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Why I Recommend You Take a Month Off Work

Anthony Mersino walking the Camino de Santiago

I recently took off a full six weeks of vacation in one fell swoop. And it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I don’t know if you’ve ever taken off that much time. I never have. I’ve been working since January of 1985, yes a full 37 years, and I never took off more than 2 weeks during my career. There is a HUGE difference between taking off two weeks and taking off six weeks.

I think my experience is typical for U.S. workers. In fact, the U.S. ranks pretty low when it comes to time away from work. It’s pretty typical for Europeans to have 6-7 weeks of paid time off vs. a miserly 2 weeks in the US. Check out the chart below from Statista.

Paid Public Holidays by Country

It’s not just U.S. culture though. There is also a level of fear and anxiety that I think is a major contributing factor. Look at the context. We have a political climate in the U.S. of intolerance and animosity that divides political parties, even those in the same state or the same family.

We’ve also been in a global pandemic for over 2 years. Never mind the fear and uncertainty about getting COVID itself. COVID was an existential threat to my training and coaching firm as we saw nearly every project cancelled in April 2020. We were lucky to survive!  In 2020 our sales were half what they had been in 2019. As a business owner, that was frightening.

One of the positives to come out of the pandemic for me was that I only work remotely now. I appreciate the time savings as well as avoiding the hassles of commuting, dry-cleaning and all the rest that goes into heading to an office.

The flipside of that is that I can now work any time of the day from any room in the house. So all of a sudden I am panicked about my business and able to work everywhere and all the time. I found myself working 50 or 60 hours a week and checking emails constantly. I was always “on” out of fear of missing out; of the scarcity of losing more business.

The fear is perpetrated by the news and social media where frightening sound bites tend to grab attention. We have war in Ukraine. The stock market cratered. Our national capital is attacked by rioters.

So yeah, I feel like I have been on high alert. And I have been for some time. Though we don’t have threats of terrorism as we did in the early 2000s, it feels similar. Do you remember those announcements that blared in every airport after 9/11? I have internalized that message and it plays over and over again in my head.

“Attention, Homeland Security has determined that the current threat condition level is ORANGE.”

I turned 60 in March and that was when I gave myself permission to take a sabbatical. And the Camino de Santiago seemed like a good fit for me as it would require daily physical activity.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Camino de Santiago, it is a pilgrimage in Spain that people have been following for thousands of years. There are various starting points but all the paths lead to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, near the west coast of Spain. I started in Pamplona and walked 44o miles over 30 days.

It actually took me a solid two weeks into my trip to be able to appreciate the level of anxiety I had been under. To decompress. On the Camino, I just had one job each day – to walk the 13-22 miles that I needed to walk. There wasn’t really a lot of anxiety about that.

I was (mostly) successful at disconnecting from everything while walking the Camino. Before the trip, I let everyone know and empowered team members to respond in my absence. I went on a diet from email, the news, and the stock markets and I was mostly successful in not checking them. I found it helpful to reconfigure my iPhone screen to just show just the apps that I needed – things like maps, distance tracking, weather, and accommodation booking.

My key takeaways from taking a month off:

  • I have been working way too hard, for too long. And it is driven by a sense of fear and scarcity. I need to calm the F down and pay more attention to my needs. To work at a sustainable pace (now that is a novel idea for an Agile Coach!)
  • I need to unplug and detox from work more frequently.
  • I need to constantly pause to reflect on how I spend my time and make sure it is aligned with my values and purpose. (Sounds vaguely like a retrospective, doesn’t it?)
  • I need to reconnect to my passions and hobbies. Up to this point I had pretty much given up on having hobbies and my life was centered around work. I am passionate about work but, some or perhaps all of that passion is driven by fear and scarcity. I need to trust in abundance.
  • Community is essential! I walked with my wife but the nature of the Camino is that you meet many people walking at the same pace and wind up seeing them every day. We had a core group of about 20 of us that met for communal dinners, stopped for coffee or a beer, and celebrated when we all arrived at our goal together. That connection helped sustain me though challenging days and I still think about the people I met.
  • It’s going to be OK.

I definitely recommend a sabbatical for those of you who are working hard and haven’t taken more than 2 weeks off at any one time. It’s like hitting the big red reset button.

If you are interested in the Camino de Santiago, you can email me. The 2010 movie The Way with Martin Sheen also provides a pretty good overview of what that experience will be like.

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10 Responses

  1. Hey Anthony – First, I like the beard!

    I completely agree with you… and even what we take in the US as a “vacation” really isn’t – rushing from here to there is not my idea of relaxing.

    For me, such a journey will have to wait until the kids are up and on their own – just not possible now, but something I look forward to.

    In the meantime, I try to unplug and take smaller “mental health days” here and there, where I am the only one who does this (not even my wife – sssh, please don’t tell her!).

    mp/m

    1. Thanks so much Mike! Great point about most vacations where you are rushing instead of relaxing. And I like your idea of mental health days though I struggle with guilt on days that I feel like I “should” be working.
      Thanks for weighing in!
      Anthony

  2. So grateful you took the time and invested in yourself. What a life changing and transformative experience. Thank you for sharing this and inspiring others to do the same. You are always teaching others 🙂

    1. Thank you Scott for your kind words and your continued support – it means a lot!
      Anthony

    1. Hi Michael, the 88 Temple Pilgrimage sounds fantastic! I can see how impactful that would be. Let me know when you do it!
      And thank you for your contributions to the agile community and for continuing to engage with us here on this blog.
      Anthony

    1. Thanks Mike and great to hear from you. Would love to hear your experience once you take the plunge!
      Anthony

  3. Excellent article. I wish I could have done something like this during my 4-decade career. I heard back in the 90’s companies offered sabbatical time but I cannot recall knowing anyone who took one. I am curious how altered your job was upon your return. With age protection on job security you probably were in a better position than most folks to be assured a job let alone a happy resumption of same function and duties.

    1. Hi Terri, thanks for your comment. I can recall Intel offering a paid sabbatical back in the 90’s – perhaps it was for 3 months. I don’t know if they still do it or not.

      I am not sure I have age protection at my job. As the president of an agile coaching and training firm, we only have protection to the extent we bring value to our clients and they continue to purchase our services! That is the only security that I know of here! And yes as the president I was able to resume my role when I returned.

      I appreciate your insights and engagement!
      Cheers,
      Anthony

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