As the year winds down, many Americans will take some time off from work. For those who struggle to take the vacation hours they’re due, the winter holidays provide an ironclad excuse. Yet, despite good intentions, many of us will spend these “vacations” frustratingly suspended between work and play. Emails proliferate, sent by clients and colleagues who aren’t on hiatus. “Quick” conference calls last all morning. Meanwhile, the dejected and irritated faces of children and partners convey what we already know: This is no vacation.
After a few days of existential limbo, we’ll return to work no more rested than when we left.
Happy New Year!
In this hyper-connected age of smartphones, Twitter feeds, Facebook and more, how do we take the vacation we so desperately need?
Cut the cord
The modern puzzle about vacations isn’t whether or not they’re a good thing. At some point or another we’ve experienced the positive results of a short break away from work: better mood, higher productivity, and increased creativity. A quick Google search reveals countless scientific studies highlighting the emotional and physical benefits of taking a vacation. Rather, the dilemma many of us face these days is how to safeguard this time so it truly is restorative. It’s not, should I? but, how do I?
Technology is the number one reason vacations don’t feel like vacations anymore. Whether out of perceived necessity or habit, we’re loath to give up the daily drip of internet-enabled information and entertainment that’s become woven into our professional and personal lives. Unsurprisingly, experts across the board advise leaving your smartphone behind when you head off on vacation. Another vacation killer? That urge to document every moment of your time off on Facebook and Instagram. Tuning into those addictive apps, with their steady stream of other people’s news and experiences, makes it nearly impossible to be in the moment with your own.
Tuning into those addictive apps [Facebook and Instagram], with their steady stream of other people’s news and experiences, makes it nearly impossible to be in the moment with your own.
Plan ahead to play
The prospect of an exploding inbox can cause intense pre-vacation jitters. With the right approach, you can withstand the onslaught of a few days of unanswered mail. Do turn on your "Out of Office" automated reply so clients and colleagues know that you’re away. In that message, let people know where you stand on reviewing emails. Consider letting them know that if you’re not in the “to” field, you may not read it. Suggest a date after which they should resend the email if they really need you to see it.
Graham David Hughes traveled to every single country in the world without ever getting on a plane. Listen on as he provides some fascinating insights into cultural norms and peculiarities from his many adventures around the globe.
If you want to take email emancipation one step further, set up a vacation-only email address. Personal email can be just as detrimental to your attempts to unwind. Messages about a missing neighborhood cat will kill the mood sitting in a café in Paris. What’s the point? You can’t do anything about that cat from your view of the Eiffel Tower.
The website Careercast.com offers 10 steps toward ensuring a restorative vacation, everything from “Plan Ahead” and “Delegate Major Projects” to “Leave Emergency Contact Information” and, importantly, “Trust Your Coworkers.” This last one illuminates a key to taking restful vacations that most of us probably don’t fully utilize. Coworkers have the potential to make or break our vacations depending on how empowered they feel to step in while we’re away. Grant them ownership of important projects and trust them to do a great job. You’ll likely receive fewer emergency texts while you’re away.
For some people, unplugging completely isn’t practical, either because of the type of work they do or the situation they’re leaving behind. But most of us are more expendable than we think. If you truly want to take a vacation where real life intrudes as infrequently as possible, you need to be proactive. Before you leave, decide how much unplugging is possible and how you’ll do it.
If you truly want to take a vacation where real life intrudes as infrequently as possible, you need to be proactive.
The following questions from the Harvard Business Review encourage a kind of pre-vacation connectivity audit:
What’s the least amount of connectivity I can get away with? Be honest. It’s probably possible to unplug more completely than you realize. Work martyrs, I’m looking at you. Believe in the value of taking a real vacation. You’ve earned it.
What do I still want to use technology for while I’m away? At a minimum, if you’re traveling away from home you may need to get directions, download maps, make plans with local friends and keep in touch with family members. Get a cheap phone (a “burner” for you fans of The Wire) and use it only for the trip.
Which accounts will I disconnect from? You can do it. You can weed out the array of apps, emails, and online news feeds you review. Who knows, within a few days you might find you don’t even miss them.
What do I and my fellow travelers expect from one another? This can be tough, especially if you and your partner don’t see eye-to-eye on unplugging. Agree ahead of time to some ground rules and be realistic about what your loved one can live up to.
Vacation better; be better
Difficult as it is, all of this preparing to not be available is necessary if you want to take a vacation that really feels like one. Lee Caraher, President of the marketing firm Double Forte and author of Millennials & Management, counsels her employees to “prepare ahead of time for the world and the work to go on without you.” Her best strategy for ensuring she can take time off without worrying what’s happening back in the office? “Set up a new messaging app for your team to use only in an emergency. Check the app once in the morning and once at night. No message indicator, no issue.” And, if all else fails? “Schedule time off in places with terrible wireless/cell phone reception.”
At the end of the day, this isn’t rocket science, people. Take a vacation already and take one that counts. Plan ahead, make smart choices about technology, and lean on your coworkers to carry your projects forward. You’ll be a much better you when you return.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.