Five Lessons From Spain

A mid-day stop in Madrid for Tapas and Scenery.

I apologize for not posting in a very long time but I've been in gloriously sunny Spain. We hung out with a friend, who is presently completing research for her PhD in Madrid, for about a week. Then we spent a few days in Barcelona and a few days in Seville.

I don’t want to by hyperbolic and say it was a life-changing experience but it was certainly one of the best vacations I’ve had in a long time.

I was going to set up some posts to queue in my absence, but then later decided I would have time to blog while on the road. I sat down once in a while on to write, but came to the realization that I would have to rely on Wifi at coffee shops to post — no phone, no Internet for a few weeks turned out to be better than it sounded. A better use of time would be to enjoy my time off. While I was inspired to write almost every night, it simply marinated in my mind.

In fact, it was probably great for my brain to take some much deserved downtime. I’m not particularly proud of this but it had been 2 years since my last real vacation.

Publicly, I must admit that I have a heck of a time not thinking about what I do for living night and day. I’ve found it incredibly difficult for years to turn my brain off or divert my attention away from my work. My relationship often helps, friends and family too, but learning to structure downtime is a constant struggle, as I’m sure it is for everyone else in North America.

Here are some of the things I reflected upon since I got back:

1) We work too much in North America.

Some may say this is the reason we’ve managed to be so successful on the business front, but I know this has little to do with it. There are wildly successful companies like Google, Adobe and Netflix that go above and beyond the legal requirements.

Two weeks vacation (or 10 business days is the legal requirement for employers in Canada) is simply not enough for people to unplug. Spaniards get twenty-one business days, or four and a bit weeks, nearly double! The same can be said for much of Europe actually with most countries starting with about four to five weeks.

2) We (specifically North America) need to learn better skills at achieving downtime and form habits that reinforce opportunities for downtime.

Exercise is a good start, for myself, I’ve found surfing, playing drums, skiing and other physical activities to be monumental as well. What do you do to unwind? How do you put yourself in a mental state where you don’t think about work?

3) We need to unplug.

At first I panicked, no Internet, no phone, what am I gonna do? It’s not like they don’t have these in Spain but I certainly noticed that not as many people relied on them the same way we do in North America.

After about 3 days I became entrenched in living for the moment, I read books on the history of Spain and Art. We would get up and decide that day what we would be doing. In a world of structure, I was glad to take out my biggest tools for structure, the phone and Internet.

4) We need to stop and slow down more.

We walked all day it seemed, saw a lot in a short amount of time but one of the best things we did was stop and slow down. The Spanish do this quite well with a little food and a little wine for Tapas.

Small portions, some good conversation or just enjoying the weather and the moment. It was a good reminder to me that breaks from what we were doing were just as important as what we were doing.

5) 8-hours of real quality work each day is a myth.

The Spanish take this to another level perhaps, if I had one criticism of their culture it would be that they are a little too involved in the social dimension of well-being — I need to find a country somewhere between Spain and North America, I’ve heard Germany is nice. This may be reflected by the second highest unemployment rate in Europe right now, but despite that, they still appear to be quite happy. Therefore, I believe the principle to be worthwhile still.

The Spanish still typically work a 35-40 hour work week, but they take time off during the day. It’s easy to see the 11:30 AM and 3 PM breaks and assume that they probably don’t get much work done, but stuff still got done, even with short work hours — nobody seemed to actually work a 40-hour work week, especially in Southern Spain.

As a side note, I don’t think anyone gets more than a solid 5-6 hours of productivity in a day anyway, even though I frequently appear to work 12. The rest of those hours may be doing work that needs doing, but it’s never my quality work, the stuff that matters needs to get into that 5-6 hours when I’m really feeling productive.

If you’re looking for relevance here. Not everyone may realize this but distress is one of the major causes of weight gain, shortened life span and reduced quality of life. Work – Life Balance has perhaps the most impact on your levels of distress, and consequently level of health and well-being.

Darren Beattie

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