Take Back Your Vacation

In today’s complex and fast paced business environment most of us go nonstop.  For all of us high achievers who want to do something that matters and make a difference, we welcome this challenge.  Unfortunately, this dynamic makes it difficult for us to bow out for even a few days, let alone a week or two.  When we do eventually get out of the office, having a relaxing break is a challenge on it’s own.  We take work with us and work during our vacation.  We leave unfinished work or unmanned responsibilities back in the office that stress us out during our trips and make us dread returning to the office.  Given these challenges with taking and enjoying a vacation, it’s not difficult to see how Americans left an average of 8 vacation days unused in 2014 – as a country that translates to 429 million vacation days that we passed on last year.  This is unfortunate because 9 out of 10 Americans say their happiest memories come from vacations.

A great deal of research clearly identifies the many benefits associated with taking vacations – in general though, the more regularly you take effective vacations the better off you are both personally and professionally.  Consider these facts:

  • Recent research shows that you are 50% more likely to be satisfied with your job if you take regular vacations than if you do not take a vacation.
  • Vacations relieve stress.  Giving your body a chance to recover from the effects of daily pressures helps to increase your ability to focus which improves your effectiveness when you are back at work.

In order to help you achieve your goal of leaving the office to enjoy a relaxing vacation, I’ve put together these 5 tips to help you get started.  A word of warning – while I’ve made this advice simple to understand it is anything but simple to effectively put into practice.  If it were simple, you would have done something about it already and I would be offering advice on a tougher problem!  As with any difficult challenge – set realistic short-term goals for yourself and each step of the way verify that your next step is taking you closer towards your big goal of that relaxing and re-energizing vacation.  Take joy in the small victories along the way and use that energy to continue to push you towards your big goal.

Getting Started

To get started we first need to frame the problem and understand how we can do something about it.  For those of us fortunate enough to earn paid vacation as a benefit of our employment it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that while we earn the benefit automatically (work X days and you automatically earn Y vacation days) we don’t simultaneously earn the ability to effectively use our vacation time.  Why is this?  Simple – in America, work doesn’t stop for vacations and it’s easy to lose sight of the additional things needed on our part in order to step away for a break.  In order to leave work for a week or two you need to account for the fact that work doesn’t stop, and then take action in order to handle this.

Tip #1 – Tell yourself that it’s OK to take a break

This is often the most difficult part – and is one of the hardest challenges to overcome.  Why?  Because you are investing in yourself and it probably feels selfish and wrong.  Perhaps you feel guilty for taking a break and fear that your co-workers will resent you for leaving them at work while you live it up.  Or maybe you take pride in your work ethic and you see taking a break as weakness or selfish action on your part that should be avoided.  Or maybe you are concerned that while you are gone someone will move in on your turf and start to change things that you don’t want to change.

There are two things that will help you here –

First – all of those examples I just provided are negative cases – reasons you should avoid vacation.  Try to focus your thinking on all the reasons you should take a vacation – like reduced stress or enjoying some of the happiest experiences in your life.  The more energy you spend focusing on why you DO need a vacation the easier it will be for you to look beyond these concerns.

Second – you are no good to anyone if you are burned out, stressed out, or checked out.  If you really want to help yourself or your co-workers, family, and friends you first have to make sure you are strong and healthy and are actually in a position to offer help.  Taking a break every now and then in order to recharge and recover is mandatory in order to maintain your own well being.

Tip #2 – Don’t agree to do any work while you are on vacation

Sounds like common sense – but this is the easiest way to ruin a vacation – and it’s nobody’s fault but yours.  If you feel any apprehension to saying NO to taking work on vacation please take a closer look at Tip #1.  When you say NO you should always be clear and explain yourself so that there is no misunderstanding or issue between you and the person asking.  Focus on the necessary business outcome rather than making it personal – as long as work can continue while you are gone there is no issue here.

To make this easier to do at vacation time, you should start practicing saying to yourself and others “I don’t work during vacation”.  The more you say it, the more you will believe it.  The more you believe it, the more you will do it.  And once you start doing it, you will never stop!

Tip #3 – Identify and own the work you must finish in order to check-out

Don’t leave incomplete but mostly finished assignments – guess when you will finish these?  Categorize your tasks into “must-do” or “nice to have” and use ruthless prioritization to ensure must-do tasks are completed.  Don’t agree to be part of a new assignment or effort right before leaving – those can wait until you return. As a matter of fact – you should be so focused on perfectly completing your current and most important must-do work that you won’t even consider taking on anything else before leaving.  Don’t sabotage yourself – say no to any ad-hoc requests for help or nice-to-have things.  You can always help out when you return – but in order to have a worthwhile trip you need to complete your important work before leaving.

Tip #4 – Own the at-home preparation tasks too

Don’t skip out on work to get ready for vacation.  Prioritize your personal time just like you do your at-work time to give yourself a realistic sequencing of tasks to prepare for your vacation.  Any work you skip out on prior to your vacation can catch up to you while you are out of the office and ruin your relaxation.

Tip #5 – Do something awesome

Take the most awesome and coolest vacation ever.  This will help make working through the challenging but necessary preparation prior to your vacation feel worth it.  If your vacation plans feel boring and uninspiring, you probably won’t invest the necessary time and energy it takes to organize things so you can effectively check out.  Put it this way – how much additional energy are you willing to expend in order to prepare for a vacation that feels lame and boring?  What about if you were going on a once in a lifetime dream trip?

Whatever your dreams are – take a trip that makes you feel like you are realizing (or at least working towards) them.  Don’t let your dreams wait until later – live them now.  See someplace you have always wanted to see, visit friends or family that you love but don’t see enough of, or travel abroad and stay in strange and exciting places.  Above all – do something that puts a huge smile on your face.  You deserve it!