The sad truth is that for many, vacations are often followed by dread. Minutes after returning to the office, the daunting task of catching up on what feels like everything is enough to shatter those relaxing, post-vacation vibes.
Like any activity, there's an art to taking an effective vacation, and not only returning to the office refreshed and recharged, but maintaining that state for more than an hour or two upon returning to work. Here are some suggestions on vacationing well.
Step 1: Vacation!
There are companies and departments within companies where self-imposed martyrdom has become something of a virtue, and attending 10 hours of conference calls while nominally "on vacation" is worn as a badge of honor. This is a misguided notion. Not only is the occasional break from work necessary for mental recuperation and time with loved ones, but it also makes for better employees in the long run. I've had some of my best ideas while contemplating a sunset or on a backpacking trip with my son, and when I return to the office with a clear head, I'm ready to approach problems with renewed focus and a new perspective.
It's unlikely you'll be remembered for attending a superfluous conference call or responding instantly to a trivial email while supposedly on vacation. It will, however, be impactful if you miss critical details and deadlines due to burnout or, on the positive side, solve a thorny issue with a renewed energy and new perspective brought on by some time away from the office.
Furthermore, if you've succeeded in making yourself indispensable, even for a few days, you've ultimately failed as a leader and manager. If no one is capable of stepping up and managing the day-to-day activities of your group, and there is no one who can make reasoned decisions without your input, you've failed to create a pool of talent that can fill your shoes if you advance in the organization, and one that can function if you become incapacitated or overwhelmed when multiple simultaneous problems occur. If nothing else, a vacation tests the mettle of your team and provides a fairly low-risk way to validate that you're cultivating leaders, effective management techniques, and processes that allow your group to function systemically and autonomously, rather than solely as a result of your constant prodding.
Bookend the trip
Allocate a small amount of time or symbolic event at the beginning and end of your vacation, both to signify the formal start and end to your vacation and also to create a mental "break" as you shift from work, to relaxation, and back again. Unless absolutely necessary, if you can avoid rushing from the office to the car or airplane, or returning home mere hours before heading to the office, having some time to reflect on the start and end of the trip is far less jarring than swapping warm sunshine for cold office lighting before you are mentally prepared.
This need not be an elaborate or multi-day ritual that consumes valuable days away from the office. My wife and I will often find a quiet spot in the airport and have a toast as we embark on a vacation with just the two of us, or a family road trip might commence with an off-key rendition of the chorus to Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" as our family minivan merges onto the highway. Upon return, it might be a quiet dinner together, or a slideshow of some favorite pictures captured during the vacation, before planning out the next workday. Allowing for the mental shift from work, to holiday, and back will do wonders for your mental state.
Take work breaks
If you have any hope of a meaningful vacation, it's critical that you not attempt to attend every conference call or respond to every email while you're away. However, this does not mean that you must completely unplug, only to feel immediately overwhelmed when you return to the office and encounter a deluge of problems, as well as activities that have ground to a halt without your input.
Schedule some set time to check in with work each day so that you're aware of what's occurring and won't be blindsided on your return. Ideally, this time will include checking in with whoever is holding down the fort in your absence, and directing that person on how to respond to any issues that must be immediately addressed. If you can avoid becoming directly involved, you'll give a lieutenant an opportunity for professional development, stay aware of issues without ruining your vacation, and reduce the severity of the problem, all with minimal disruption to your vacation.
Clearly articulate to your family or traveling companions the parameters of these breaks, and once complete, leave the phone and laptop in the hotel room or disable the automatic alerts on your phone. Avoid being one of those sorry souls we've all witnessed, sitting at a table in a beautiful or exciting location, transfixed by their mobile device, while their companions cast annoyed looks in their direction. It's too easy to rationalize device time by thinking you're being a diligent employee. If you don't get adequate rest and relaxation, you're ultimately going to be less effective in the long run.
Done well, vacation serves as a time for mental refreshment, and allows us to not only spend time recharging with loved ones, but also makes us more effective leaders. As you finalize your plans for summer holidays, ensure you're planning to make the most of your vacation and ease your return to work as well.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.