Working During Vacation: Is This Worth Missing a Memory?

Published on July 8th, 2019

One of my most treasured possessions is an annotated photo album that my brother made to capture all the memories of our family vacation to Plum Island. The way he combined the images with the story of our experiences was perfect. Every time I flip through that book, I'm teleported back to the farm where we picked blueberries, to the beach where my daughter cheered on the waves, and to the sailboat where the seagull perched on the captain's head while he fed him crackers. It was all magic.

One of the reasons that I think this was such a great trip was that we were as present as possible during the experience. I've had just the opposite experience on previous vacations, mostly because of my decision to fit in pockets of work. As I've grown older, I've come to realize that compartmentalization isn't my strength. As soon as I open my inbox, one email leads to ten and then to 100 or more. Before I know it, my body may be on the beach, but my brain is anywhere but.

So what's the big deal? Certainly, 10 minutes here or 20 minutes there can't ruin a vacation, right? It sounds crazy, but it can. It's like the butterfly effect where small changes in input can have dramatic changes in the result. Read a negative customer support request, and instead of being cheery while getting in the car, the family can immediately pick up on something being wrong. Then they get self-conscious and wonder if it was something they said. While the email took 2 minutes to read, it might pass into your thoughts over and over again over the next several hours. Meanwhile, life is happening right in front of you and what could be amazing experiences are now missed opportunities.

I look at that Plum Island book, and I try to imagine what might have happened if I checked my work email every hour. How many pages would I have lost out of that book? Would a few non-urgent emails be worth the cost of a memory I will treasure the rest of my life?

This is not to say fuck work or your responsibilities the second you start the vacation. In some industries (especially tech) and in some roles (especially owner/executive), having to respond to emergencies comes with the territory. However, defining the criteria of what constitutes an emergency up front can cut out 90-99% of the distractions. If it's a real emergency, jump on it. Otherwise, defer or delegate it until the appropriate time.

So my rule of thumb on vacation is now... is responding to this work notification worth missing a memory? It sets a high bar, which is important. The result is I either feel justified for choosing to prioritize work (because its important enough) or justified in allowing myself to ignore it (so I can be present with my family).

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.