‘Vacation Conversion’: How One Star Performer Learned How to Take Time off

Guilty as charged. Try as I might, and despite every promise I made to myself and my family, I was a terrible vacationer.

As a nonprofit fundraiser and administrator for 20 years, rising through the ranks to increasingly important roles within my organizations, I came to accept these inalienable truths:

1) I have vacation time to burn each fiscal year and darn if I was going to give it back.

2) Although I haven’t proven it yet, I’m pretty sure the organization can’t survive without me.

3) Since there’s never a good time to leave, I’ll just multitask: vacation and stay on top of things back at the office.

Raise your hand if you can cop to at least two of those beliefs. (OK, hands down. That’s far too many of you!)

I’m blessed to have four children under age 10 and privileged to have vacationed for at least a week each year since their birth. That means my iPhone is full of photos and videos capturing precious memories. Problem is, more than half of those moments were sent to me by my wife, usually while she was on the beach with the kids and I was in a rental house or hotel room on a call or fighting an office fire hundreds of miles away.

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Fundraisers and nonprofit leaders – especially those for whom evenings, weekends and travel is just part of the job – give up so much family time already. I was one of them. I treated vacation like an unwelcome nuisance – a threat to the capacity of my inbox and a risk to my knowledge of every. last. thing at work.

Sure, I attended vacation, but I don’t know that you could call me “present.”

Then, something happened.

Several years ago, we trekked out for dinner in a busy retail/entertainment complex in Myrtle Beach, SC, where we were spending the week. Following dinner, we strolled out of the restaurant and were assembling for an extended family photo. My phone vibrated as a colleague’s email arrived, and I became engrossed in my phone while reviewing it. A minute later, I heard my wife shriek the name of our oldest child, who was then four.

He had disappeared. Just a minute ago, he was holding my hand. I let him go to read the email.

Thus ensued a frenetic manhunt for my child. Ten minutes – which seemed like a millennium – passed before he was found sitting on the floor of a candy store 100 feet down the boardwalk. As I type this, I still get chills at the sheer fright (and guilt) I experienced that fateful day.

I now consider this frightening moment my game-changing “vacation intervention.” Doing a postmortem later that night, I vowed to my wife to reform.

Since that moment, I have adopted a belief system that has governed every vacation since, and I could not be more pleased at the impact not only for me, but more importantly, for those I care about. My new vacation rules are as follows: 

1) Your vacation is not only yours, but your family’s too, and they deserve your presence. My spouse and children look forward to vacation in part because they feel they get me all to themselves. They are right. Presence is a gift and requires your undivided attention.

2) It is OK to draw a line in the sand (pun intended!) at work. Vacation means vacation – not working remotely. To show you that I’m not completely reformed, I will allow myself a maximum of 30 minutes each (early) morning to review and respond to email from the previous day. I set a timer, and once the 30 minutes is up, my email notification turns off; my phone goes in the dresser drawer; and I forget about work for the rest of the day.

3) If I have led or managed my staff properly, my vacation should not significantly impact anything back at the office. I always appoint someone in charge “in case of an urgent situation” as my out of office point person. My leadership and empowerment of my staff is tested during vacations. You should prepare your team to think, lead and act as you would – and then let go, trusting them to the right thing.

4) I am always instructing my staff to take their well-earned vacation – the same rule needs to apply to myself. Trust me: Before my vacation conversion, no one talked a better game and practiced it worse than I. While consulting certainly offers more flexibility than most “traditional” work, the opportunity to recharge and rest remains vital to everyone. None of us should be allowed to skip out on earned vacation time each year.

Here's a word to the wise before you go through your own life-altering moment. Take time out for you and yours. You are worth it. And happy vacationing!

Scott Koskoski is regional director and performance consultant for Crouch & Associates.