Just Go Away!

This is a popular time of the year to take a vacation. Except that a lot of folks don’t.

Last year, there were about 169 million unused paid vacation days that were forfeited by U.S. workers, amounting to over 52 billion dollars in lost benefits. Forty percent of workers will leave paid vacation days unused this year.

Culturally, in many organizations, workers are  explicitly or implicitly discouraged from using their vacation time. On my first day at The Big Law Firm, my mentor said to me, “You get three weeks of vacation.” And then he lowered his voice, looked me square in the eyes and said, “But no one ever takes them.”

This is dumb. GoAway

Vacations help you to:

  • Recharge
  • Refocus
  • Re-boot

The Huffington Post reports an internal study of Ernst and Young employees in which it was found that “for every additional 10 hours of vacation an employee took, his or her performance ratings went up by 8 percent — nearly 1 percent per day of vacation. That means companies where employees are leaving two and three and four weeks of vacation on the table are foregoing an enormous productivity boost.”

Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project, says that “the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less.”

We know that, in athletics and physical training, rest and recovery are keys to peak performance. For some reason, though, we pretend that this principle is not applicable to our work lives. So we just keep on going like hamsters on a wheel; which results in stress, burnout and poor productivity.

When you take a vacation – a real vacation (yes, that means away from the tether of your computer and your smartphone) – you come back rested, refreshed and ready to take on the world.

So go.

And if you decide to forfeit your days, please give them to me. I promise that I’ll put them to good use.

Why I Can’t Talk With You Anymore

It seemed funny at the time: My seventeen year old son and his girlfriend, sitting in the back seat, side by side, texting each other, rather than talking.

It doesn’t seem as funny now.

The technology that is meant to connect us often doesn’t. Instead, we have become increasingly scattered and distracted, dwelling in a state of continuous partial attention. We tweet in 144 characters. We text in abbreviated words. We take in information in bullet points and sound bites.

We are expected to be always on, always accessible. We stand like players on a digital tennis court, waiting for a ball to be served over the net, not wanting to miss a play, and always wanting to be seen as available to volley back.

We have lost the capacity to sit still, to be still, and to know the beauty and the grandeur of quiet and solitude. We have lost the capacity to create space for creativity; and we have lost touch with the power of reflection.

At risk is our capacity to relate, really relate; to communicate deeply… to look each other in the eye and talk… really talk.

I participated recently in a mock networking event for graduating business students. Bright and driven; at the top of their class. And not a one could hold my gaze in conversation. IMG_5581

And last week, traveling through the Newark airport, we stopped for dinner. On each table – firmly mounted between the place settings – an iPad – to order our food and drinks and surf the net and update our statuses and… everything except a (real) connection with the person across the table… because that would require looking over or around that now sacred tablet.

Some studies have shown that stepping away from our smartphones and tablets can have the same physical and mental impact as going cold turkey from smoking or drugs. But what might it be like to put our tech aside for just an evening… or a day… or a week? What might it be like to reconnect with ourselves… and with those we love?

Disconnect to connect. Will you give it a try?

It’s A Lie

‘Tis the season. And I so enjoy the opportunity to talk with with graduating high school and college seniors.

One of the things I tell them is: Don’t believe “the lie.” ALie

This is the lie we tell; the lie that was told to me; the lie teachers and parents and well-meaning adults tell; the lie I myself have told my own children; the lie we tell ourselves; the lie that each of us must battle every day:

IF you work hard, take all the AP courses get good grades, join lots of clubs, get involved in student government, do lots of extracurricular activities, do community service, take an SAT preparation course, write a great essay, graduate at the top of your class, get into a great college, one with a great name, an expensive college, work hard, get good grades, get involved in student government, volunteer, get an internship, get two internships, graduate at the top of your class, get into graduate school or a professional program, work hard, write for a journal, publish, present, graduate with honors, get a good job (you know, one with benefits), work hard, settle down, find a partner, get married, buy a house in a nice neighborhood with a big mortgage, get a nice safe car like a Volvo or a mini-van, in fact, get two nice cars, have 2.2 children, get a place at the shore, work a lot of hours, stay really busy and productive, see a lot of clients, sell a lot of product, network a lot, volunteer, sit on a lot of boards, belong to lots of civic organizations, become the boss, the manager, the partner, the senior partner, get the corner office… then… then… finally… you will be successful… and then…then… finally… you will be happy.

It’s an empty, hollow promise.

In groundbreaking research at Harvard, Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, has demonstrated convincingly that it is happiness that fuels success, not the other way around. Happiness comes first.

Many folks who have lived that lie for decades find their way to my doorstep for coaching feeling discouraged, depleted and demoralized. They have all the toys, all of the indicia of “success;” and yet, inside, they are empty and miserable. They can’t figure out why.

Because, happiness is not “out there” just beyond some “cognitive horizon” (as Achor says).

Happiness is here; it is now; it is in this moment.

May we claim it for ourselves.

May we have the courage not to perpetuate the lie.

Why The Solution Isn’t The Problem

More and more, businesses and organizations are embracing mindfulness and meditation as tools to increase the performance of their people as well as a way to reduce stress and overwhelm. Which is a good thing, because these are powerful tools, and important objectives.

But there’s a shadow side to this sudden enlightenment; a disconnect. The effort treats a symptom and not the cause.

Ours is a culture of overwhelm. We’re always connected. We’re always expected to be on. Nights, weekends, holidays, vacations. No refuge. No means of escape. Everyone suffers. And, as Claire Cain Miller said in her recent New York Times piece, “The pressure of the round-the-clock work culture – in which people are expected to answer emails at 11:00 pm and take cell phone calls on Sunday morning – is particularly acute in highly skilled, highly paid professional services jobs like law, finance, consulting and accounting.”ProblemSolution

While mindfulness and meditation are great – I’ve been a practitioner for decades – the solution is to tackle the real problem: The truth is that the way we work doesn’t work.

The research is crystal clear: After 50 hours a week of work, our productivity plummets; multi-tasking robs of us our focus; and too little sleep saps us of our energy and our acuity.

But here’s the rub: Profit is a siren call. Long hours have become a status symbol; busy is a badge of honor; and we actually get huge hits of pleasure-inducing cortisol from our smartphones, text messages, emails and alerts.

Organizationally, to boost the bottom line, it’s tempting to put a Band-Aid on these challenges by dialing in a bit of mindfulness (and by the way, I’d be happy to come in and do that for you). But better to encourage your people to adopt more sustainable work habits. Model and promote good boundaries; discourage 24/7/365; reward work completed within the business day and week; and honor the time and space outside of work.

And entrepreneurs – yeah I’m talkin’ to you – creating a more sustainable rhythm to your work is critical to your success. While it’s great that you have the freedom and flexibility to choose whatever 18 hours of the day you want to work, having a rich, full and deeply satisfying life requires that you nurture the entirely of your being, and not just that nutty, passionate, success-driven piece.

There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s just life. So we might as well get it right. And then, as Oprah says, we’ll meditate.