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I've had two vacations so far this year, each offering a respite from work, but under entirely different circumstances. One was at a hospital, the other at a tai chi workshop. One was boring, the other intense.

From them, some lessons can be drawn about time away from the office – lessons that have me thinking about changing my thinking. I have traditionally preferred vacations in which I collapse or do nothing, be it on a beach or my couch, preferably with mindless reading in hand, but I am now, as a GPS navigation device might say, recalculating.

Let me start with the accidental vacation earlier this year at the Shouldice Hospital in north Toronto, where I was marooned with a group of hernia patients, mostly male, in a sea of pain and inactivity, other than our ritualistic walks to stretch the ever-tightening groins and stomach areas the surgeons had patched.

In many ways it was like a visit to the spa, albeit with a lot more pain – a chance to lounge about, read, watch TV, play pool, or take walks on the beautiful hospital grounds as spring's first beautiful days arrived. We were amidst a group of varied, interesting people. The food was excellent. The quality of care was admirable – most of us raved about how well we were being treated. There was even an optional massage. Certainly spa-like, if you forget the stitches and bruising.

But we didn't enjoy the vacation. On the second day – the first after our surgery – a retired teacher from London, Ont., sitting in the lounge, yawned and laughed at his boredom. Sure, he was retired. But he was busy, normally. And this was, he reflected, an odd situation to find himself in – he should be enjoying the inactivity, but wasn't.

Another teacher, not retired, was in the WiFi area the night before surgery, trying to get as much student work marked as possible. I would see him again there regularly during our two-day recovery period. As he prepared to leave on Sunday, he was uncertain he would be able to return to the classroom the next day. But he was happy all his student's writing was marked and he had even prepared some report cards.

My roommate, a film producer currently in a busy period, endured a lot of pain after the operation. But he also fled as soon as he could, one day earlier than recommended. Back to home. Probably back to work as well, I suspected.

I must admit I was probably the champion of WiFi time, eagerly handling e-mail as quickly as it came in to save me work when I returned home. (How is that for balance?) The hospital makes you walk to the WiFi area – it's good for your recovery to walk – so I could feel somewhat virtuous about my addiction. But work did seem distant, less involving, despite my attachment to my iPad. But beyond that, and some intriguing reading, I was bored and restless.

We enjoyed each other. And I'm sure to some extent all of us, albeit to varying degrees, initially enjoyed the break from routine. But perhaps because we didn't choose the vacation, announce it as a vacation and prepare for it in advance, we couldn't embrace it. Or, more likely, the inactivity doomed it. The mind is a tricky thing. It was the accidental vacation that didn't work.

More recently, I attended a training session for Taoist Tai Chi instructors at the Fung Loy Kok International Centre near Orangeville, Ont. It was also about health, but more proactive, investing in a healthier future. As with the hospital visit, I was marooned from the rest of the world – 700 people, all friendly, smiling and nodding when they passed each other in the way people do at retreat centres and hospitals but don't in the workplace or other parts of our daily life. Quite uplifting. And the program was stimulating, as our instructor lifted us to new levels.

Rather than inactivity, there was total activity – seven and a half hours of instruction and practice each day, with chores and meetings and interchanges with others laced through the remainder of the day. The organization is volunteer-driven, with a tiny staff, and so the work of keeping our stomachs full and facilities pristine fell to us. Sleep was too brief. Scarcity of time and WiFi bandwidth precluded much connectivity with work or the rest of the world.

I used to love vacations where I did nothing. But Shouldice granted me that luxury, and it didn't work as well as constant activity. Chores, meetings, and the challenge of upgrading my body and my tai chi was delightful.

So think about that for your vacation. You may be tired, at a low ebb, and just want to relax, to not take on any new challenges. Vacation images always seem to glorify that – the classic photo of a person on a beach, drink in hand. But if you're high-strung, a go-getter, perhaps a vacation taking on tasks that totally consume you – a renovation project at the cottage or volunteering with some social group – may be the antidote you really want.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter