Tangier, Morocco; Photo by Christine Goon

I recently returned from a week’s vacation.

I admit I did work each day, but it was concentrated. When you run your own business, it’s difficult to completely disconnect. To mitigate the impact, though, I set aside an hour each morning to read and return emails and scan the major news sites for events that were relevant to my work. Then I turned off the computer and went for a walk with my dog, Zena, my intrepid road manager.

It’s hard to break the work cycle for me, and my guess is, it’s the same for many of you. According to a recent survey the average U.S. employee takes only half of their employer-allotted vacation time. That’s not good. There’s plenty of research that shows that taking time to de-stress is good for your health, your happiness, and your career.

Here are my top five reasons I take vacation and you should, too.

  • I reflect. I write in a journal. If I’m traveling, I note new experiences, things that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I write about food, smells, sights, people. It helps me focus on feelings and experiences–both internal and external– to get in touch with my inner self, to find ballast, to slow down.
  • I am present. If I’m sitting on a porch at my sister’s lake house in South Carolina overlooking the water, as I was this past week, I consciously turn off the inner voice telling me what needs to be done and when and why. With my morning coffee beside me, I pay attention to the color of the water, or the coating of mist rising off it as the sun slowly emerges and warms it. I emotionally and mentally remind myself how grateful I am in the moment. For example, one moon-lit evening, as we returned by boat to our dock from a delicious dinner at a lakeside restaurant, I watched with joy as my 87-year-old mom high-fived her two granddaughters. They were gazing upward together at the full moon, as they rode riding three abreast in the bow of the boat. It was a moment I will treasure.
  • I rebalance my portfolio. I’m not talking about my investment portfolio, but rather my inner one. Without all the distractions of my work day, which is often filled with meeting deadlines, phone calls and so forth, I take stock. Where is my world out of whack? I scan my emotions to identify where my stress points have been. What runs through my mind at night that makes me worry? How can I make changes in my life to address those concerns? I write in my journal a fresh set of priorities, not just work goals-but relationship, financial, and personal goals. It’s like a snapshot in time, with a forward projection of where I’d like to see changes made and how I can do that by the choices I make. It’s a wish list with action steps.
  • I learn or discover something new. It’s hard to press the off switch on my quest to achieve, but I redirect that into learning something different unrelated to my job, say, standup paddleboarding, wakeskating, or simply reading a book on a topic that interests me, or about a person I admire. The first, I highly recommend for a physical reminder of the importance of balance and strength in your life. The second will depend on your love of fast boats and active water sports. Another way to do this: Explore a new town without an agenda, or a mapped-out set of “must-sees” – something my husband and I love to do on vacation. We meander, stay open for the unexpected, perhaps, a turn down a cobble-stoned street that captures our eye, a saunter into a quirky bookstore, or café.
  • I savor relationships and build memories. It might be making a peach cobbler for the first time with my niece, or preparing the decades-old family potato salad, or chocolate chip cookies for the dinner, and then happily sharing it all together around the rough-hewn wooden table, watching the sunset, and laughing at something funny that happened that day.

Finally, taking regular vacation breaks creates an inner shift. It’s a bit like the replenishing oil change and topping off of the essential engine fluids my Subaru Outback demands on a regular schedule to stay in peak performance. I head back to work and home life with a clearer, smoother running engine. I’m energized. My brain is sharper and more creative. And the planning begins for the next one.

If you find yourself skipping vacation because you can’t afford the time away, hit the pause button. Set aside twenty minutes or so before bedtime and do some soul-searching in your journal. Write about what vacation means to you, reminisce about a favorite getaway, or your best childhood vacation. Whenever I do this exercise, I smile, breathe a little deeper, and am reminded of how important it is to give ourselves permission to unwind.


Originally appeared on on my TIAA Expert Commentary Page