The Art of Vacation

When is the last time you took a vacation? I’m not necessarily talking about an expensive trip to an exotic destination; I’m talking about a simple break from your daily routine. Merriam-Webster defines vacation as, “a period of time that a person spends away from home, school, or business usually in order to relax or travel” (Merriam-webster.com). Speaking strictly from personal experience, we all need to retreat from routine once in awhile to reenergize ourselves. Our minds need a break and our bodies need rest.

We work in an age of immediacy. People send email and expect a (sometimes unreasonably) quick reply. Instant messaging, a means of communication even more immediate than email, is becoming more popular at work. I’ve heard of 2-hour voice mail standards in some work places. Pile these communications on top of increasing workloads and multiple projects and we have created for ourselves a stressful work environment that leaves us exhausted at the end of the day. Multiply that day by weeks and then by months and, at some point, our minds and our bodies say, “Enough already!”

Sadly, along with the convenience and immediacy of modern forms of communications comes what I call The Fear of Disconnecting. Many of us cannot or will not disconnect from work, even when supposedly on vacation, because we suffer from The Fear. Seriously? Are any of us really so important that our workplace would collapse if we disappeared for a week or two? Unfortunately, I know many colleagues who, by their actions, seem to take that notion to heart. I’m asking you to consider otherwise.

After years of vacationing with my laptop and smart phone as travel companions, I wondered why I returned from vacation pretty much as stressed as when I departed. Then it hit me: I never really disconnected. I checked email once or twice each day and replied to most messages. I checked voice mail one or more times daily and returned or forwarded important calls. I found that I was spending an hour or more of each vacation day – working! No wonder I couldn’t relax! No wonder I was stressed! “But this is what’s expected; this is what is necessary these days,” I thought.

Two years ago, I decided to conduct a personal experiment by adopting my own personal vacation policy centered on a complete disconnection from my work routine. While the benefits of such a policy are numerous, here are three benefits that should resonate with most of us:

  1. When I disconnect completely I truly enjoy the vacation experience. Whether visiting an exotic location or doing yard work at the lake (yes, that is R&R for me) the experience receives my full attention. My mind is focused on something other than routine. That’s the point.
  2. When I disconnect completely I am a better travel companion for my family. They get all of me for those few days.
  3. When I disconnect completely I return to work from vacation feeling refreshed and rejuvenated – a win for my coworkers and a win for me.

That all sounds great, but how do we pull this off in today’s world of immediate communication? How do we disconnect while respecting the expectation that we be immediately available? Friends, it’s all in the planning. Two to three weeks before my scheduled vacation, I let my boss, my coworkers, and my direct reports know of my plans. I give them the dates of my vacation and remind them that I will not check email or voice mail while I’m away. This gives them ample time to request things from me before I leave, thus mitigating the possibility of somebody needing something while I’m away and feeling frustrated because I’m not there to deliver it. I give similar notification to important business partners outside my company – in my case those include our insurance broker, our claims representatives, and our outside law firms. I give my first notice three weeks ahead of time if possible, and I repeat the notice at least once each week leading up to my scheduled vacation.

Before leaving the office, I update my voice mail greeting and my email auto-reply to clearly state that I am unavailable while offering a means of reaching a qualified coworker. If you email me today, for example, this is the message you will receive: “I am out of the office on vacation. I will not be checking email while I’m away. I will return to the office on Friday, March 28 and I will receive and reply to your email after my return. Should you require assistance before then, please contact…” Similarly, if you call my work number today, you will receive this voice mail greeting: “This is Jeff Strege with CEC Entertainment. I am on vacation. You may press zero now to be transferred to another member of the risk management team. If you’d prefer to leave a message you may do so at the tone, but I will not receive your message until I return to the office on Friday, March 28.” My goal is to clearly state that I will not receive the message until my return while giving the sender or caller a means by which they can reach somebody else for assistance.

I offer this side comment on out of office messaging: If you say you’re out, you’re out. If you set your out of office message to say you’re out, but then reply to emails or return phone calls your Out of Office Credibility is shot. When you try to disconnect for vacation, people who know you well may expect a reply anyway. Set the message and let it be.

This system has worked beautifully for me. Fortunately, I work with people who understand the needs and benefits of a real vacation – and I bet most of those reading this do as well. I dare you to try it. If it’s a scary proposition for you, take a Friday off and allow yourself to disconnect completely for the 3-day weekend. If you haven’t tried it before, you may be surprised at how refreshed you feel when you return to work on Monday.

P.S. I am not a psychologist or a human behavior expert, nor is this piece intended to persuade anybody to behave in a manner not consistent with company policy or procedure. This piece is based solely on my personal experience. Good luck!

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