To celebrate my 40th birthday, I took a month off this year. That's right. No e-mail, no computer, no cell phone. I've taken extended vacations before, when I was between jobs and before and after graduate school, but I've never checked out in the middle of a job, especially for a company that I founded. It was scary and required lots of planning, but it was well worth the effort. And I found time to do something I usually didn't have much time for: thinking about something other than my business.
When I was an employee, I had lots of time to reflect about my life at night and on weekends when I wasn't at the office. During my past four years as a business owner, however, I found I'm always on, 24/7, thinking about ways to grow and improve my business and solve my clients' problems more effectively. I think about work all the time whether I'm in the office or not. I was burning out though and needed time to recharge and reflect, so I scheduled some personal time just like I do for meetings, taking myself as seriously as I take my clients.
With this experience still fresh in my mind, here are some tips I can recommend to other entrepreneurs in need of a break:
1. Announce, remind, repeat. I made sure my colleagues and clients had months to prepare for my absence. I told them about my plans, reiterated the dates as we discussed timelines for projects, and put it in e-mails, proposals, invoices and pay stubs. No one was surprised when I left because I gave everyone ample opportunity to discuss back-up plans and raise questions or get input. It ended up creating a sense of urgency before I left, and many projects that had been waiting for decisions to be made on were actually kicked off so they could launch before I left town. Note to self: not a bad way to accelerate the sales cycle.
2. Leave your computer and cell phone at home. During my vacation, I stayed in a 17th century farmhouse overseas that wasn't wired for internet access and didn't have reception for my cell phone. I decided not to fight it and looked at this opportunity as a sign and a gift to myself. Provide a date when you'll be back "on the radar" and have customers follow up with someone else on your team in your absence if they need a quick response. If they want to wait, they know when you'll be back in town. Trust me, it'll all be there when you return.
3. Use all your senses. Taste each herb and ingredient in the meal, listen to the street musicians, smell the ocean air, watch the colors change as the sun rises and sets. Live in the moment. Read what interests you, not what's in your to-do pile. I took three novels with me--and read them--and left the trade magazines and business journals in the office. I slept until I woke up, and I never wore a watch. I wanted to let my thoughts wander and think about current events, context, connecting the dots or nothing at all. Enjoy the downtime: Your mind will be free to consider endless possibilities and new ideas.
4. Take some time to think about the future. There's nothing like an extended break to force you to do some of the long-term planning you need to do anyway. Turns out that it may come in handy sooner than you realize. I grew up in New Orleans and have clients and colleagues who've been based there until just recently. Within a month of my return, the city was hit with a hurricane that has devastated the region. Fortunately my family, friends and colleagues are safe. Because my break occurred over the summer, I happened to have contact information for many people at their family's homes, vacation spots and back-up locations. I had no idea how helpful all this information would be until a few weeks after my return when I had to track down these folks in a moment of crisis.
Does your company have a communication plan in case of emergency? What will your company do if everyone had to evacuate quickly and almost all e-mail and cell-phone communication was cut off? Create a back-up plan so people know how to get in touch, and make sure your data is secure.
5. Create new habits. Use your break to shake things up a bit so you don't go back to the same old patterns when you return. Take a new road to your office or a meeting; try working out at a different time of day; eat lunch with people you've been meaning to get together with. You'll be amazed at how it can impact your perspective. Things that were garbled in my mind before the trip became much clearer to me when I had time to open up my mind. There were changes in the direction of my firm that I had wanted to consider, and I finally had the chance to explore them. The new venue allowed me to get out of the routines I had created. When I came back from the trip, the new energy stuck with me and inspired me to have the courage to try new things. What a gift indeed!
My advice is not to wait until the next milestone birthday to take the time you need to just think. The powerful ideas that help great companies catapult past the competition and change the rules of the game take time to ruminate and percolate before they're fully developed. You owe it to yourself and your business to make the time to think about the important things. You may just realize what really matters, and that's the best gift of all.