Overcoming Vacation Anxiety: How to Get Your Inner Workaholic to Take a Break


“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!” There are a few more no’s in the exact quote, but essentially, this is what the hippie in the movie Hair says when, in prison, he is being forced to get his hair cut. Take away the hippie’s hair, and you’ve taken away everything he represents. Everything he’s made of. His entire raison d’être. He would only be a (clean-shaven) shell of his former self without it. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Dare to take away our raison d’être by suggesting we take a vacation? Are you kidding me?

While on the one hand we might love to jump on a boat or a plane to a sunny beach, but on the other, the workaholic part of us responds to the perceived impossibility of a vacation by tightening our eyes, clenching our jaw and instantly assembling a chain-link fence of no’s in our mind. And what comes out of our mouths is often something along the lines of: “I can’t believe that you would even ask me to take a vacation at a time like this — you have no idea what’s going on in my life!!” A line which could have much greater credibility if it were not always “a time like this” whenever anyone asks about anything with the faintest hint of relaxation.

Vacations should be a win — gaining relaxation and a break from work. But our knee-jerk reaction may be to see them as a loss — of control, of identity, of purpose. How can you go on vacation and leave behind your purpose? It’s like having the bad dream where you show up for an exam and you’re naked, and haven’t studied, and you didn’t even sign up for the class, oh, and P.S. why are you still dreaming about exams when you’re 50 years old?

Now you might be saying to yourself, defensively: “Hey, whoa there, I do take vacations. Look at my passport. I’ve been all over the world!” But was it a vacation or a fakation? What is a fakation? It’s when much to the total frustration of the loved ones around you, more than half your luggage has a titanium case and you’re more concerned about bringing the chargers for all of your devices than about recharging your life. On the outside you are as hooked up technologically as you are back home, and on the inside, all the same neurocircuitry of work: pressure, deadlines, productivity is lighting up. Meanwhile the circuits for pleasure, unwinding or even those that feel a ping or a pow of experiencing something new, still have the dust covers on them. Unused.

What is the problem with vacations? Why are some of us so averse to something that others long for and dream about? Yes, it is, for sure, leaving all our work behind and feeling the anxiety that things aren’t getting done, or are getting done wrong, or worst of all: getting done better. But it’s more that other anxiety. The quiet kind. The pink sand kind. The nothing to do all day but sit in a chaise lounge and look out at glints of sunlight dotting and dancing on the deep blue sea. The gaping black hole of inactivity that threatens to swallow you whole — in other words, the absolute hell of forced relaxation.

The workaholic in all of us thrives on activity. We need it. We need to keep busy; we need a project. Vacations at first glance seem project-less, a void of time and space. So if we just yank the projects out of a toddler’s, I mean, a workaholic’s hands without replacing it with something else, there are tears and sometimes even the red face and the kicking of feet. What’s the answer? Trade in your grueling work schedule for a new project– becoming an expert, an aficionado, a consummate vacationer. Won’t the zen masters and the vegan yoga teachers tsk tsk at you (or at me, for giving this advice)? Well no, they are all about acceptance. But the fact is that life happens not in big leaps forward, but in baby steps. First get good at the project of taking a proper vacation, then work towards nirvana.

There’s only one hitch. You can’t get good at something that you rarely try. That notion comes from our inner perfectionist, but that’s a story for another day. The bottom line: If you are going to take this on, don’t expect that you can become great at vacationing with one trip and done. Commit to the project of finding your lower gears (and finding the good that comes from being in those lower gears for at least a few days). Here are some do’s and don’ts to get past your initial “no,” and get yourself on the beach and into a better place in your life.


  • Take the time to create auto-reply vacation emails. Yes, it’s a pain to do, but it gives you an instant buffer in people’s expectations that you will write right back.
  • If you’re not able to unplug entirely for your vacation, designate a set time each day when you’ll check email. If you need to ease yourself in to it, designate two to three times a day, but then walk away from the phone, so to speak, during other times.
  • Power in numbers: Make this a group effort, whether you’re traveling with friends or family, make a pact for accountability and support to unplug, together.
  • Allow time to adjust. The first day is that hell of inertia. Don’t misinterpret the meaning when you don’t feel great right away. Tell yourself that by the second day, or soon thereafter, you’ll start to settle in and even enjoy the discoveries you are making.
  • It’s okay to be busy on a trip — if you exercise everyday back home, schedule it on your vacation. If you need to fill up your schedule with activities, fine. Remember it’s not all about the hammock.
  • Repurpose your efficiency for a new goal, if you are all about the action: organize outings, make a packing list, research restaurants.
  • If you find that you bring all of your electronics, books, supplies, only to find that it is more of a security blanket that remains untouched, see if you can bring a smaller “blanket” each time (i.e., fewer books, computers etc). In time you may be able to leave it all at home.


  • Don’t focus on how you are subtracting from your work hours. Switch your emphasis to adding to your resume the skills of powering down, unplugging (just like your good friends the computer, iPhone and iPad need) and living a more sustainable, balanced life.
  • Don’t expect instant (fantastic) results. If you concede to a vacation, you are, like in a hostage exchange, going to expect life to hand you over a perfect vacation in return: It better be the best experience of my life, where I have amazing food, happy, non-complaining kids, great sex and no long lines. Well, some of those expectations may not come through for you. Ease up. Focus on enjoying each day rather than keeping track of how your trip is sizing up for the best vacation ever. It’s hard to enjoy your life when you’re on the sidelines keeping score.
  • If you need to bring work, don’t leave it up to chance when you do it. If you give it an inch, it will take a mile. Schedule it — don’t give it free rein, whether that’s an hour a day and then it’s done, or once or twice during your trip, the key is you are in charge of your work and your technology, it’s not calling the shots for you.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself if you slip and start working. Give yourself a chance to start over.
  • When you are going through work withdrawal and jonesing for more, try not to take out your anger and frustration by making the others around you miserable too. There is an exemption clause for the phrase “misery loves company,” and that is during vacation. Instead, be patient and remind yourself this is a new skill that you haven’t mastered yet. Remember some of the other skills that you’ve acquired that took some time. Then put yourself in a corner for a time-out till you calm down (preferably with a nice cup of tea, or if you prefer, a Margarita).

The proof is in the pudding. If you’re not convinced that this new vacation scheme is for you, try it for a day. Yes, a day. See how differently you think, feel and experience your life away from (or with limited access to) email, voicemail, Facebook, Twitter and the rest. Need more proof? As you work on these strategies you will find the other benefits of vacation: strengthening your relationships, the very ones that may be strained when you return to your workaday life; staving off burnout which improves quality of life, which ultimately improves job performance (just in case this is still your bottom line); eating and sleeping regularly, which improves your health and well-being; and experiencing the unexpected and new — stretching your experience base which, though totally unrelated to your things back home, may ignite ideas and new perspectives on your work.

So the good news is that just as the hippie in the movie Hair figured out how to keep his long golden locks and work within the system (well, sort of) so can you. You can keep your identity as a hard working, über-productive person, but one who can, from time to time, be freed from the prison of windowless offices, microwaveable meals and the lack of surprisingly beneficial UV rays. And best of all — you are the one who holds the key. See how well the world turns without you for a bit, and how much better it turns when you return: a new person, a well-rested more optimally functioning person (with hair).

(This blog also appears on The Huffington Post.)

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Photo credit: danorbit. / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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