You’ve been there: work is busy, you’re getting to the gym, and your social life is thriving. But all this success-ing takes time – a lot of time – and projects on your To Do list sit there, un-started and unlikely to get done any time soon because you simply don’t have the bandwidth.
What is that thing you want to get done and should get done, but just don’t seem able to? Calling it a “side project” probably doesn’t do it justice. It could be anything from starting a side business to concepting a design project to putting in serious work on a longstanding creative project (how many unfinished novels exist in the world?). Whatever it is, it really matters. As we all know in this high-tech, low-overhead economy, sometimes side hustles can become truly satisfying primary careers.
So what’s the solution? Perhaps the internet’s most oft-touted answer is: quit your job and follow your dream. It’s the subject of countless blogs, Youtube channels, and inspirational Instagram accounts, and we hear it all the time in stories of highly successful people. I always think of the musician Bon Iver, who went off in a cabin in the woods and produced his masterwork.
There’s two big problems with the Quit Your Job concept: 1. Most of us can’t simply stop working, and 2. It sets you up for near-guaranteed failure.
The reason why is simple: structure is good, and just walking away from the structure in your life can be counter-productive. Peel back the surface of those “man goes into the woods alone and emerges with greatness” stories and you’ll discover the vast majority lived a highly structured life built around maximum personal output, whatever that meant for them. Picasso, Darwin, and Stephen King are all great examples of prolific producers who thrived on structure, and Ben Franklin turned structure and productivity into a science.
I think the secret to jump-starting a project lies somewhere in between the two extremes of Quit Your Job and Just Keep Grinding. There’s no question distance from your daily routines boosts creativity and frees up bandwidth. The question is – how do you design a period of time for both maximum spaciousness and true productivity?
Gentlemen, I give you: The Work-cation.
It’s a simple but powerful concept I stumbled on a few years ago and have been using ever since whenever I feel stuck on a major project, or too bogged down by my regular responsibilities to get started on something really important to me.
The Work-cation: What It Is and How It Works
A few years ago, I had a project that really needed to get done: the Primer email was in dire need of a re-design and I kept not finding time in my daily routine. Weeks piled up. Finally, I decided to try something different.
I found an Airbnb in Malibu, and reserved it for the upcoming weekend. Malibu is the quintessential California beach town – sun, surf, and great restaurants – and I’d never spent any real time there. But before I left, I set some limitations: During my weekend away I was going to cook my own healthy food, do a daily routine of calisthenics (50 push-ups, sit-ups, and squats), and abstain from alcohol. And most importantl: I was going to do my design project.
The weekend turned out to be a revelation. I rose ready to be productive, and was further renewed by the daily routines of fresh, simple eating and exercise. If I felt like it, I’d take a run in the canyons early in the morning, and then tackle some vexing aspect of my project. Being in a new place – even though it was just an hour from my home in Los Angeles – was energizing, and I was able to finish my redesign in two and a half days after struggling to get started for months.
My Malibu mini-trip became the template for a formula I’ve applied several times over the years: pick a place that’s not too hard to get to, go there with a specific goal in mind, and reap the benefits of increased energy and focus. Of course, I’m not knocking traditional vacation time, but the Work-cation serves a different function. Sometimes what you need is time off, but sometimes what you need is time on.
That's why I jumped at the chance when the cool folks at Chevy asked if I'd like to take a new Cruze out to Palm Springs for a couple of days to get out of LA, meet some great people doing awesome things on their own websites and social media channels, and get some work done outside of my normal bubble. I grabbed my buddy Shane, who also contributes to Primer and has his own creative agency that needed the benefits of a work-cation, and we hit the road.
Here’s how I break down the Work-cation process, with some tips about how to maximize your hard-earned time off for fun and productivity.
Step 1: Set Your Intention
Simply put, what is it you want to accomplish? As with any goal setting, it needs to be specific and achievable. It can be as simple as: “Generate 100 new product ideas for my business,” or involved as, “Do deep learning and attain basic proficiency in Photoshop.”
You also want to set a strong intention to enjoy yourself. Say to yourself, “I’m going to work 10AM to 4PM through the day and go out at night,” or “I'm going to get up, take a hike, and then knock productive hours.” Maybe you work at the pool. Maybe you rise early and are done by lunch every day. The point is to get a lot done, but not have it feel like your daily grind. Work-cations combine the best things about vacation with your most productive times at home.
In Palm Springs, we decided we were going to get up and get out to get the mental motor running. The expanse of the desert in the Indian Canyons provided great morning hikes and got me motivated in a different way than the city can.
Step 2: Set Your Rules
Setting limitations or rules on your Work-cation is vital. Without rules, it’s just vacation. For my original Malibu trip, the rules were to cook my own food instead of getting fast food, exercise for a short but intense period, and accomplish six hours of work each day. Another rule? No drinking. I know this seems odd for a getaway, but I’d noticed my social drinking had gone up in recent months. I wanted to take a break from booze (even excellent booze), and I honestly believe putting forth that bit of discipline had a crossover effect on my work. It’s an unexpected, key feature of a work getaway: new discipline in one area of your life begets renewed discipline in another.
Work-cations aren’t just for producing work product. I find they can help you start a new healthy habit, renew ones you’ve let go, or experiment with a different way of living you can bring back to your “regular” life.
In Palm Springs, my rules were less diet restrictive. Instead, I wanted to get out of my routine and reframe my daily relationship with my work. Another benefit of the Work-cation is it removes any ropes your social circle may tug on evenings and weekends which force you to choose between Fear of Missing Out or Not Getting Anything Done. For this, rules like no TV, social media, or time-waster websites during certain hours or at all, make being productive easier.
Step 3: Pick the Right Place
Pick your destination carefully. Cities like Chicago and Austin are not a good fit for a work-themed getaway because they’re too big, too exciting, and have too much to do. You’ll either get distracted, or leave disappointed because you didn’t see all the stuff.
Palm Springs, CA has a reputation as a sleepy destination for senior citizens, but it's also home to some really cool, young hotels like The Parker Hotel and Ace Hotel, spots with dining, heated pools, and a hip, younger scene. The Parker isn’t a resort, but it serves a similar purpose – when I was deep in my project, I didn’t have to worry about which restaurants to try or getting dressed up for the night. I simply ordered some room service, jammed on my work, and then checked out the fun 70’s themed lounge area in the evening. The Parker took care of my vacation-y needs, and not having to “get to know the town” meant I could focus on work when I wanted to and relax the rest of the time.
The Palm Springs trip is a great example of the kind of place you want to focus on: a smaller city or large destination town where you’re not worried about seeing everything but you can still relax and get a genuine time-away vibe. Remember, you’re borrowing the energy of the place for your own goals, so choose with intention. Palm Springs is known as a living design museum of mid-century and eclectic interior styling, two that I find personally inspiring for my own apartment, and the visual energy has a way of jumpstarting my own creative motor.
Palm Springs, CA
Chapel Hill, NC
Step 4: Work for Rewards
In my experience, procrastination and distraction haven’t been an issue on Work-cations, simply because I’ve already invested some effort in setting my intention, and creating rules. That said, working smart means having some rewards in place. Behavioral science is clear on this point: our brains respond to rewards. It’s a big part of Charles Duhigg’s excellent book on habits.
Be deliberate in the rewards you choose. In Palm Springs, the group took a golf lesson at PGA West that turned out to be both relaxing and energizing, since it was a new experience and encouraged my mind and coordination to attempt things they haven't done before.
I also brought a bottle of Ardbeg single malt Scotch to enjoy in the evenings after I put in a productive day, and the lowered light, moody tunes, and the smoky class of the Islay whisky had a way of giving me a new creative wind for more work after the sun went down.
Make sure you include these rewards, large and small. This way, it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice of your vacation days for personal projects but an extension of your desire to both relax and get something meaningful done.
As author Amit Kalantri says, “Finish the work, otherwise an unfinished work will finish you.” Thankfully, meaningful work on your projects doesn’t always have to be all sacrifice.
I’m excited to share this new workflow with you guys, and curious to hear your thoughts.
Have you tried your own Work-cation style getaway? If so, what were the results? I like this framework because within it, there’s almost unlimited flexibility to increase the work or the fun, all while keeping your goals foremost in mind.