If you’ve ever come back from vacation and thought it would have been less stressful just to have stayed at work, you’re not alone. According to a survey by Glassdoor and Harris last year, employees are on average only taking 51% of their available time off – and 61% of those who took a vacation reported working while on it.
That’s a problem when you consider science has shown our brains need downtime in order to stay creative, productive, and healthy.
So why do so many of us fail to take the small amount of vacation we get? For a lot of us, it’s the fear of falling behind, and the dread of facing the pile of work that inevitably awaits once we step back into the office.
If that sounds like you, what you need is a game plan to help you clear your plate ahead of time, and then quickly get up to speed afterwards. Try this one out for size.
1. Write down your priorities before you go
On your last day in the office, write yourself a focus list of priorities for when you get back. There’s always a chance these will change while you’re gone, but this list will serve as a good springboard once you get back in the office.
To take this a step farther, store the list on your phone so that you can add to it while on vacation. That way you can quickly jot down things you’re afraid you’ll forget, and then get back to the serious business of relaxing.
2. Build in a buffer day
How many times have you taken a vacation, only to wish you could take a vacation afterwards? Nothing’s less relaxing than getting in from a 12-hour flight at midnight only to have to be at work first thing tomorrow morning.
Build in a day at the end of your trip to take care of the things around the house, restock your kitchen, do laundry, run errands, and plan for the week ahead. Use this day as a transition, and as a way to reflect on your time and prolong the relaxation.
3. Minimize chaos on your return
I invariably fall apart when I get home from vacations, and this year I finally figured out why. Traveling can be stressful, but there are tons of responsibilities lifted off your shoulders. Crooked picture in the hotel room? I don’t have to straighten it. Dirty dishes in the restaurant? Not my responsibility. Plants wilting in the lobby? Oh, well.
But as soon as I get home, everything is my responsibility, and the to do list comes crashing down. Once I figured that out, I now make sure I always leave with my desk tidy, my house cleaned, and my life in reasonable order. I’ve learned that, for me, keeping that vacation vibe going once I’m home is a simple matter of returning to a made bed and empty sink.
You may have a different trigger for the post-vacation blues than I do – the point is to find it and minimize it so you can keep riding that wave of relaxation.
4. Make an action plan for your first week back
Before you even set foot back in the office, get your priorities straight. If you made a list beforehand, check it over, and add or subtract anything based on what’s happened while you were away.
It can be easy to get overwhelmed by work to-dos. As soon as your brain starts listing things you need to do, it can be like a dam breaking. If you try to manage all those in your head, your brain can’t differentiate between priority level – everything will feel like it needs to be done today!
To tackle that deluge, I sit down with blank sheet of paper and just scribble down everything that comes to mind. Once it’s out on paper, it’s easier to sift through and pick out the most important things. (There are often fewer than you think.)
After you’ve listed out everything that needs done, create an action plan of how you’ll tackle them. If something is under 2 minutes – like you need to jot a thank you note to your dog sitter – just do it now instead of putting it off. Schedule everything else throughout the week, or put it on a “next week” list if you can hold off on it.
5. Catch up on communications
Raise your hand if you’ve ever checked your work email on vacation. Yep, me too. After all, it seems better to stay on top of it rather than be crushed by the email avalanche as soon as you get back, right?
The problem is that if you’re constantly checking your email, you’re never really unplugging from the office. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming when you get back, though. If you’ve set up a great out of office message directing people to other contacts while you’re gone, hopefully most of the pressing issues will have been taken care of.
As for the rest, here’s a great method for clearing out your inbox efficiently by sorting first by Subject, From, and Date Received.
6. Ease back in
It’s all right to take time catching up. Let your coworkers know that you need a bit of a breather, and give yourself permission to work a bit more slowly at first. After all, if you try to rush through work at the same breakneck pace as when you left, you may end up making mistakes and creating more work for yourself further on.
Try to avoid meetings and minimize interaction on your first day back, so you can just get into the groove without having new things thrown on your plate.
7. Take some time to reflect
The best part about a vacation is that it gives you a chance to rethink your life, right? Are you still on the right track? Are there things you’d like to do differently?
Take some time to process the insights you’ve learned however you work best – by journaling, hashing it out with a friend, meditating…. Just do whatever it takes to ensure your vacation epiphanies and resolutions don’t get instantly washed away when you get back.
We can also have work-related breakthroughs while on vacation, but this kind of deep reflection and creativity won’t happen if you shortchange your vacation by not taking it, or working through it. Let the down time of your vacation free your mind to make you more productive, happier, and better at your job.
Do you plan to take a vacation this year? How will you make the most of it, and still hit the ground running when you get back?