I Went 5 Years Without a Vacation — This is the Deeply Important Lesson I Learned

After five years without a vacation, I knew I needed to find some work-life balance.

A sunset on a lake during vacation

Image via Flickr - Kelly Mercer

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Kaitlyn Duling63
I’ll never forget the moment I realized exactly what I’d been missing out on. I was curled up in a chair on the tiny patio outside our Airbnb — a small backyard house in Portland, Oregon. It was early spring, and I felt like I had arrived to a rainforest full of bright flowers, clean air and shiny green leaves. I wore leggings, I sipped a big cup of coffee and I had nowhere to be. Paging through a book, I gazed around the yard and thought to myself, “I can’t wait to have more moments like this when I retire.”
Okay, pause. Let me set the scene a little further: I was 26 years old, five years out of college, five years into my first job and over five years from my last real vacation. I had begged my boss for a week off so I could fly out to Portland and Seattle for a few days. And then when I was there, taking a few minutes to relax before heading off to hike, socialize and drink more coffee, I started looking forward to my next guaranteed moment of rest…which would happen when I retired.
My mental state at that moment was, to no one’s surprise, severely mangled from years of overachieving and mindlessly driving towards “success,” in whatever form I thought that would take in any given year — from monetary wealth to a new title at work. I worked 10+ hours a day, worked weekends, let my boss insult and demean me, and prided myself on my high stress level.
I repeat: I was proud of being overworked and underpaid, and I was fully incapable of contemplating a life outside of work. I had everything so backwards in my head that I thought I needed to spend most of my life unhappy and tired in order to pursue a peaceful, pleasant future. Little did I know that a pleasant life could be my reality right then and there, if only I were able to push past the teachings of a society that thrives on pressure and the constant need for traditional markers of achievement, like promotions, raises, and the withering away of free time.
A few months later, I quit my job. I had glimpsed what life could feel like if it were lived a little slower. If I had time to read a book. If coffee in the morning wasn’t a direct IV to my veins, but rather a deliberate moment of warmth shared with my partner, enjoyed in the sunlight. Luckily, I finally realized that didn’t need to wait until retirement, and I didn’t need to be unemployed. I just needed to shift my priorities.
Instead of raising my boss to the level of a god and prizing my contributions to work above all else, I remembered the other parts of my life I wanted to feed: my relationships, communities, family, health, wellness, spiritual life, and so much more. It is not selfish to make time for the self. In fact, taking time to refocus my life on the things I value has led me to be an exponentially more productive, cheerful, relaxed and all-around better worker. The kicker? I’m making more money now than ever before. 
Today, I don’t necessarily take week-long vacations on a regular basis. But I have learned to schedule time into my schedule for running, for socializing, for traveling, and, yes, for drinking coffee in the morning. Not while I’m sprinting to catch the train to work, but while I’m sitting at my window, curled in my favorite chair. It’s those moments that remind me, over and over again, that I wasn’t made to work exclusively, exhaustedly or without end. I was made to live, and my work should be done in support of that living. Learning the difference has (quite literally) saved me, and stepping into that difference on a day-to-day basis has helped me thrive more than I ever thought possible.