Understanding Leisure

I have friends (working for others and on their own businesses) who work 10-12-hour days in their typical work week, which includes working on Saturdays. In any given week, they end up working 60-80 hours. Sunday is the only break they take from work. The friend that works for an organization uses this break for sleep, while the one that has their own business spends this time with family and friends. These friends take an extended vacation every few months because they “need a break” from work, or so they say. I suspect they are not alone.

Furthermore, while not everyone may get a vacation (paid or unpaid), there are those who get paid vacations but don’t take them for a variety of reasons — their employer expects them to stay connected on vacation (not really a vacation then), they don’t know what to do with it as it deviates from their everyday routine, the very thought of taking a vacation makes them anxious and/or stresses them out, or they might be insecure about keeping their jobs, as only a handful of organizations seem to have a lifetime employment policy.

Those who end up taking yearly vacations remain connected to their work because they are so used to being connected all the time that even thinking about disconnecting from their work for a day makes them anxious, which again defeats the purpose of taking time off from work in the first place. Of course, as I wrote earlier, vacation time is not idle time meant to be spent on a hammock at the beach, but that’s how we think of it. It’s about keeping yourself engaged with doing things you’re interested in outside your work.

As an aside, giving paid vacation to employees is not a requirement for American organizations (one of the few countries to not have it), which is in stark contrast to countries like France and Germany, where employees take up to 6 weeks off from work. There are even countries where the employers will pay for your travel expenses for vacation. Imagine that!

So why do organizations give vacations to their employees? The typical executive thinking goes that employees would be more productive at work if they took 4-week vacations. So, these companies are thinking about their own self-interest, and not so much about what’s best for their employees.

In this case, they have their thinking backwards — they need to think about what’s best for their employees first. This goes back to relationships first (and foremost) and results second. Yes, you need both, but relationships come first. The responsibility of the employer is to take care of their employees, who in turn will take care of their customers, who will drive the bottom line.

So why do we take vacations? Take the case of my friends in the aforementioned example where they need it so they can take a break from work. That means they take a vacation so they can return to their jobs/business so they can continue working, which means that the break we take is actually in service of doing more work. If that’s the case, is that really a vacation?

It turns out that both organizations and employees give and take vacations for the same reason, which is to do better work upon returning to their jobs/business. Of course, that defeats the point of taking the vacation.

In my earlier piece, I argued in favor of taking a week-long vacation at least once a quarter. I wrote:

It turns out that those who take regular vacations are physically healthier and have fewer mental issues, no burnout, and are less prone to cognitive challenges in later years.

There is nothing wrong with taking vacations. However, it should not come at the cost of your daily/weekly downtime. The thing is, we have forgotten the true meaning of (everyday) leisure. In fact, many of us confuse leisure with being idle, which is anything but.

The German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote in his 1948 manifesto, Leisure, the Basis of Culture:

Leisure lives on affirmation. It is not the same as the absence of activity … or even as an inner quiet. It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.

True leisure is meant to be restorative and fun. It’s about doing things of interest (outside work) and with those who matter to us. It is not a luxury meant to be enjoyed by a privileged few, but by everyone. Life is not meant to be all work and no play. Of course, most people don’t think long-term, so their strategy of spending long hours at work week after week fails sooner or later when their health gives way.

The Benedictine monk and interfaith dialogue activist David Steindl-Rast has said:

Leisure… is not the privilege of those who can afford to take time; it is the virtue of those who give to everything they do the time it deserves to take.

Work is only one of the three legs of a stool, the second being self, while the third being our relationships with others. We need to give as much time to our self and to our relationships as we do to our work (if not more so).

Of course, the irony seems to have been lost on us. The fact remains — we don’t live to work, but work to live — but we act as if the latter is true. We work so we can have a life, and not the other way around. The problem occurs when we let our work take over our entire life. As much as work gives meaning to our lives, it is only a means to an end.

I am reminded of this quote by philosopher Bertrand Russell:

What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health if no one remembers how to use them?

We used to have 6-day work weeks before Henry Ford brought the M-F 9-5 work ethic so his employees could have more family time and also be more productive. That was not perfect by any means, but better than what it was before. Now you had time limits set (work until 5), so workers were implicitly “forced” to get work done in the limited time they had, and also to pursue things outside of work in their downtime and take weekends (truly) off. In some ways, that was a good strategy, but that line between work and our life has blurred significantly — so much that we let our work take over our life to the point that we don’t have a life. All we do is work and take an extended break when we can’t sustain ourselves anymore only to come back and work more.

Here’s the thing. If you’re spending more than 40 hours at work M-F (corporate job or your own business), you have an issue. Anything beyond that results in diminishing returns. Moreover, it’s not how many hours you spend at work, but the results you get from it. Our ancestors who worked corporate jobs never had this issue of working long hours and/or being less productive with their work. For them, M-F 9-5 meant work, while their downtime (evenings and weekends) was for doing truly restorative things they were interested in outside of work. They didn’t bring work home or vice-versa. Sure, they would take a “vacation” every now and then to explore new sights, but it’s not the same way we look at taking holidays now, which is more like “taking a break” to deal with the stress from everyday work as described above.

If you’re spending more than 40 hours at work right now, you’ll have to discuss working fewer hours with your employer. Chances are they may or may not agree with you (even when you might be getting the same result as when spending more hours at work), in which case you might have to find a workplace that is a better fit for you, culturally and otherwise. Choosing to stay and work longer hours will not help your cause.

Choosing to work ≤40 hours is not enough. You could always choose to work on your own in your downtime (out of old habits). You’ll still need to set clear boundaries between your work and downtime. Remember, it’s not about having a “work-life balance”, but having both Work and Play in your everyday life. You need to take weeknights and weekends off from work.

You can still take vacations, but that should not be a substitute for everyday leisure. That also doesn’t mean you take a 3-6 month sabbatical (if you have your own business). It’s perfectly reasonable to have a week-long vacation at least once in a quarter, the effects of which typically last a couple of months.

Most organizations will give you 4-6 weeks (paid/unpaid) of vacation time (apart from sick leave) in a year. You have to be strategic about using it during the entire year.

The thing is, we take vacations by way of travel and going to all the exotic places on Earth, but if you think about it, we can take a vacation any time we want by looking inward in our minds. To this point, the Zen meditation teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn has famously said:

Wherever you go, there you are.

There are times when I tune out the world by listening to music or when reading a good book or when playing a great game. I find myself so immersed in these experiences that for me, these are no less than going to any external retreat. Furthermore, I also don’t think about the weekend or about the next vacation (even when I have one planned) to do the things I want to do. I just happen to be doing them every day.

Why do we work ourselves to death (60-80-hour week) only to burn out because of stress and poor health? Do we really think working like this is sustainable in the long term? Even the break we take from work (a day or a vacation) is in service of doing work better, which is fine as long as it’s not the main reason.

We don’t set aside enough leisure time for ourselves on a daily basis, and that’s why we look forward to weekends and vacations. While I can’t argue with the benefits of taking a (week-long) vacation once a quarter, I am also not in favor of working more than 40 hours in a week.

It’s not vacations we want as much as we want time off from work every day. I don’t believe in taking extended vacations or 3-6 month sabbatical. I believe in taking daily respites.

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