earlier work). This sense of progress helps me enjoy what I am doing.

To craft a career you love, you need to get good at your work through deliberate practice. Then you need a strategy to make your external circumstances more favorable. There are three main routes you can take:

  • Find a better job
  • Negotiate better conditions
  • Ditch 9-5 altogether and create a career as an entrepreneur or freelancer

To the extent that any of these are possible, it’s because you’ve become so good they can’t ignore you.

Getting better at your work helps you enjoy it more and gives you the leverage to create the kind of changes that you want.

Self-improvement is the master key to creating a life you don’t need a vacation from.

The Joy of Escaping

As wonderful as it is to enjoy your daily routine, you can still get stuck in a rut when you don’t break things up every now and then.

In the book Off the Clock, Laura Vanderkam points out that routines are comfortable because they save our brains the effort of thinking and cataloging. This is great for making your commute more efficient, because your brain can treat every one of the hundreds of trips you make to and from the office as basically the same.

But there’s a hidden danger to this efficiency:

When enough sameness like this stacks up, whole years disappear into memory sinkholes.

Off the Clock (Kindle edition), page 59

In other words, if every day is basically the same for a year, it’s no different to your brain than if you just experienced one day. This is why many people feel like time speeds up as they get older

Slow Down Time

The key to slowing down time is to create more memories.

There are lots of great ways to make memories, but one of them is going on vacation.

When you go somewhere new, your brain is forced to pay attention to what is going on around you. You don’t have anywhere near your usual array of automatic scripts that let you go through the motions while being inwardly checked out.

Because everything is different, everything is more remarkable and therefore more memorable.

Foe many people, 2020 was a year lost to a pandemic where every day was just about the same. Meanwhile, I had the full experience of a year passing thanks to some well-timed vacations:

  • In February (just before the pandemic) we spent a week at Disney World that I had spent a year saving for
  • That summer, we spent a week at the beach at a cute Air BnB with my mom, sister, and brother-in-law
  • In the fall we spent a long weekend at a cabin in the woods with my mother-in-law. We went apple-picking for the first time
  • We spent Thanksgiving weekend at an Air BnB in historic St. Augustine

The Serious Discipline of Planning Fun

Vanderkam points out that there are three different versions of ourselves operating at any given time. As she says:

  • “The anticipating self is wondering about, planning, and worrying about the future”
  • “The experiencing self is in the here and now
  • “The remembering self thinks back to the past

We’ve already seen that vacations give our experiencing self something novel to devote our attention to which becomes a memory our remembering self can savor. But the good news is that the anticipating self can get in on the fun with vacations as well.

When you plan for the good times, you are able to start experiencing the joy of your vacations before they actually happen. You can share your excitement with your family and revel in the promise of adventure.

In 2020 I requested my time off for the year on January 2nd. I had planned my vacations and was already looking forward to them with my family. We actually had a countdown calendar on a dry erase board for each of our upcoming events.

When done right, vacations are a way to make your past, present, and future more enjoyable.

A Mindset Toward Adventure

One last gem that Laura Vanderkam gives us is the idea of cultivating a mindset towards adventure.

This helps not only with planning ambitious vacations, but with finding everyday opportunities to make memories.

When you have a mindset toward adventure, this weekend can become a micro-adventure where you go somewhere you’ve never gone, do something you’ve never done.

You don’t need to wait for the big, expensive vacation. You can start pursuing the joy of escaping wherever you are.

The Bottom Line

Life is too short to spend working for weekends that get wasted.

To make the most of your life and career, take the time to build a life you don’t need a vacation from. Then take vacations anyway.

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