Harassing Obama, Decision Fatigue, and the Necessity of Vacation

Our president’s 10-day vacation with his family in Martha’s Vineyard has been derided by his enemies as unacceptable with so much business left unfinished in Washington. There’s the budget, Libya, and a killer earthquake to contend with.  Opponents have called for him to cancel his vacation and hurry back to work. While such demands are an obvious political harassment intended to make Obama look lazy and self-indulgent, they send a dangerous message to the public: work, work, work, and keep working even if it makes you less productive, healthy, and imaginative.

As the writer Stephen King wrote in The Shining: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Jack, as you may recall, ended up trying to butcher his family. All work and no play makes presidents short-tempered, unable to think clearly, indecisive, unsuccessful, and irresponsible. Not taking vacation is detrimental to the mind, body, and spirit, and can lead to depression, cardiovascular disease, and immune system dysfunction, not to mention bad decisions.

A recent study reported in The New York Times discussed the phenomenon of “decision fatigue” and how the burden of constant decision-making leads to unreliable results. Specifically the study analyzed the decisions of a parole board with shocking results:

Judges, who would hear the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time…

There was nothing malicious or even unusual about the judges’ behavior… (it) was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider.” The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down.

The decision to grant parole leaves a human life hanging in the balance, and such wild variation in deciding if someone is granted freedom or returns to a prison cell is horrifying to me. It is one more bit of evidence that our judicial/penal system is still as primitive as we are. People are fallible, and fatigable, and the two conditions are very related. (Add a dash of theatrics, manipulative arguments, and the impossible expectation that doctors should be right all the time and you’ve got our medical malpractice system, but I digress…)

Creativity has been shown to improve with distancing oneself from the immediacy of day-to-day life as occurs on vacation.

Chronic stress causes dendrites, the communicating projections between nerve cells in the brain, to shrink in rats.

So how much rest has Obama actually taken?

Obama has spent just 61 days on vacation during 31 months in office. For the sake of comparison, George W. Bush had racked up 180 days at his Crawford, Texas, ranch at the same point in his presidency, and Ronald Reagan had logged 112 days at his ranch in California. (At the other end of the spectrum, Bill Clinton had taken only 28 vacation days 31 months into his first term.)

So after public brinkmanship over the budget deficit, and showing an unwillingness to compromise over several months, do those who demand Obama return to Washington now for more of the same bludgeoning realize their folly? Of course they do.  Not only are they badgering a man trying to reconnect with his family, but they are also placing his health, mental acumen, and by extension our country’s well-being in jeopardy.

And this does not just apply to Obama, Boehner, and the like. Would you rather negotiate with Kim Jong Il right after he gets back from a week partying in Phuket, or after he’s pulled another frustrating all-nighter trying to solve Rubik’s cube?

Let Obama have his vacation.

Let us all have our vacations.


4 thoughts on “Harassing Obama, Decision Fatigue, and the Necessity of Vacation

  1. Dr. Psychobabble

    post-partying in Phuket, definitely!

    It pains me that this is one of those “that’s so obvious, duh!” concepts, yet is one that we continually have to drill in our brains!

  2. Solitary Diner

    I would go one step farther and say not only does vacation help us to be better at our jobs, but vacation is also something that we deserve to have. No one, be they a physician or a president, should be expected to sacrifice their entire life and enjoyment of the same for their work.

  3. Greg P

    Aside from the specific issue of Obama’s vacation, I cannot recall, even looking back to the prejudiced attitude that John Kennedy faced as a non-WASP President, a time where there has been such a mean-spirited and persistent attack on a President of the US. We had proclamations, loud and vocal, that at every effort, the main theme from some would simply be to ensure that Obama’s presidency would accomplish nothing, so that anything he wanted to do regardless of its merit would be opposed. No attempt to shape his idea into something workable, simple opposition. By this sort of reckoning, Ronald Reagan as a Democrat would have been the most despised president in Republican eyes.
    I do not agree with Obama on all issues, I can’t even say I agree on most. I don’t yet know how to assess all of the impact of health care reform as it was enacted.
    What I can say is that I see any failure to deal with our current situation as being a greater failure for those entrusted with actually making legislation, the Congress, than I see with Obama. He has had precious little to either pass or veto, and this isn’t his responsibility.

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