I don't know how to take a vacation!

I'm self-employed, working 70-hour weeks and overwhelmed at the thought of planning for time off.

By Cary Tennis

Published June 7, 2007 11:06AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I run my own one-person business. The work is creative and rewarding and I am reasonably well compensated. I'm good at what I do and feel appreciated. The problem is, I work upward of 70 hours a week and I simply can't relax. I often get so stressed that I feel like I have a steel cord inside my neck. I smoke too much. During particularly rough patches I break out in eczema and psoriasis. I would love to take a vacation but I don't know how to unwind.

It has been nearly a decade since I took more than a weekend off. With a little planning, I probably could string together a couple of weeks and I could afford it, but I've literally forgotten how vacations work. The thought of planning an itinerary, booking a flight and hotels, finding someone to care for my cat, packing and hauling bags to the airport, sightseeing -- it all just feels like more work!

My friends always seem to be going places, and I almost feel obligated to take a trip myself. I'm not a sun worshipper so the thought of lying on a hot beach somewhere is unappealing, and I'm not into golf or tennis. I wasn't always like this. How do people relax?


Dear Stressed,

I have an idea. You say your friends are always going places and you think you should go places too. Why not ask your friends if you can go to one of the places they are going to at the same time they are going there? You could ask them to make the reservations for you, and you would just pay them back, or even pay them a little extra so you all could get upgrades, say, slightly better rooms or better rental cars or whatever, in return for them just making the plans. Just explain that you're really stuck on the travel-planning thing and you need help making travel plans and if you don't take a vacation soon you are going to ignite.

And then go somewhere and find yourself alone in a room with nothing to do and see what happens. See if you go to the museum all day. See if you get drunk. See if you go to the beach. Just see what happens when you take the harness off.

I too was for many years unable to plan a vacation. The reason, in fact, that I am suggesting you involve other people is that it worked for me. I involved my wife, who makes good reservations for two well in advance. I also at one point involved our friends, who together with my wife made good reservations for four well in advance. I largely stayed out of it. And I was largely happy on the trip except for complaining, which I did like a child squired through Europe by indulgent minders, and except for frequent sulking and frequently appearing to almost freak out, which I found I can do sort of like Heifetz can play the violin.

As for packing and hauling bags to the airport, well, if you go together to the airport then you can help each other with the bags.

Now you are just left with the packing and the cat. You're not going to pack today. So concentrate on the cat.

The cat is the only thing you have to deal with now. Your friends have made the reservations and itinerary and you have luggage. (Luggage. Do you have luggage? Do you have one good lightweight soft-sided suitcase with wheels and zippered outside pockets?)

OK. Now you have luggage. You just have to deal with the cat.

So deal with the cat. Finding someone to care for your cat is now your job. Again: Ask your friends. Do they have cats? What do they do with their cats? Maybe a friend will house-sit. I don't know the ins and outs of cat care. But if you eliminate everything else and just concentrate on getting the cat taken care of during your trip, then I think you can handle that.

And then packing.

Packing. Try this: Pack one month ahead! OK, a week ahead. OK, a day ahead. OK, late the night before. OK, the same day. OK, 10 minutes before you leave. Whatever works for you.

Packing used to cause me to have symptoms similar to those of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Because of this, packing would be accomplished with less-than-superb efficiency and calm. It was more like Rain Man was packing.

Then for a couple of years it was necessary to frequently remove the shoes and be wanded prior to boarding. It was necessary to frequently stand at counters in noisy terminals and present documents of official import to strangers in uniform. And every time before these other things were done, it was necessary to pack. So there was a lot of packing being accomplished. So it became routine -- in a way. It is still like Rain Man is packing but now it is almost as if Rain Man is enjoying packing. Rain Man is a happy packer.

But dude: You have to manage your stress day-to-day. That is the other thing. You have to manage your stress or you will have an incident. I had an incident. It taught me something: Do you have medical insurance? Do you know how much one day in the hospital costs if you have an incident, even an imaginary one? It was amazing how high the numbers were on the bill. It was like Donald Trump got sick.

Anyway, you have to manage your stress. If you have a mental block about that, consider it in business terms: You have to maintain the plant. You are the plant. It's irresponsible to put the plant in danger. So take some of your business funds and put them toward plant maintenance. Get some stress management. Sign up at a gym. Go there and sit in the sauna. Get on one of those machines. Pedal. Pull on the handles and think of Puerto Rico.

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