The vacation trap

Today I want to talk about a simple idea that we could all do to remind ourselves of from time-to-time, one that I think is lost on a lot of first-time and even long-time business travelers.

If you quickly read it, it feels like a nothing-ism, a dumb platitude that contains something you’ve always known to be true, something that’s not even worth the electrons that light up the pixels you’re reading it on.

Do me a favor and consider it anyway — it’s the basis of a subtle mental shift that can be the difference between success and failure as a long-term business traveler, a shift that many people only make after spending years ruining their mental and physical health with travel, a shift that some people never make.

Here goes:

Work travel is not a vacation. Work travel is work.

“Well duh,” you say, waiting for your overstuffed luggage at the baggage carousel.

“Of course it’s not” you continue, as you pull out your phone to look for a restaurant where you can grab a late-night bite to eat and maybe a few beers to help you decompress, because flying always makes you feel terrible.

You don’t really have a sense of how to get to your new client tomorrow, and your plans to exercise this week look something like “if I get around to it.” The only thing you know for sure is that you’ve still got to go get a rental car, which will will take at least 45 minutes.

(Who knows if this actually describes you. Maybe you’re already know not to check luggage and how to order a Lyft as you deplane. Maybe you even know some of the more nuanced bits about structuring your time as if you were at home, eating as if you were at home, etc. It’s my blog and I’m trying to make a point, so for now imaginary you knows nothing. Work with me here.)

The vacation trap

The worst, most insidious thing about acting like you’re on vacation when you’re really just at work in a different city? It’s normally not your fault.

We don’t act like we’re on vacation by choice, we act like we’re on vacation because vacation is the only traveling experience we’ve ever had. Which is to say, when vacation is the only practice you’ve ever had for travel, it becomes your default behavior on the road. Without actively choosing a different course of action, it’s not just easy, it’s normal to get on an airplane for a week of high-pressure consulting and slip into the exact same routines you follow when you’re going to visit family for the holidays.

To that same point, if you only travel a handful of weeks a year as a getaway from your normal life, acting like you’re on vacation is exactly the right thing to be doing while traveling, because you’re on vacation. The goal is to overeat, underplan, drink in the afternoon, laze around, and whatever else makes you happy and relaxed. You don’t need to be on your top mental game, you don’t need the physical resilience for a surprise 12-hour day. You need to chill.

But work travel isn’t a break from your life, it is your life. If you act like you’re on vacation for four and a half days a week and forty-five weeks a year, you will end up frazzled, stressed, sick, tired, achy, overwhelmed, and miserable. Your performance will naturally suffer.

In effect, the book and the blog are the practical, tactical implementations of this simple idea, the tools to help you rewire your behavior to allow for intentional, productive business travel — the answer to the question “Okay, if business travel isn’t a vacation, what do I do instead?”

Making the mental shift won’t happen all at once; the behavioral changes will take even longer. I’m the guy who writes this stuff and I still find myself in vacation autopilot mode every once and a while, especially around tasty food. But I’m trying, and you should too, and it all starts with a little shift: looking around you and realizing you need to avoid the vacation trap, and in doing so, realizing you need a new operating system for being away from home.

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