Have a hard time escaping work? Here’s how to make sure your vacation actually feels like one

By Brigid Schulte 
June 8,2015

It’s summer, time for idyllic family vacations, right? But if you’re like most Americans, it’s hard to get away from work, and even if you do, it’s hard not to bring work along. One in four American workers get no paid vacation. Of those that do, four in ten don’t take all of it. And the majority say they work on vacation. Jessica DeGroot, founder and president of ThirdPath Institute, a non-profit organization that helps individuals, families and companies learn how to better integrate work and life, helps people understand why time off is important, and teaches skills about how to take it. She suggests using a Vacation Checklist for better work-life balance. She explains:

Q: Why is taking vacation important?

DeGroot: Vacation is one of many ways that people can step away from work, and have a pause. When people take that pause from work, whether that’s a break in the middle of the day, an afternoon playing with their kids, a weekend of fun or a vacation, everybody benefits.

Personally, you feel recharged. Your organization benefits, because you come back with a clearer perspective of what you’re working on. And everybody around you benefits because if you’re less stressed, the collective stress level of everyone around you decreases. The truth is, when we step away from work, we actually do work more effectively.

In the workplace, it gives us new perspectives. Time to review. It can increase productivity. We can assess workflow, which may lead to a recalibration of it. And vacations are an opportunity to test how well we delegate.

We’ve found in our research that, regardless of the type of organization you work for, you can learn some personal skills about how to plan to get away and how to make that work.

Q: What are those skills?

DeGroot: We learned from watching a group that we call “integrated leaders,” people who’ve moved ahead in big careers and also made time for their lives. A lawyer at one law firm got really good at planning ahead. He got smarter figuring out how others could help him and how to delegate the work. He did some scenario planning in case of the unexpected. When he came back, he built in a cushion of time so he could catch up.

He also learned to be flexible. When he was on vacation in a tropical place where there was only one phone and a work emergency erupted, he set it up that he’d be by the phone at 9 am every morning to help the staff work through the emergency.

And then we watched as he began to use these same skills – planning, delegating, being flexible, building in downtime – when he returned to better organize his work and make time for life everyday. We like to say these are skills that don’t fade with the tan. And we’ve put together a Vacation Checklist to help people learn them.

Q: Where do you start?

DeGroot: First, we teach people to plan vacation around the ‘seasonality’ of their work, and to start thinking about it early in the year.

As an organization, we encourage employees at ThirdPath to think what their summers are going to be like in March or April. We purposefully make our work slower in the summer. We have parents of school-age kids, and we want to help them make time for their kids. Managers can work with their teams to coordinate who takes vacation when during the slower time.

We also turn work off between Christmas and New Years. So does Ford Motor Company. That’s immensely helpful for people. It means there are no emails going back and forth, so you’re not coming back to a big inbox.

[Science show stress has an upside. How to make it work for you]

Q: What’s next?

DeGroot: Recognize that there are different kinds of vacations. Some are recharging. Some are draining. Plan different trips for different needs.

Are you looking for a psychological break? Then a long weekend away with your sweetheart, or a retreat by yourself may be what you want.

There are vacations where you take your very young children and go somewhere with them. My husband used to remind me, ‘This is really a vacation for them.’ And he was right. There’s now research that shows that our vacations from childhood are among our strongest and most positive memories.

Sometimes you build vacations because you value meeting up with your parents and big extended family. Do you want to see the world? Or if you’ve been running and running and running, sometimes a staycation can be just as satisfying as a big trip. You can keep it simple, but have fun, too.

Vacations are a litmus test of how healthy an organization is. And they’re a great way to notice what you need for yourself and your family. The more you as a family slow down and think about what you need, what’s possible, given the ages of your kids, the better choices you’ll make. The goal is to be thoughtful.

Q: So once you’ve got those big picture questions answered, what are the practical steps to take?

DeGroot: To really increase your ability to unplug from work, we tell people to pull out the checklist a couple weeks before they leave and begin to:

*Minimize the unexpected. Keep track of when your team and managing supervisor are on vacation. Do some scenario planning. Got a big project coming up? You probably don’t want to plan to leave the day after the project’s finished, because they can always take longer, or there are unexpected delays. Talk to clients two weeks before you leave. Ask for work you need to review one week before you leave.

*Block Quiet Days before and after the vacation. We always underestimate how long it’s going to take to do something. The simple act of blocking off one or two days before going off on vacation, to take minimal calls or meetings, allows you to get everything organized with enough time to get everything done to get out the door.

I personally block of two days when I come back from vacation so I can get on top of all the things waiting for me.

*Create a “What Can Wait” list one week before you go. That can help you focus on the tasks that really do need to get done before you go, and where to pick up when you get back.

*Carefully define emergencies. Plan ahead and communicate, ‘These situations are emergencies. These are not. In an emergency, this is how you can get a hold of me.’ So everything doesn’t become an emergency.

*Keep a list of what worked well and what didn’t that you can refer to next year.

For me, that was learning that coming back from vacation at 11 pm on a Sunday night, and starting work at 9 am on Monday morning is exhausting. I want a good vacation, but I want a good re-entry, too.

*Decide how connected you want to be on vacation.

Q: So many people do tend to stay connected and work on vacation. Do you teach skills on how not to?

DeGroot: We define a vacation as choosing completely not to work [and] unplugging.  But the next best solution is to confine work, so people just  check email in the morning, or they just check it at night. For some people, that’s a perfectly reasonable approach.

The leaders we work with, at the very most, they’re just checking their email. A vacation isn’t a vacation if work spills into it.

Q: What if people still find it hard to get away, or leave work behind?

DeGroot: For a lot of people, we say just start with babysteps. For organizations, the fact that no one is taking vacation can be an opportunity to stop and figure out why, and what you can do differently. For individuals, especially for entrepreneurs, you may need to just start by taking a long weekend, stepping away from work for four days, and realizing the sky didn’t fall down. Then lengthening the experience.

If you can do that, you start undoing some of the habits that have gotten you hooked into constant attention to work. But more importantly, you start experiencing what it feels like to get away. By day three, the spring that’s wound up starts unwinding. By day five, you’re coming up with a new idea for how to solve something at work you weren’t even trying to solve.

Vacations have value. Everybody loves vacation. And we’ve learned that if you really want to start making a change and step away from work, and unplug while you do, no matter what kind of organization you’re in, you can start making that change. You can do this right now.

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