Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Art of Vacation

When is the last time you took a vacation? I’m not necessarily talking about an expensive trip to an exotic destination; I’m talking about a simple break from your daily routine. Merriam-Webster defines vacation as, “a period of time that a person spends away from home, school, or business usually in order to relax or travel” (Merriam-webster.com). Speaking strictly from personal experience, we all need to retreat from routine once in awhile to reenergize ourselves. Our minds need a break and our bodies need rest.

We work in an age of immediacy. People send email and expect a (sometimes unreasonably) quick reply. Instant messaging, a means of communication even more immediate than email, is becoming more popular at work. I’ve heard of 2-hour voice mail standards in some work places. Pile these communications on top of increasing workloads and multiple projects and we have created for ourselves a stressful work environment that leaves us exhausted at the end of the day. Multiply that day by weeks and then by months and, at some point, our minds and our bodies say, “Enough already!”

Sadly, along with the convenience and immediacy of modern forms of communications comes what I call The Fear of Disconnecting. Many of us cannot or will not disconnect from work, even when supposedly on vacation, because we suffer from The Fear. Seriously? Are any of us really so important that our workplace would collapse if we disappeared for a week or two? Unfortunately, I know many colleagues who, by their actions, seem to take that notion to heart. I’m asking you to consider otherwise.

After years of vacationing with my laptop and smart phone as travel companions, I wondered why I returned from vacation pretty much as stressed as when I departed. Then it hit me: I never really disconnected. I checked email once or twice each day and replied to most messages. I checked voice mail one or more times daily and returned or forwarded important calls. I found that I was spending an hour or more of each vacation day – working! No wonder I couldn’t relax! No wonder I was stressed! “But this is what’s expected; this is what is necessary these days,” I thought.

Two years ago, I decided to conduct a personal experiment by adopting my own personal vacation policy centered on a complete disconnection from my work routine. While the benefits of such a policy are numerous, here are three benefits that should resonate with most of us:

  1. When I disconnect completely I truly enjoy the vacation experience. Whether visiting an exotic location or doing yard work at the lake (yes, that is R&R for me) the experience receives my full attention. My mind is focused on something other than routine. That’s the point.
  2. When I disconnect completely I am a better travel companion for my family. They get all of me for those few days.
  3. When I disconnect completely I return to work from vacation feeling refreshed and rejuvenated – a win for my coworkers and a win for me.

That all sounds great, but how do we pull this off in today’s world of immediate communication? How do we disconnect while respecting the expectation that we be immediately available? Friends, it’s all in the planning. Two to three weeks before my scheduled vacation, I let my boss, my coworkers, and my direct reports know of my plans. I give them the dates of my vacation and remind them that I will not check email or voice mail while I’m away. This gives them ample time to request things from me before I leave, thus mitigating the possibility of somebody needing something while I’m away and feeling frustrated because I’m not there to deliver it. I give similar notification to important business partners outside my company – in my case those include our insurance broker, our claims representatives, and our outside law firms. I give my first notice three weeks ahead of time if possible, and I repeat the notice at least once each week leading up to my scheduled vacation.

Before leaving the office, I update my voice mail greeting and my email auto-reply to clearly state that I am unavailable while offering a means of reaching a qualified coworker. If you email me today, for example, this is the message you will receive: “I am out of the office on vacation. I will not be checking email while I’m away. I will return to the office on Friday, March 28 and I will receive and reply to your email after my return. Should you require assistance before then, please contact…” Similarly, if you call my work number today, you will receive this voice mail greeting: “This is Jeff Strege with CEC Entertainment. I am on vacation. You may press zero now to be transferred to another member of the risk management team. If you’d prefer to leave a message you may do so at the tone, but I will not receive your message until I return to the office on Friday, March 28.” My goal is to clearly state that I will not receive the message until my return while giving the sender or caller a means by which they can reach somebody else for assistance.

I offer this side comment on out of office messaging: If you say you’re out, you’re out. If you set your out of office message to say you’re out, but then reply to emails or return phone calls your Out of Office Credibility is shot. When you try to disconnect for vacation, people who know you well may expect a reply anyway. Set the message and let it be.

This system has worked beautifully for me. Fortunately, I work with people who understand the needs and benefits of a real vacation – and I bet most of those reading this do as well. I dare you to try it. If it’s a scary proposition for you, take a Friday off and allow yourself to disconnect completely for the 3-day weekend. If you haven’t tried it before, you may be surprised at how refreshed you feel when you return to work on Monday.

P.S. I am not a psychologist or a human behavior expert, nor is this piece intended to persuade anybody to behave in a manner not consistent with company policy or procedure. This piece is based solely on my personal experience. Good luck!

A Quiet Witness

I often ponder what my outward life says to those around me. When people look at me, who or what do they see? In this age of social media, the question is even more impactful as I consider what every Tweet, every Facebook post and every Yelp review conveys to the world about who I am and what I stand for. I confess, I can have a quick tongue, or in the case of social media, a quick hit to the “Post” button before really considering how what I’m about to say will impact those who hear or read it.

But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need. ~ 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12

As I was leafing through my prayer book this morning, this passage that I wrote down a few years ago jumped off the page. What is this “quiet life” that Paul speaks of? What does it look like, and what does it convey to those “outsiders” he mentions?

Taken in context, Paul is praising the Thessalonians for living a life that honors God by loving their neighbors and sanctifying themselves by avoiding sexual immorality and other sins that tarnish the soul as they mislead unbelievers about what the Christian life is really supposed to look like. As Paul encourages them with this praise, he exhorts them to “excel still more” – to continue to strive to live holy lives as God instructed.

I know Christians who lead the “quiet life” Paul speaks about. These men and women are not recluses; they do not hide from the world. Indeed, they walk among us. Their very faith, their very resolve to seek to live for the Lord emanates from their being. The Christian who lives in this manner witnesses to the world (“outsiders”) without uttering a single word; the world sees Christ through these people. These people are not perfect; they sin just as I do. But they are so tuned in to the Savior that they have a sense of peace about them that draws others to them, often opening the door to a dialogue about sin, death, and the forgiveness and everlasting life that is available only through faith in God’s Son Jesus Christ.

Jesus calls each believer to witness for Him; to share the Good News of salvation that only He offers. By honoring Him with my life I am as available to witness as I can be. To dishonor Him by how I live or what I say discredits me and my witness is called into question.

I’ve taken a hiatus from Facebook during Lent. I’m using this time to reflect on my own life and what it conveys to the “outsiders” I meet every day. I pray that God will forgive my shortcomings as He leads me to that quiet life that speaks volumes to the world. Amen.

Help my Unbelief

Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” ~ Mark 9:24

Have you ever felt this way? You know God is real, you know the only way to salvation is through His Son, Jesus Christ, you know anything is possible through Him – but that nagging doubt rears its ugly head at the most inopportune time. You doubt your belief even as you believe it. I have; I’m sure we all have.

This encounter with Jesus really struck me as I read it the other day. A man brings his son, who suffers from seizures, to Jesus and asks Him to drive out the demon that causes the seizures. The man explains that Jesus’ disciples could not drive out the demon and says to the Lord, “If you can do anything [there’s that nagging doubt at the inopportune time], take pity on us and help us!” (Mark 9:22) Jesus seems rightfully indignant as He repeats the man’s words back to him, “IF you can?” and tells the man that all things are possible for those who believe in Him. The man then pleads his case, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”

What does Jesus do in response? After all, the man’s weak faith was bared for all to see; Jesus could simply let him wallow in his doubt. But, notice what the man did. He confessed his weakness and asked the Source of faith to strengthen his faith, to help his unbelief. Jesus honored the man’s prayer for help and drove out the demon, thus healing the boy.

This, my friends, is our Savior – the One who loves us so much that He sacrificed Himself on the cross to bear all of our sins; even the sin of doubtful faith. Jesus knows our imperfections and our shortcomings, yet He promises to love us in spite of those things. He demonstrated His love on the cross of Calvary.

The Lenten season is upon us. Let us use this time to reflect on our sins and lay them at the feet of our Savior. Let us boldly approach Him and ask Him to help us with those nagging sins that we just can’t seem to shake on our own. And, once we’ve done so, let us trust Him to keep His promise; after all, He already has.

Here is the complete passage from the Gospel according to Mark:

14 When they came back to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 Immediately, when the entire crowd saw Him, they were amazed and began running up to greet Him. 16 And He asked them, “What are you discussing with them?” 17 And one of the crowd answered Him, “Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it.” 19 And He answered them and said, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!” 20 They brought the boy to Him. When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth. 21 And He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 “It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” 23 And Jesus said to him, ” ‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.” 24 Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was rapidly gathering, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You deaf and mute spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again.” 26 After crying out and throwing him into terrible convulsions, it came out; and the boy became so much like a corpse that most of them said, “He is dead!” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and raised him; and he got up. 28 When He came into the house, His disciples began questioning Him privately , “Why could we not drive it out?” 29 And He said to them, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.” ~ Mark 9:14-29 [NAS]

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