Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Lessons from La Quinta: How to Make Vacations Work

Vacations are supposed to make us feel happy and refreshed. In many ways they do. But there’s other stuff in the mix that conspires against the goodness, creating vacation stress and post-vacation blues.

Last week I vacationed with family and friends in La Quinta, California, a resort city in the Coachella Valley, about a hundred miles dead east of Huntington Beach. Here are some of the ways I worked to avoid the bad and maximize the good.

Spring Glory in La Quinta

First, this place is unbelievable. Nestled into the craggy Santa Rosa Mountains, which block the clouds and precipitation flowing from the Pacific Coast, the Coachella Valley gets less than 4 inches of rain and more than 300 days of sunshine a year. Temperatures in April average 87 degrees, and humidity is low (about 18% at noon). La Quinta is spectacular desert country, and the weather in April is perfect.

Oh, and there’s the bougainvillea, an ornamental vine that flowers everywhere in La Quinta this time of year. The whole place is bursting in magenta for four to six weeks in the spring, and since “appreciation of beauty” is one of my top values (as measured by VIA Institute, take your free survey here), I was in awe. The whole week for me was bougainvillea bougainvillea bougainvillea.

Okay, now let’s get to the travel lessons.

Lesson 1: Plan for the Planning Fallacy.

It’s human nature to overestimate how much we can do in a travel day, and we often plan trips with an idealism that makes travel a living hell. We fall prey to what psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky coined as the planning fallacy, failing to accurately predict the time and effort that will be required to achieve our plans.

Two months out from the vacation, we think, If I book a 6am flight, I can be there by 9am and enjoy the whole day. The plan seems good from a distance, but when the alarm goes off at 3am we’re wondering, Who is the idiot who booked a 6am flight? Oh yeah, I was. Sure, the plane will touch down at 9am, but we wait longer than expected for baggage, then run into a problem getting the rental car, then have to stop off for food, then get delayed at hotel check-in. Then it takes longer to unpack and settle in. What we thought would happen by 9am actually happens by noon. Then we’re so tired from the trip we take a nap, then we get up and try to slog through the afternoon lull (experts in circadian rhythm tell us 3pm is the lowest energy point of the day). By dinner we’re picking up some energy, but then there’s that 16-hour waking wall we’re going to hit at 7pm because we’ve been up since 3am. What a crappy first day, we think.

This year Sandra and I decided on an early evening flight out, and set expectations that this will take longer than we plan. We worked for half that day, didn’t interrupt our sleep schedule, used lull-time to travel, and set our expectations low enough so that it worked out nicely. We arrived later than we thought we would, but generally speaking, had a good time and avoided the planning fallacy.

Lesson 2: Work for Win-Win.

We were vacationing with two other families, our close friends the Dunn’s and the Dunayski’s. They were heading down at different times, so the idea wasn’t to coordinate everything we did, but find ways to enjoy time together every day, while putting priority on our own families.

This takes work. The Dunayski’s wanted to do a lot of hiking in Painted Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park and the trail near the Quarry, leaving around 9am and getting back to the La Quinta resort in the early afternoon almost every day. The Dunn’s wanted to hike a day or two, but not the whole time. But Sandra and my two girls (Liz and Jess) didn’t want anything to do with hiking. “We don’t want to hike at all, not even one day,” they said. “We want to lay around by the pool. That’s it.”

Since this was Liz’ final high school spring break, we wanted to put priority on her preferences. So eventually we all agreed to visit Joshua Tree National Park in the late afternoon and evening on one of the days together, and have dinners together, but not get too caught up in shared activities that worked for one family but not for another.

I think we did a pretty good job of it, but the point is, win-win requires work. Leadership expert Stephen Covey encouraged people to ask, “Can we keep the conversation going until we get to win-win?” It’s natural for people run into conflict and throw up a wall, which is a mark of immaturity and leads to win-lose or lose-lose. But with maturity we can be patient and creative, talking things through and coming up with new ways to do things until everyone feels good about it.

Which leads me to golf. I love golf. Love love love golf. Given that La Quinta is one of the top golf destinations in the United States, I really wanted to play.

But not at the expense of family.

But since Sandra and I are so deeply scripted in win-win thinking, we’d come up with something a decade ago that works fantastic for all of us. If I play golf super early, she gets quiet time in the morning to read and exercise before the kids get up (usually around 10am). I usually get up around 6am every day anyway, so I tee off at 6:30am and am back by 10am when the kids wake up. Then we all spend the rest of the day together.

One day I was planning not to golf. “Ahh, I’d rather you play golf every day,” she says. “That way you aren’t bothering me in the morning.”

That’s win-win.

I played golf every day. The La Quinta Mountain course. The PGA West Nicklaus Tournament course. PGA West Nicklaus Private. PGA West Greg Norman. It was unbelievable. I caught the sunrise every morning, reflecting brilliant pink on the Santa Rosa range. It was an unbelievable experience every day, and it all happened for me before 10am. The rest of the day was fantastic as well, because everyone felt like they were getting to do something good.

Win-win is peace. Win-win is happiness. It’s worth the work.

Lesson 3: Remember the Inverted-U. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

In golf, there’s a replay rate. Once you’ve played 18 holes, you can play again that same day for a steep discount. For example, the first 18 holes at PGA West right now is $129 and the replay rate is $60.

Since I can play my first round in just over three hours, from 6:30am to 9:30am, there’s the temptation: play another round. 

I always say no when on vacation with family. Why? Because too much of a good thing is a bad thing. I’ve been thinking about the Inverted-U concept for decades now, and have been blogging about it for years now, because I it applies to pretty much all of life.

Here it is:

The graph shows an Inverted-U relationship between the Good we want out of life (vertical line) and the Quantity of things in our lives (horizontal line). Up to a point, more quantity makes for more good. But at at certain point the good maxes out. Adding more makes things worse, not better.

18 holes of golf in three hours is good for me. The replay round, on the other hand, is bad for me. So bad that you couldn’t pay me to play it. Here are my reasons:

  • Despite what most people believe about golf, it takes energy. Its a seven-mile walk. Swinging a club is like chopping a cord of wood. One round burns 1700 calories. So, do I want to walk 14 miles instead of 7, and chop two cords of wood instead of one? I don’t think so.
  • The replay round needs to start at 10:00 or later, and by that time everyone is on the course, so a round takes about five hours instead of just over three. A replay will keep me there until at least 3pm, which cuts into family time and gets me back right in the afternoon lull. That means I’m shot until dinner.
  • The replay round is played in the heat of the day. In La Quinta, the sunrise round starts at 65 degrees and by the time the round ends we’re at 80 degrees. But the replay round starts at 80 degrees and ends at 90 degrees.

I know this, but still had to resist the temptation to play again when I shot a 73 on the PGA West Nicklaus Tournament course this week, from the Championship tees. It was a great round, better than my score showed, because I was two under par going into the 16th hole and bogeyed 16, 17, and 18 to finish one over. Man, if I replay, I could beat that score, I thought as I finished up. But then I caught myself. Remember Erik, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Don’t give in to temptation. Head back to the condo. 

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