It was a typical elevator conversation.  Two women were talking.  One was trying to resolve a work related dilemma by shortening her vacation.  Her colleague said, “Don’t short change your vacation!”  I couldn’t resist.  I turned around and said to this complete stranger, “Don’t do that, never do that!”  We all laughed.  Then, the elevator doors opened and I got off.  The words “Cancer Center” hung large above the doors across the hall – I hope I made my point.

While I was only there for a check-in, the importance of the message bears repeating.  The importance of taking relaxing, uninterrupted vacations cannot be overstated.  Consider these two examples:

Two years ago, I was excited as usual for our annual summer vacation to the shore when my boss told me that I was needed at a two day conference in London, smack in the middle of my vacation week.   I hesitantly agreed, not wanting to miss the opportunity to join the discussion.  But in my heart, I felt terribly cheated.

To make matters worse, on the day I left my four year old son was running a high fever and my six year old daughter had broken out in a full body rash.  Missing my summer vacation, leaving my sick children, I left with a heavy, heavy heart.  It remains one of my worst memories as a mother.

The following winter, a corporate conference was planned on short notice.  I, and several of my colleagues, had to skip planned (and paid) vacations.  This time, it was a five day trip to a rented house in Vermont.  I stayed behind and missed the first three days.  By the time I arrived, it was nearly time to pack up and come home.

This might all seem reasonable (or just the way it is) to the typical overworked, corporate American go-getter, but when I was diagnosed with breast cancer two months later, those vacations haunted me.  The thought passed through my mind that they might have been the last two family vacations I would ever have.

Let me tell you, no amount of recognition (which I didn’t get), or dangled promotion (which I also didn’t get) could have made up for what I lost.  They could not have compensated for those intrusions; intrusions into my time, my space, my family, and my life.  But I knew the real problem was that I had allowed them.

Of course this will hopefully never happen to you but the point is that you must cherish the time spent on personal and family relationships, as well as the time spent on yourself as if another time won’t come.  I don’t mean you should be sad or fearful, quite the opposite. Be fully present, be joyful, and don’t take it for granted.  Know how precious and important it is.  Don’t give it away or allow anyone or anything to come between you and what matters.

With summer’s arrival, you will surely start thinking about some time off.  Here are five things to remember when planning your summer vacation:

 1.  First and foremost, take one! Take two if you can.  Vacations are not frivolous.  They are not a luxury.  Time off from work is necessary to be well, to have thriving personal and family relationships, and to de-stress and recharge.   Being overworked is out, being well-balanced is in.  Have no guilt, make no compromises, and take no shortcuts.

 2.  Do not check work email while you are on vacation.  By checking email you will not be able to resist the temptation to open the really juicy ones, the ones that get your blood boiling.  You will also not be able to resist jumping in.  Worst of all, you will not be able to really clear your mind of work and leave it behind.  Let people know that you will not be checking in and that they should call if they need you.

3.  Focus on yourself, family and friends.  If you are unsure of or feel disconnected from any of these things, use the time off to reconnect and rediscover.  Remember, these are the people (yourself included) who will be there for you should your job be lost or if hard times come.   Be present and invest in them generously.   Vacations are also a time for quiet reflection, to nurture your “inner space” as Arianna Huffington so well puts it, and forget about the rest.

4,  Say no to unwelcome work intrusions on your vacation plans.   If I could go back, I would never allow my work-life balance to become so one-sided.  So speak up, set boundaries, and hold your ground.   Corporate America is more than happy to cross those boundaries and have you believe nothing is sacred.  Remember that you teach people how to treat you, so make it clear that you intend to honor your personal time and relationships.

5.  And if you feel  a twinge of corporate guilt, stop and consider this – you are doing your part to keep company healthcare costs down by responsibly taking time off to reduce stress, nurture your personal and family relationships, and stay healthy so you can come back to work happy, refreshed, and more productive!

So start dreaming of the beach, the lake, the mountains, or just your own back yard.  Anticipate the time off and what you will do with your time.  Make it special.  Do what you can to tie up loose ends at the office so nothing lingers, festers, or detracts from your ability to leave it all behind.   You deserve it!

Welcome summer!