This month we’ve been talking about burnout. It is virtually impossible to talk about the topic of burnout without the phrase “needing a vacation” popping up almost immediately. So, how do we give ourselves permission to take a break and what is the right kind of break to take?  I have a neighbor of mine who’s mantra is “I need a break.” And she doesn’t hesitate to give herself one. She simply takes a vacation whenever the urge arises. In fact, she has taken so many vacations this year (I lost track at over 15) that she has been physically gone from her home more than she’s been there.  The irony is as soon as I greet her upon her return and ask how it was, she immediately starts up again with “I need a break… a vacation from my vacation.”  Clearly, whatever she is doing is not working. There is an art and science to taking a break. This post is about solving that puzzle for you.

The Science

Experts routinely point to the need for taking a break in our lives as a means of keeping us renewed, refreshed and recharged. Vacations can serve this purpose well. They allow us to disconnect from work, reconnect to what matters and often come back with a fresh perspective. What we also know is that as a culture, Americans tend to take vacations at a significantly lower rate than other developed nations – in some cases only mere days vs. the weeks of “holiday” our European counterparts commonly enjoy. Arguments have been made that this lack of downtime in our culture has contributed to our higher rates of burnout and may even lead to higher divorce rates and family instability.

The Art

So, the answer is that we need to take a three week vacation, right? Not so fast. Here’s where the “art” of vacationing comes in. It varies from person to person. So while we know we need to take a break, there are several important things to consider as you determine the right break for you:

Are you better idling the engine vs. turning the engine off? If you’ve been watching closely, you’ve probably noticed that this post is a few days late. Well done my dear Watson. And here’s the reason why: I took a week and a half vacation at the end of November. I turned off the engine, but not just one engine.  I turned off my work engine, exercise engine, spiritual engine, etc… Jump starting all of those engines since my return has proven to be quite difficult. Here’s what I’ve learned about myself: I do much better with “idling the engine” vs. turning the whole thing off. In other words, a long four day weekend does the trick for me vs. taking several weeks off.  What about for you?

Can you leave work for that long without it piling up? The reality over the last few years is that with nearly all organizations running lean and doing “more with less,” it is all that more difficult to leave work. So, can you find a way to leave work without returning to 1,000+ e-mails? Consider delegating and / or giving plenty of notice to everyone around you to minimize your workload upon your return.

Will you still have a job when you return? An even worse reality in this economy is that in some cases when people leave for extended periods of time, if the organization runs “too smoothly” without them, it might highlight they aren’t necessary. Don’t leave if the axe is still falling in your organization and more downsizing could be looming.  That’s a time to make yourself seen and valuable, not missing and unnecessary.

Sight-seeing vs. beach chairs and daquiris – what recharges your battery? Ask yourself what renews you. Is it high levels of activity and adventure or the opposite – quiet and relaxation? Knowing this can prevent you from taking the wrong vacation and coming back needing a “vacation from your vacation.”

Who’s going with you? Kids? Significant other? Friends? Going solo? Who you bring with you will directly impact what gets recharged and what might not get recharged. What do you need? Choose wisely.

Be sure to enjoy the build-up. For many of us, the planning process can be just as rewarding (if not more so, ironically) than the actual vacation itself. Planning the perfect vacation can give us a short-term goal to look forward to when we are in the midst of stress so be sure you are enjoying the anticipation and planning.

Finding the Right Plan for You

Here’s where I wish I could tell you what you need to do. I can’t. I can tell you what I’ve learned about myself over the past year. I’ve learned that long vacations don’t work nearly as well as do short breaks for me. I’ve also learned a painful lesson that if I don’t take time to recharge, I’ll come dangerously close to burning out. Those of you who saw me in August know that all too well. So what am I going to do about it? I’m planning four mini-vacations (essentially long weekends) next year to keep myself recharged. Some will be with kids, some won’t. I’ve already got the first two on the calendar and I can’t wait!

In the end, learning how to take a break and recharge is an art and a science. We know we need to do it, but the “how” varies for each person. Try some new things next year to strike the right balance for you and let me know what worked for you.  If I can’t use it, I know my neighbor will be happy to.