After a year of so much disruption, grief, and anxiety, taking time away from work and your responsibilities is especially important. Rest and time away increases resilience, which makes people better able to deal with the inevitable setbacks at work. It provides perspective that can help people see new solutions to problems, and it gives people a chance to pursue other life goals. Being deliberate about how you plan your vacation will maximize its many benefits. First, schedule at least a week away about three months in advance. Second, plan to go somewhere away from your home. Third, plan for a few mental health days, either to create a long weekend or to give yourself a breather in the middle of the week. Finally, prepare your clients and colleagues for your absence early.
Even before the pandemic, millions of days of vacation time went unused in the United States. As it did with so many things, the pandemic only exacerbated the problem.
Most of us are eager for a change of scenery, and research shows that taking vacations is important for a variety of reasons. Rest and time away increases resilience, which makes people better able to deal with the inevitable setbacks at work. It provides perspective that can help people see new solutions to problems, and it gives people a chance to pursue other life goals, like spending time with family and seeing the world.
As things start approaching a new normal in many parts of the world, it’s time for a reminder not only that you need to use your vacation time, but of how to make the most of it.
The many disruptions brought about by the pandemic made it hard (or impossible) to plan anything in advance, but if your circumstances are beginning to allow for it, schedule your vacation at least three months ahead of time. Research on construal-level theory demonstrates that you think about things more abstractly when they’re distant in time than when they’re near. That means that, the closer your to-be-planned vacation is, the less likely you are to decide to take it at all.
From that three-month distance, you’ll be able to focus on general principles, like how much you’ll enjoy the vacation. Then when the trip nears, you’ll shift to thinking about logistics, like things at work you’ll miss and tasks you’ll need to delegate (more on this below).
Taking at least a week’s vacation matters, because it often takes a day or two to stop thinking about your email, projects, teammates, etc. Being away for a week or more also gives you several days where you know that you’re still on vacation the next day. That allows you to relax, knowing that the end of the vacation isn’t imminent.
If you can afford it, do your best to get away from home — and from as many of your other responsibilities as possible — during your time off. Chances are, there are a lot of people who rely on you, but it’s important to get some time where you don’t need to make a lot of decisions. Getting out of the house helps, even if it’s to a nearby bed and breakfast. Staycations are inexpensive, but they leave you surrounded by reminders of all of your work-year responsibilities. You’ll see your home workspace. You’ll see areas of your house that need to be cleaned or repaired. Your environment influences what you draw from memory, so out of sight is literally out of mind. Physical distance will help you think about work and other responsibilities abstractly rather than specifically.
You might have some concerns about taking a whole week (or even two weeks) away from work. There are always ongoing projects that require attention. You may have clients or customers who are likely to need things. Perhaps you supervise others who will invariably require some guidance. Plus, if you’re scheduling your vacation at a popular time of year for people to want to get away, you might risk having low coverage of key tasks.
To allay some of that pre-vacation anxiety, work with supervisors or other leaders in your organization to ensure that there’s good coverage for core work tasks in your absence, which may require some flexibility around the dates of your travel. All the more reason to start early if you can.
Use the time before your vacation to ensure that other people can handle any of your duties that arise while you’re away. As I’ve written about before, many people are bad at delegating tasks. Rather than delegating, think of it as teaching others how to take on aspects of your job. The further you go in your career, the more you need to take on a role of mentoring others. Use an upcoming vacation as an opportunity to practice teaching. That way, by the time you actually go away, you’ll be confident that everything will go smoothly in your absence.
If you serve in a client-facing role (or serve internal clients within your organization), make sure you introduce them to the person who will be handling things when you’re away. That way, there’s no confusion when a valued client needs assistance. Importantly, all of that preparation will help you have a more relaxing vacation and minimize the amount of work awaiting on your return.
An added bonus of being away is that you may promote more independence in your supervisees. There is a tendency for responsible managers to answer questions from their direct reports quickly. While you’re away, the people working for you may discover that they’re actually good problem solvers who had been relying on you to give them direction on issues they were capable of handling themselves.
Make a schedule for your trip on paper instead of keeping it on your phone to minimize the number of times you engage with technology. That will reduce the temptation to check work emails or Slack channels. If you do have your phone handy, shut off all your work-related notifications before you go. Some people actually choose to remove work-related apps from their phone altogether.
All of that extra unused vacation time during the pandemic included occasional personal days. Having a long weekend or giving yourself a breather in the middle of the week can help you recharge, too. Like your longer vacations, schedule them in advance if you can so that you won’t keep pushing them off.
On those days off, think about spending half the day on yourself and half on other life responsibilities. You can do something just for you, like going to a spa, doing some shopping, or going for a long bike ride. You might also coordinate with your partner or a friend and do something together. A day off can strengthen a relationship as much as it helps you clear your head.
Take the other half of the day to check a few things off your personal to-do list. Clean out a closet or the refrigerator. Go through old children’s clothing. Do some yard work or fix a leaky faucet. A lot of low-level stress in life can be caused by having a list of chores hanging over your head at home, serving as a constant reminder both of your responsibilities as well as the degree to which you’re not living up to them. Taking care of some of these issues makes your daily life at home feel that much better.
After a year of so much disruption, grief, and anxiety, taking time away from work and your responsibilities is especially important. After making that first step of deciding to get away, being deliberate about how you plan your time off will maximize its many benefits.