The Time-Off Prescription

Mary Lou Quinlan took a five-week vacation from her job, and it changed her life. Her advice: You should do the same.

Interview by Gay Jervey
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

Get Away

Five weeks off from work? You may be rolling your eyes at the mere idea. But in her new book, Time Off for Good Behavior (Broadway, 2005), Mary Lou Quinlan, the former CEO of a New York advertising agency, writes about 37 women who, like her, had hit a wall and needed a breather to ask themselves: What next? Whether they found the answer — like Quinlan, who was inspired to start her own marketing firm, called Just Ask a Woman — or are still searching, those who left work emerged relaxed and attuned to what they really want from life. Quinlan, 51, told us why we all should take time off — and argues, compellingly, that it’s not as impossible as we think.

Why is it so important for women at this stage of their careers to take time off?

"The first day of my leave was my 45th birthday. Like many women, I know what it feels like to have 25 working years under my belt, and still crave an exhilarating experience in the next 25. Women of my generation have paid their dues big-time and have more than earned a break. We have a track record of being the ones to worry about our children, our spouses, our parents, our friends. Time off gives us the space to reclaim an out-of-control life."

Why do we find it so hard to take it?

"The women I interviewed didn’t blame their corporations or their bosses. They blamed themselves for overworking. They are their own worst enemy. When I speak to women who are plain exhausted about taking time off, I hear ‘I can’t.’ They see it as black and white."

How much time off do we need?

"It depends on how you are feeling. One woman in my book, Monique, spent a week alone on a beach for her 40th birthday and decided to leave her job to focus on her bed-and-breakfast dream business. Jane saved for four years so she could take a year off when her daughter went to preschool. I think the decision is relative to how much you’re hurting, how much you’re dreaming, and how much you can afford."

In your book, you talk about the a-ha! moments that lead to taking time off. What are those?

"They are when the reality of your life slaps you in the face. A particularly critical one occurred for me after my dad’s stroke in 1997. I left his bedside to fly to a half-hour client meeting. I remember sitting in the airport, and feeling that this just wasn’t me. I didn’t feel proud of myself. But just because you have these moments doesn’t mean you respond right away. There is a tendency to shelve them for a while and keep pushing on."

Burnout is another reason to take a break. What are the signs?

"For a couple of years, I was a charter member of the 2 a.m. wake-up group. I just thought I had a lot on my mind, but I have learned that sleeplessness is a real sign. So are personality changes. I am naturally upbeat. But I became impatient, short with people. Also, doing less of what you enjoy, like socializing or exercising."

What finally made you realize that you needed to leave your job?

"An accumulation of moments showed how much I had changed. My husband, Joe, and I were at this idyllic seaside inn and I was on a cell-phone rant to the office. He finally said, ‘Do you see what you are becoming?’ But the thing that specifically led me to take time off was just a friend asking me if I’d ever thought about it. I hadn’t. It wasn’t like quitting. I could still go back. That seemed so right."

It must be tough to go cold turkey — to not constantly check voice mail and e-mail for once.

"Some of the women I interviewed really struggled with the downtime — I know I snuck in a couple of listens to my voice mail the first few days — but having some things scheduled kept that urge in check. The goal is to slow down, and try not to replace meetings with closet cleaning. For comfort, set up about three planned things a week. I took dancing lessons. Other than that, draw a line through the rest of your week. Do things that force you to relax. In the end, all the women noticed that the constant need to connect fades."

You came out of your leave inspired to start your own business. Should everyone expect such dramatic results?

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