One of the common threads over the last few years is that workers aren’t taking leave. Some companies force employees to do it with a “use or lose” policy. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people lost leave instead of taking it.

This behavior was also encouraged by the time management gurus. They thought sleep interfered with your goals, so why not time off?

Prime territory for critical voice.

According to Hustle & Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work by Rahaf Harfoush, this also plays into the American Dream. We think that if we work hard, we’ll automatically have success.

You see this even among fiction writers who focus on word count production as a sign of success, but not on learning. I know a writer who produces a million words a year and languishes in token pay markets.

Taking time off is vital for the creative side. It helps refresh our brains and gives us new input.

Never did I understand the reality of this until COVID-19. In the weeks following the shutdown, I longed for a simple trip to a museum so I could soak up the exhibits. I didn’t even care what they were. I only knew I needed new input.

The reasons for not taking time off are pretty consistent:

  • Fear of falling behind, dreading the pile of work they will have.
  • Fear of not being a team player
  • The company will find they can manage without the employee.

During my days of chaos, another reason that came into play under those: Agency.

Agency pops up because you have to decide to take vacations. Since I was putting out so many fires, I didn’t have time to think about vacation. I would work, work, work, and try to escape on the weekend. Because I was so overwhelmed, I was barely functional on the weekends.

I knew I needed to do fun things, but it always seemed like they were competing with writing.

I tried visiting museums. But they became like a to-do list—something I had to do to have fun, not something I wanted to do.

The result was that I would suddenly bump up against burnout and realize I needed to take a week off. I’d schedule leave about a month out, then suffer for the next four weeks, knowing I needed it now.

When I got to the time off, I was still so stressed, then I worried about all the reasons people have trouble taking time off. Particularly, I was the only one doing everything. If I wasn’t there, nothing was being done. What if I’d forgotten something? I couldn’t even get myself out of firefighting mode.

Yet, somehow, I thought, now that I have all this time, I could get writing done!

Then I returned, and the email was horrifying. Everyone was waiting for me to get back with whatever crisis they had. I spent the week stressed out, falling behind on everything while people pelted me with emergencies and interruptions.

I always thought the problem was the day job. But a lot of the problems started with me.

Remember, everything is black and white to the company: profit and loss. The company does not care. You have to.

The first step is to plan out your leave for the entire year. Use your agency to decide when you’re going to take it and put it on your calendar. Look not only for the week-long ones you’ll need but opportunities for taking one day off. If you don’t have a lot of leave, use holidays with your leave.

Now you’ve got the anticipation of thinking, “What would I like to do?”

That’s fun because it allows your creative voice to play. What does it want to do?

Any kind of travel is expensive, so this gives your critical voice a job that it finds fun as well. It’ll want to figure out how to do a trip—whether a day trip or a flight across the country—economically.

The book Get Away! Design Your Ideal Trip, Travel with Ease, and Reclaim Your Freedom by David Axelrod got me thinking about how I could do that.

It was new for me because I pantsed all my travel. I’d did the basic hotel and airfare and winged the rest. Scheduling it at the last minute the way I’d been doing it contributed a lot to the problems.

Since I had selected a specific date, I thought about what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to fly anywhere because things were getting expensive. A driving trip would be doable. The Shenandoah Mountains? Naw. I’d done that in 2020. Luray Caverns? Meh. Done that before.

Natural Bridge? I hadn’t seen that, and it was one of those places I’d wanted to visit. The first step was seeing how far away it was. About four hours, so it was doable for a drive trip.

Then I researched the Natural Bridge area for things to do. I settled on a visit to the bridge and a dinosaur park and booked the hotel. I was going to circle back in a few weeks and buy the dinosaur park tickets online.

When I did, I discovered I’d reverted to my pantsing ways. I was traveling there on the weekday and the dinosaur park was only open on the weekend. Did I change the hotel reservation or change my plans?

I changed my plans. This time, I dug into more detailed research of what else was available in the area. I found the Virginia Safari and started reading through the site. They were open during the timeframe. And I could feed animals!

I booked it right away. It gave me something to look forward to for several months. My creative voice knew that feeding the animals would be a lot of fun.

The second step takes place at the day job. I reviewed my schedule about three weeks out. It helps keep surprises from becoming emergencies.

With scheduled leave coming up, I now have time to close out tasks well in advance. It’s important to do this at least two weeks out. When I tried this a week out, I had a crazy week where I couldn’t get anything done. Two weeks allows you to work everything in.

The first thing I do is ask for someone to cover several areas and make sure I’m clear on what they need to do while I’m gone. Please, never go off on a week’s leave without doing that. It’s very challenging for the person who has to fill in. They have no idea what’s going on or what you did.

Then I work through getting all my tasks done. Many gurus advocate working late or through lunch to do it. To me, that’s like punishing yourself for taking time off for yourself!

However, if you’ve been keeping up and focusing on reducing the firefighting, it’ll help get you out the door without feeling like you’re escaping over the prison wall. I’ve shifted some recurring tasks on the calendar to do them a little earlier and knocked out any mandatory training. If I get swamped (because somehow, something always comes up. It must be a rule), I’ve identified tasks I can let go of this week.

I’ll set up my out-of-office in Microsoft Outlook early, so I don’t forget. It allows you to set a specific date when the out-of-office is to start and end. A very useful addition!

Then I look ahead to the week I return. Is anything there I can do now? Again, I may also let go of one of the scheduled tasks.

This is where it’s important to keep up where possible. There are always times when you have to let something go this one time because something more important pops up. But if you’re keeping up most of the time, it’s not a deal breaker.

Sometimes I’ll try to be optimistic and keep the task on the calendar, but it often changes once I see my email.

If you have any problems because, well… people, since it seems like these will show up right before you are on leave (must be a rule out there!), take notes. This helps offload any annoyance before you go on leave and also helps your future self because you’ll want to forget it for a week. Dump your notes and any other documentation into a folder. This way, critical voice isn’t going to pop up and say, “What about this?”

Starting Thursday, wind it down. Just like what you would normally do on Friday at the end of the week, but with an extra day. Clean up your tasks, clean up your folders, and do general tidying. Don’t leave a mess for your future self to return to. Your critical voice will latch onto that and nag at you all week.

Your goal is to walk out the door on Friday with the sense of completion like story validation gives you.

One challenge of vacation planning, though, is the tendency to over schedule. We’re told repeatedly that we have to schedule everything so it will happen. It is okay to have vacation events that don’t fill up the entire day.

It was a lesson learned for me. I added two scheduled events—ones with actual times and booked those in advance. The first went by the wayside because it was extremely. I finally said “Forget it,” even though I’d spent money scheduling it. The second I could only do on the day I drove back and critical voice was convinced there wouldn’t be a problem. Except that I’d have to hang around for three hours until the event, then return home late afternoon.

My creative voice rebelled, and I didn’t do either.

When I returned a few months later, I only scheduled the safari, since that wasn’t time-dependent. Then I stopped at a museum along the way (pure pantser decision) and added two events on the fly after I got there.

Scheduling should provide some structure, but shouldn’t be at the expense of having fun. Nor should pantsing the travel be at the expense of having fun.