It’s vacation season again and I’m already/still digging out from e-mails that accumulated while I was out last week exploring the wonders of Portugal. Having a mountain of emails is, oddly, a good thing for me, as it’s a sign of growth in my attempts to manage to keep a semblance of self while working long hours.
I say it’s a good thing because in the past, I would have lugged my laptop along or gotten up at the crack of dawn to read from the glow of my phone and thumbing messages back to people before everyone else woke up. Or, put another way, I used to plan to interrupt my vacation/rest while also managing to irritate fellow travelers who thought they were finally going to have my full attention. I’d start the day stressed, sneak in stress-breaks throughout the day when I thought no one was looking, not focus on being present in the moment to enjoy family and friends or the surroundings. A classic lose-lose situation.
Yet I continued to do so. Why? As I’ve thought about it, several reasons emerged for me as well as some ways to counteract them:
There are no rewards for exhaustion and burnout. Like many others, I fall victim to this idea that hard workers don’t let up. We keep working, working, working. And if you take time off, “people” will think you’re not committed, you’re a slacker, etc. This type of thinking is particularly prevalent in the United States. When I worked in Europe, people looked at me like I was crazy when I told them I didn’t take my vacation (and I had fewer vacation days than they had!).
This type of thinking is just so wrong in so many ways. Countless studies have shown the benefits of taking time off – greater productivity and focus upon return, generation of new ideas, gaining new perspectives when taken out of the normal environment, reduced stress and health-related issues – I could go on. Adding travel that takes you out of your comfort zone enhances the positive factors even more. Unfortunately, scientific studies have also shown the opposite – that working without breaks creates conditions for heart disease, obesity, stress, mental health issues, problems with relationships and many others.
So by not taking vacation, I was essentially voluntarily putting myself back to the industrial age before we realized that limiting the work week to five days was a good thing because time off actually improved productivity and longevity of workers. Not a great idea – but then you tend not to think so clearly when you’re exhausted.
Overcome FOMO. Fear of missing out in a vacation context is more than just what will you miss out in the office while you’re gone. At least for me, it was also about the fear of not being able to meet my client needs. Not being available if a new matter came up (and missing out on revenue). But it also rested on a more pernicious element – fear that people wouldn’t miss me when I was gone and that I would thus be replaceable, that someone else would step up and take what I thought should have otherwise been “mine.”
This one was the most difficult for me and may be for others, too. We need to know we’re valued and the fear of somehow losing that can be scary. But if you are a solid performer, always bringing new ideas to the table and executing consistently, you have already built up your reputation and established your followers and supporters, be they external clients, your colleagues or your boss. A week or two off will not change that. And you can also manage your contributions by delivering on your responsibilities and sending out documents or other things requiring input from others before you leave and setting deadlines for next steps. That way, work continues in your absence and you can pick up where you left off upon return. I know – easier said than done. And that leads me to what I think is the most important way to manage to have a great vacation – your team.
Build up team members and trust with colleagues. Two things will make it much easier to take your mind off of work while on vacation and be comfortable that others are ably handling things while you’re out of pocket. The first is to allow your absence to serve as an opportunity for your team members to step up and assume more responsibility. If you’ve taken the time to develop them, they should be ready. Asking them to assume some of your day-to-day responsibilities (with guidance, of course), lets them know you trust them and have confidence in them. It gives them an opportunity to show whether they’re ready to take on even more responsibility going forward. And you may discover that they do some of the tasks so well that you can transfer tasks to them long-term, freeing you up for other priorities.
The second is having relationships built on trust with your colleagues. When you have a trusting relationship with your colleagues and know your respective interests and strengths, it makes it easier to let go while you’re gone and know that they will carry on in your absence with your interests at heart. By spending some time with them in advance on what you’d like their assistance with, where things stand and what can wait until your return, you set both of you up for success. Understand that they may not do things exactly the way you might have and thank them for being willing to let you have some time off and, of course, that you look forward to backing them up for their own vacation.
I’m still not good at relaxing. I still haven’t managed to take all of my vacation days in the past few years (shhhh – don’t tell my wife!). I still check e-mails on vacation (but respond to fewer of them). But I’m making progress. And my friends, family, colleagues, health – and yes, even my clients – will thank me for continuing to work on this because I will continue to return energized, focused, full of ideas and more pleasant to be around. And my only FOMO will be on what activities I am not able to fit in during vacation.