It’s inevitable. It happens every time. What happens you ask? Well every time, every single time, whenever I have a vacation I never get the things done that I plan to do. I’m a goal oriented person with a tendency to put a bit too much on my plate, so for me vacations are the perfect time to get caught up or get ahead in some of my goals. It makes perfect sense. Without the demands of my regular job I can focus on other things, the things I’ve been itching to accomplish. Consequently well in advance of the vacation I’m planning on the specific goals I want to achieve. For example often I try to use my vacation time to write this blog or work on some extended podcast projects. Sometimes my plan includes learning some new audio visual technique. Unfortunately I can’t ever seem to get it all done. Why? Productivity destroyers that only happen on vacation.
In theory it should be the perfect time to get things done. It’s ideal, because a vacation has so much down time, if you treat a vacation like a regular day of work, you can get ahead on all the projects and achieve all the goals. You can explore the topics you’ve been wanting to explore or learn the things you’ve been putting off or haven’t had the ability to learn. I say this like everyone wants to be massively productive on vacation. I know that there are some people who absolutely want to advance themselves on vacation. At the same time I know some people, if not most of them, like downtime because they don’t want to do anything resembling work. They don’t want to use their free time to learn more or do more. In life they tend to see work as a necessary evil to cover their financial bases and for them downtime is exactly what it sounds like. They enjoy knowing they can do nothing, to go where the flow of the day takes them. Maybe they will lounge, maybe they will take a nap. Maybe they will go to the store and meander around a bit with no real list or intent to buy anything. I think of these types of people as the kind of folks who like to pull board games off the shelf when they travel to a rental for their vacation.
As I said I’m different. I like to accomplish everything and then some when I’m on vacation. Unfortunately the productivity destroyers always seem to laugh in the face of my careful planning. The biggest one is kids. If it’s a vacation, a time without their usual daily structure, then they can get bored and want to do things. That means you have to entertain them or suffer the consequences. Many parents will say “they should learn to entertain themselves” and there is truth to that sentiment. Unfortunately the reality is that only goes so far before the kids get bored and start doing things that generally result in some form of trouble. Plus, let’s be honest, nobody likes to be stuck in a room for a week or two with little to do, especially not highly active children. So yes, you have to come up with activities, some of which preferably including some sort of enrichment. That means a beach trip will include trips to the beach and the aquarium. Unless you have the dollars to rent a place right there on the actual shore, the daily trips to the beach will include prep work like packing snacks and sun-tan lotion as well as beach toys. The trip to the Aquarium typically will include travel time and a meal of some sort. In both cases we are looking at a half day experience minimum, more if you realize that it’s hard to get back to work and be productive when you return from the kid friendly outing.
In some instances, the kids need the time to catch up on schooling. Some parents get lucky, their kids are studious. They care about doing a good job. Most kids are not so disciplined. They have limited attention to detail, limited ability to concentrate for any reasonable length of time, and very limited ability to see the longer term benefits to doing a good job in school. A grammar school age child is nothing like a college student. In my experience, the children in this age group, especially the boys, need someone to sit with them as they do their assignments. It quite literally has to be one-on-one to be a truly effective learning experience. Even then you can’t get through it quickly because the children in question are usually your own children. That means family scripts come into play. The children simply don’t behave the same way they do as if they were in a classroom with a teacher. They know exactly which buttons to push to get their way, and often their way is to put off doing the work as long as possible. Even the best parents struggle with this.
In addition to vacation activities and make-up work, there are social aspects of kids that pull you away. When your on vacation during your kids’ grammar school years, typically the timing of your vacation will have to align with school breaks. That means your kids friends are out of school as well. Often parents plan social gatherings for kids during this time. Birthday parties and playdates all take away from that sweet sweet found productivity time you were hoping to have. You may think you can work the system and have the playdate at your own place so you can work while the kids play. That doesn’t ever work the way we want it to. Keeping an eye on kids so they don’t transition from playing to getting in trouble can be very distracting. It really is a full time job in and of itself.
I rant about the demands of kids often because it’s a huge pain point for myself and many parents. Yet kids aren’t the only thing that gets in the way of vacation productivity. Your spouse or significant other can trip up your productivity plans. I’m fortunate insomuch as I work for a school system and often find myself off on days my spouse works. In those instances, assuming I don’t have to keep the kids from distracting my spouse, It’s easy to work when she is working. Even if it’s not your full time gig, working together, well, works well. Unfortunately it doesn’t if they are off. If they are on vacation too then they expect to do things with you socially. Date days, shopping, and planned social gatherings can all destroy your productivity. Even if they want to be productive,it usually aligns with the classically named honey-do list. These household needs are never ending.
It’s not just your spouse’s social calendar. there is the calendar of our culture. Friends and family almost always want to get together if it’s a national holiday when people are off. These socially driven event days are nearly impossible to avoid. When you think of things like the 4th july or Christmas, there is virtually no hope of spending eight to ten hours working on a project. There are fireworks to attend, houses to visit, and all manner of cultural ritual which everyone is expected to take part in.
Let’s take for example Christmas. I’m always told that I’m a grinch when I say how much I hate Christmas. Mostly it’s because of all the intense effort and cost. We don’t live in a culture where Christmas is a single evening meal and gathering. As anyone who’s not deaf, dumb, and blind from birth knows, Christmas in the modern era is a massive undertaking including multiple gatherings, gift shopping and giving, and extensive decorating. There is no way I can save money and do new and exciting things, at least new and exciting things to me, during the Christmas Holiday. I know this sounds Grinchy, but the perfect Christmas Gift for me would be an uninterrupted month to work on my project du-jour full-time. Sadly, the chances of ever getting that gift are slim to never.
I had mentioned travel earlier when I was discussing kids. But there are some aspects of travel, even without kids, that can really suck away your vacation productivity. Not only do you lose time in actual traveling, there is travel prep beforehand, and then when you get to where you are getting, you usually have people or family who expect you to interact. How many people can go to visit friends or family over a holiday break and then hide in a room for 8-10 hours a day while they are working on their projects. I tried it once. Actually I tried it a couple of times. We had rented a house at the beach. I figured that while everyone was out enjoying the sand and surf I could work on all my projects. I set up my workstation in the dining room of the house we rented. What I didn’t count on was how much the generally festive atmosphere of the vacation environment made it hard to work. There was external and even internal pressure to engage the family and friends with the vacation outings. I was fortunate in that I did get some work done, but very little compared to what I wanted to do.
I’ve been reflecting on this quite a bit. I was thinking about all the different ways I could actually get some work done while on a break from what I think of as work work. I think the first thing that seems to help is to steal a little bit of the playbook from the traditional work world. Get out of the house and go to something that resembles an office. For me it’s always been Panera bread, but it could be any type of place where you can open up a laptop and work on projects that can be completed using a computer. Fortunately that covers a huge amount of the things you can do. What is interesting to me using this tactic is how it is the exact opposite of the way it used to be. The family used to be at home during the work week, so they had to get you out of the house to get work done. Today, many families have structured the work week so you can complete your tasks while telecommuting. Productivity at home only becomes a problem on vacations. Going back to the old model of leaving the house to get work done is a good solution. This solution works equally well when traveling.
When it comes to time periods when the kids are home, potentially there are things you could do but they are limited. The easiest solution is to find something for the kids to do without you. The best example of these are the day camps that are available during the summer. If you’re fortunate enough to have family members you can ship the kids off to, that would work as well. When I was younger I distinctly remember my parents sending me to New York to hang with my cousins over the summer break. I find this somewhat astounding looking back, as my mother was a stay-at-home mom. What did she do with her time while I was gone? Probably the same thing she’s doing now, which is a whole lot of nothing. Yes, my mother is one of those people I cited earlier in this article who can spend their entire life doing nothing productive.
Another option for kids is if they go visit their friends house during the day. You could potentially even do a kid swap with other parents. This only allows productivity 50% of the time unless there are more than two parents in the kids swap group. The kid swap solution also makes things twice as hard to manage when it’s your turn to watch the gaggle of kids. Additionally, unless you are very lucky to find tremendously like minded parents, there is one issue that seems to come up again and again. I find that when using this type of solution there is always some measure of friction. Parents have a tendency to have issues or find fault with the parenting style of others. I think it’s just human nature. It’s hard to see value in a child rearing behavior which we haven’t adopted for ourselves. It’s almost always little things, but over time they all add up into a disconnect.
Really the only solution I ever found out that works at all well is careful planning and setting appropriate expectations. On the planning side it’s not just making the list of what you want to accomplish, but how you want to accomplish it. Where are you going to go? How will you deal with the kids? What time do you have to set aside for your spouse, or how can you get out of spending time with your spouse? FYI, That last option rarely ever happens, as the consequences can be extreme. You can always try a spousal bribe of some sort. In my case it means offering to send my wife and her friends on a girls weekend or spa excursion. Even then, you still have to set your expectations appropriately. You have to realize that it’s unrealistic to spend every single day of a vacation, especially one that’s a week or longer, working on your projects. There is simply too much life to deal with to get to all the work you want to get done. All this being said I know that I’ll keep trying to find more time to accomplish the goals I set for myself during my vacation breaks. There is too much that I want to do to ever really look at vacations as anything other than an opportunity to get a bunch of it done. I am getting better at it. For example, as I write this, I’m on a long vacation. That means if I didn’t find some time, you wouldn’t have this article to read. Then again, depending on how much you liked what you read, you may have wished I spent my time relaxing instead of writing. If that’s the case let me know what you would have rather read instead. I will l definitely put it on my list of things to do for my next vacation.