Will you be taking some time off this summer? I sincerely hope that’s something you can do. And if you can, I urge you to think about what you need physically, mentally, and emotionally, so that your time off can actually be a break, can be medicine for you.
Have you ever felt, returning to work after a vacation, that you’re just as exhausted as when you left? Have you ever felt unavailable to the pleasures of leisure or travel because you’re just so damn tired? When we’re in burnout or on the edges of it, we can end up sleepwalking through life, not just at work, but on our own time, too. We squeeze too much into our vacation time because the accelerated pace has become our new normal.
When I was in burnout, it felt like the world presented itself to me in the form of an endless to-do list. I began to see people, even the ones I love the most, only in terms of what they needed from me and what I needed to do for them: a mundane, repetitive march of needs and demands. My sense of duty and drive had overridden all other aspects of my being. All the things I’d wished for, sought out and loved in my life – my family, my home, my team, my work — all coalesced into an endless series of tasks in my brain. I saw everything in terms of what was required of me. My days became a parade of tasks which only a checking-off would bring some whisper of satisfaction before I was inevitably onto the next task. I was stuck on repeat, on this treadmill, whether I was at work, home on the weekend, or away on vacation.
Here are some tools to help ensure that you liberate yourself from your treadmill and get what you need from your long weekend, vacation, or day off from work. First, allow yourself to step out of relentless productivity. Purposely set aside time to ask yourself, “What do I need?” If this question stumps you, you’re not alone. Many of us are so programmed to take care of others and manage everything around us, this question is a radical one. The answer might not be readily available – that’s okay. That’s not a signal to jump back into taking-care-of-all-the people-and-all-the-things mode. Let the question linger in your mind, without an answer, and see what arrives.
You are a being who gives — also receives — energy. What energizes and replenishes you? Pause there for a moment and ask again. In your time off, what do you need?
Do you need a break from the relentless pace of your daily life? When you read those words, is there a “Hell, yeah” resonating through your body? If so, think about where you can alter the pace of some part of your weekend or vacation. Where can you let things slow down, let time open up, and do something slowly? Is there container of time where you can meander, dabble, putter – with literally no agenda? If those words are music to your ears, that’s a signal to you—give yourself a container of time where the pace is slower.
What brings you joy? Often it’s the simplest things, right there within our reach. If we’re too much in our heads, we aren’t present to the joys around us. Many of us have become so addicted to multitasking, we’re not fully present anywhere. We can’t relax when we do have down time, so we go into autopilot, buffering and distracting ourselves with false pleasures: mindless eating and drinking, shopping, scrolling. These activities masquerade as rest, providing a temporary escape from how we’re feeling. They don’t replenish us in the long run.
The portals to presence – the portals through which you receive energy — are your five senses. Deploy them intentionally, and they will take you out of your head and into your body. For example, if you’re making coffee on your day off, don’t just get it done. Dial down the pace and deploy your senses. Step away from To-Do mode and experience the miracle that is coffee. Listen to the reassuring hum of water boiling, and that satisfying gurgle of liquid rushing into the mug. Your cup is being filled, literally and figuratively. Receive it. Inhale the wonderful smell, connect with it. Wrap both hands around the cup and feel its warmth, warming you. Notice the delicate curl of steam rising; follow it with your eyes. And of course: really taste that first sip.
You can apply this same conscious attention to any activity that you enjoy but usually must rush through on a typical day. Wherever you can, slow down the pace and allow yourself to connect to what’s around you. The more you can tune into your senses, the more you signal to your nervous system that you’re stepping off the treadmill, and this is a time to refuel.
Turning your attention toward your needs isn’t self-indulgent – it’s strategic. Consciously attending to your own energy is what allows you to sustain all that you give to others and the world. Your mind and body can’t power down into rest and repair without your deliberate permission.