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The restorative power of a clean-break vacation Add to ...

In his first few weeks at university at the General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich., Chris Brady felt outgunned by Ontario students, who with their Grade 13 education at the time had an extra year of maturity and knowledge. Many people, out of fear, would have responded by working night and day. He did – but only from Sunday night until Friday afternoon. He then took a break each weekend, for recreation like jet skiing or visiting his girlfriend, and credits those regular chances to refresh himself for his success in his engineering studies.

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But as his career evolved, and he shifted from engineering to his present work writing, speaking, and consulting on leadership development, he forgot that prime lesson from university. There were always more tasks than he could handle, and so he worked whenever he could, not strategically seeding refreshment periods into his schedule. People would always remark, nevertheless, about how motivated he was and how hard he toiled – until a few years ago he realized those comments had disappeared and he wasn’t feeling as sharp as he should.

His solution was radical: He and his wife Terri agreed to take a month off with their four children in Italy, a country that always appealed to him but where he had no connections and no familiarity with the language. Adding to the challenge (and, as it turned out, the benefit of the sabbatical) was that cellphone and Internet reception links back to his office were so poor that he abandoned his plan to maintain some contact with his work, and allowed himself to be totally away.

The family visited some fascinating locales, enduring typical vacation hassles such as getting lost when the GPS failed them and having the trips punctuated by cries of “I need a bathroom!” from the kids. He rented motorcycles and prowled the cities and countryside himself on occasion. They immersed themselves in a new culture and vistas they came to love.

When he returned to work, he was remarkably productive. He wrote two books. The family moved to a new home. He also launched a new leadership consultancy. “I attribute those four accomplishments to those four weeks off in the summer of 2010,” he says. “I was unusually clear-headed, the clarity coming from getting out of the business for a period. Sometimes you need to get away to get away. You need to subtract yourself from the situation you’re in.”

He is now propounding the idea of strategic sabbaticals so others can refresh themselves, using the slogan: “Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.” He has just published a book, A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation. It’s in many ways a paean to that country, as he recounts their vacation experiences in travelogue fashion, but there are interludes when he reflects on the logic and benefit of the sabbatical he was enjoying. His blog also features some posts on vacations and sabbaticals.

“In our culture there appears to be no shame regarding material accumulation and ostentation, but even small periods of downtime are somehow frowned upon,” he writes. “For me, I’d rather spend my money on memories than material. And if the memories come with recharged batteries, that makes them all the more legitimate in the getting.”

He argues we mess up our vacations in three ways:

Strategically: Because of our leisure guilt, we are not intentional in putting breaks into our calendar. Our attitude is that we’ll get around to a break when we’re not so busy. So the vacations don’t occur as regularly as needed to truly maintain peak performance.

Format: We don’t structure the downtime to get the most restoration. Instead, we channel ourselves into obligations, visiting families or trying to hit some attractions on our bucket list, even if that may drain rather than rejuvenate us.

Regularly: We don’t schedule these break regularly. Mr. Brady now does, taking short restoration breaks throughout the year, as well a returning in summers with family to Italy for a few weeks.

He recognizes that not everyone can afford to take their family to Italy for a month. But he still contends there are breaks available on your budget for periods of varying length that fit your style . But you have to make a clear mental break from the habit work has become, and the fears that will arise as soon as you consider a radical sabbatical.

Make sure you disconnect on the break. He notes that one study found 88 per cent of Americans take cellphones and smartphones on vacation with them, a figure he assumes would similar in Canada. That means only 12 per cent fully disconnect, and he wonders if people that remain connected can slow down. “When your life looks like a race, your vacation shouldn’t be,” he says.

He spoke on the topic recently in Oslo, and at the end many of the audience members came up to tell him, “I know you’re right.” Unspoken was that many of them wouldn’t follow through. “Do it,” he says. “Jump into the water.”

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