Six months ago, I moved to Costa Rica to work in a tourist town called Tamarindo, where my partner Levi and I have opened up a tattoo shop called “The Drifter’s Ink” while I also work a second job as a freelance writer.
Through our tattoo shop and our enjoyment of our town, we’ve met people from all over the world who have chosen to take their vacations and holidays in Costa Rica. It’s been quite the eye opener as a result: I’m seeing you all on your best week of your year.
I used to be a vacationer. I used to have my 2 or 3 weeks vacation and two “floater days” that I was accruing on my time sheet. Every day accrued was as good as gold: one whole day to not have to think about work. I relished those days, would have such grand plans for them. I’d dream about how I could turn off living by a calendar, how I would sleep in and finally catch up on some rest, and then have a few days to take away from my work email so to be able to fully “unplug”.
Those days were great. I loved my vacation time, and did my best to make the most of them so to give myself the time off that I deserved and had WORKED SO HARD TO EARN! But then I always had to go back to reality, as they say. Those days would be accompanied with a sense of dread, doom and the realization that I would be driving myself into “needing a vacation” yet again. If you know what I mean by these feelings, this post is for you.
I’ve been reflecting about the nature of holidays and vacations and the mentality and attitudes that accompany them. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about what motivated them to travel as far as Costa Rica, about what their lives back home are like, and have been able to recognize a few of the symptoms of burnout that I had seen in myself and in so many people I come across in my life and career.
Here’s my proposal: What if we lived our lives on a daily basis as if it were a vacation? What if we never let ourselves get to the point that we are so desperate to get away, disconnect, unplug, unwind and relax?
Is it possible?
“I’m Finally Taking My Vacation Time!”
I hear over and over that people associate vacation time with “freedom”: liberty from schedules, emails, deadlines, meetings, punch-in times, and the regular grind of what working requires. Don’t get me wrong: nothing in this post is to suggest that people should quit their jobs, nor is it to suggest that jobs are not important in life. Jobs are a very necessary thing, but what I see more times than not, is career oppression, where life becomes about living to work and working to live becomes secondary. Jobs and careers place restrictions on our time, which is our most valuable asset in life.
As my friend and favourite thinker James Shelley states:
“Work is not about earning free time, but about selling it. Jobs only take time away from us; they do not reward us with more of it. We will never end up with more free time after working than we had before. Jobs only subtract from our free time.
If the point of our work is to achieve more free time, our efforts are blatantly counterproductive. If leisure and time together is our goal, it makes far more sense to simply work less.”
Jobs, however necessary for survival (human beings are the only species on the planet who have to pay to live, remember), represent our selling our time, the only resource we hold the ownership to for our lives that we can never renew.
Vacations represent a literal buying of our own time.
As Shelley calls it, we are participating in an “ecosystem of transactions” in which we sell our freedom and time for money. Once we have bought our time, then we spend the money that we sold our time for to fill that free time.
Does anyone else find that to be one giant mindfuck?
In an ideal world, we would all be given the opportunity to control how ALL our time is used; we could allocate it first to ourselves to take care of our mental and physical needs, second to our spouses and family (yes, I am one of those believers that self comes before others!), third to our hobbies and interests, and fourth to work.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that so easily. Yet what tweaks can you personally make in your life to adjust your work time to fit your life, rather than vice versa?
More than a year ago, I moved away from traditional employment and embraced the idea of alternative work arrangements into my concepts of a career. Once I shed the idea that work and career does not have to be confined to 9am – 5pm (or other variants), but it could be alternatively arranged to allow the worker to control her outputs, I felt free AND more productive. I still work as many hours as I used to, produce as many outputs, and I am accountable to people, but it’s on my time, when I want it to be.
If work isn’t flexible enough, what are other ways that you can take back your time?
“I Needed a Vacation”
People who visit our town, and tourist destinations around the world, tell us that they were absolutely desperate to “get away” and escape the madness of their daily lives. I see all the time on my Facebook feed that people are so stressed out by work, that all they can do is talk about how much alcohol they want to drink or how may days until they get their vacation. I can remember that feeling of counting down to vacation, drinking a lot after work, and then as soon as vacation started, drinking a lot more and then counting down the remaining days I had left until going back to work. The cycle would reset itself.
What I see, and what I felt, is that we have defined “normal” as being in a state of stress and expectation, where deadlines are to be met, things are to be checked off lists, appointments need to be attended to, and life needs to be scheduled by the hour so to not miss anything or fall away from responsibilities. This has become our lives, and this is what is expected of our lives. We take a break from the normal when we allow ourselves the time to unplug, relax, and unwind, all the while knowing and anticipating that we will eventually have to throw ourselves back into the turbine that is a busy life.
What if we made our lives feel more like something we don’t need to “vacate” from? What if we gave ourselves the luxury of not having packed schedules? What if we took out just a few things from our lives that while may serve important functions, but ultimately add to that feeling of being overwhelmed to the point that you need to actually leave your life for a while.
This may sound incredibly idealistic, and not applicable in so many circumstances, but I’ve learned so much in the last year that life is what you make it and how you define it for yourself.
“I Needed to Unplug”
Rare do we see people come to Costa Rica without their cell phones. Social media and the utility of the smartphone has a hold on people so strong that we can barely stand to be without them, no matter where we are or what we are doing. However, while social media may still have its grip on us, many take vacation as an opportunity to turn off email, and for some (like my Mom!) block all calls for a time being. It’s an opportunity to truly turn off everything so to focus on the self, others, nature and the experiences of your vacation time.
I was SO guilty of after hours and on vacations having my work email always being refreshed by at the pull down of my thumb, consciously and subconsciously; as a result, I never got away from work. I was nagged with the need to respond and take care of things, or even when I told myself not to respond to emails, I always had the nagging feeling of knowing I’d face the consequences of the emails contents later.
Since the beginning of cell phones and more importantly smartphones, society has been dealt with the expectation that we are accessible 100% of the time, even when we aren’t getting paid for it. I recognized this when I was still working within the corporate sector, and as a result, I actually took the email application connected to my job off of my phone to better protect my off time.
I also talked to some other people who were feeling the same crunch as me in wanting to protect my personal time from work. One strategy I heard of was a department actually implementing a policy where no emails were to be sent to colleagues after work hours or on the weekends, unless they were an absolute emergency. Some strategies work better for others, but I am certain that in all work situations, more can be done to protect the personal time and increase the work-life balance of people who earn money for a living.
Unless you have consciously chosen a career in which you knew and accept that being “on call” is a part of your reality, we all have the power to unplug, in our own ways, anytime when we don’t need to actually be plugged in. Do you have the ability to actually unplug on a regular basis in your daily life, or do you really want to be bound to having to wait for that one or two times a year when you can actually do it? Your call!
“My Job is Killing Me!”
My Dad was killed by his job, I’m certain of it. Years and years of work stress, extreme work stress, coupled with a lifestyle that was unhealthy (usually due to the constraints of work), and not enough time taken to take care of himself was what helped seal his fate. He died just over a decade past his retirement date.
The thing is, my Dad had the financial ability to retire at 55. He enjoyed a few really great years of travel and enjoyment of life without work, and died of cancer at 67; just two years past Canada’s mandatory retirement date. Why did he have to wait until retirement to enjoy his life as he did in that last decade?
At 32, I realized my job was killing me as well. I spent too many nights not sleeping worried about my to-do list. I had too many panicked calls to my Mom telling her that I just couldn’t handle the sheer amount of demands placed on me in the corporate world. I had too many times in my car speeding to get to a meeting, because of course, in North America, one minute late means you’re late. I missed too many meals in favour of just working through it. I smoked way too many cigarettes during smoke breaks (when I was a smoker). I took too many sick days because my body was being worn down over and over. I had too many visits to my doctor where stress was the central topic of concern and discussion.
I realized that at 32, if I didn’t stop on the road I was going on, I would eventually be killed by my job. By 33, I changed my life so to save my life.
If you recognize any of these “symptoms” of job murder that I describe, I would invite you to consider whether you can see your job eventually impacting your health. If it does, is it worth it? If it eventually could, what can you change?
“I Don’t Wanna Go Home!”
Since we give people tattoos that depend on healing by staying away from sun, sand and salt water, we always book people’s tattoo appointments the day before they leave. Every single time, we hear “I don’t wanna go home!”. Yes, I get it – it’s hard to leave Costa Rica, it’s freaking paradise here, but at the same time, what is it about home, or your life that makes you not want to go back?
For me, I would lament so painfully and pathetically how much I didn’t want to go home every time I traveled. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate what was at home – I did actually have a great job, I have wonderful friends where I lived, and of course, most importantly, I was near my family. But for me, as I found the “I don’t want to go home” lament get stronger, to the point where I would actually cry on flights home from travel, I realized why it was so strong in me.
I loved my home, but essentially, I was bored and I recognized that I truly was not where I was supposed to be. For me, the weather wasn’t ideal (I really hate cold weather, and I suffer from this weird medical condition called cold urticaria, making me literally allergic to cold). I also am someone who needs to be near water and have incredibly beautiful landscapes within her view at all times. I realize I don’t like cities, nor do I thrive within them. I realized that I could actually make my home somewhere I never wanted to escape from and somewhere I was always excited to go back to: and this is why I now live in Costa Rica.
Make Your Life Your Destination
I truly can’t give advice or any suggestions on how people should live their lives. I am also humbly aware that not all people (a good portion of people) live lives that they feel they do not need to escape from. Some people have achieved in their daily the balance I was looking for in my life, and what people go on vacations to reclaim. This is fantastic, and it’s even more beautiful when people get to use travel as an opportunity to experience new things rather as a reason to get away (which I’ve discovered are actually quite different). Sadly, I also recognize that a lot of people feel utterly stuck within a grind. I was there.
I write this post not to suggest we all need to abandon the idea of hard work and working to achieve. I write to suggest that if you find yourself counting down until vacation, searching desperately for places to escape, and expressing dissatisfaction of the components that make up your daily life, that you take the time to change, and tweak where you can. Start a yoga class, eliminate one low-priority obligation from your life to give you more time to yourself, say no more often, eat delicious food, dance in your kitchen, go to a spa, go see a concert on a Tuesday evening and stay out past midnight – whatever gets you close to that feeling of being at your best and happiest self: do it!
To use the old adage, “Life is the journey, not the destination,” I invite you to examine the ways you can bring the components you desire in your eventual destination into every step of your journey of getting there.