We learned a lot during the first year of working from home. One of the things nobody expected was that it is a lot harder to take time off than anyone previously thought. We know this because a record number of people didn’t take vacation or personal time last year, or if they did they left a lot of it unused.
Now that we are a year in, many of us will continue to work from home, even if others return to the office. Hopefully we have benefitted from experience and will make better choices about how we safeguard our personal time and energy.
What’s so hard about taking a vacation?
First, why is this so hard to do? Most workers have a certain number of personal days per year allotted for use as they see fit. The problem is that many of us think of personal days as “vacation.” Traditionally this means we block a week or more at a time because we and our family or friends are going somewhere else for fun and relaxation. When we are on the beach somewhere, it should be easy to leave work behind.
The reality is it’s not, and we don’t do a good enough job of disconnecting, even when we physically go to another more relaxing spot. During the pandemic, a lot of people have been unable to travel, so they haven’t left the house. The logic goes, “If we’re not going anywhere, why waste vacation days?”
They aren’t wasted.
While margaritas and sand are wonderful, what we really need is to disconnect our brains from work. We need to laugh, play, putter in the garage, or do anything except answer one more work email. And we don’t need a whole week to do that.
Many of us are using our PTO a day or two at a time. A couple of long weekends (if you really disconnect) can be just as relaxing as a longer trip to visit the family. Assuming, of course, that we actually use the time to relax. That’s the second problem.
Taking a break means not working. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a trans-Atlantic cruise, if you allow yourself to interrupt personal time with email, or take time when the kids are asleep to finish that report, it’s not really time off.
How do we fix this problem?
How can we make sure we use our personal time in a way that actually helps us relax and recharge?
- Schedule time in advance. Let your boss and teammates know when, and for how long, you’ll be gone. Talk to those you interact with most, and ensure there’s nothing pending that can’t wait til you get back. This will help ease your mind as well as reduce the number of messages you get while you’re supposed to be relaxing.
- Update your status and out-of-office message to set expectations. Let people know when you’ll be back, and not to expect an answer from you before that. If you can, find someone else (a co-worker to whom you’ll owe a huge favor) who can handle things in your absence.
- Turn off your phone. If you don’t have a separate work phone, at least turn off notifications for work email, Slack, etc.
- Ask for help being accountable. Ask your spouse or traveling companion (kids are particularly good at nagging their parents)
- Do activities that don’t involve your phone or computer. If you sit at your desk while you’re not working, your brain can’t tell what is off-limits and what isn’t. You don’t have to leave town, but at least leave your office. It’s too hard for many of us to resist the temptation to just “check that everything’s okay.” It’s fine. And if it’s not, you’ll deal with it when you get back.
Don’t wait until the end of the year when you have all the pressure to “use it or lose it.” By then you are probably so stressed and wrung out that the time won’t truly be enough.
If you are a leader, encourage your people to take the time due them. And model the behavior by taking care of yourself and refraining from communicating with work while you should be doing something more fun.
Take that nap. Read a book on the deck. If you’re vaccinated, go visit Gramma. Don’t let the fact you’re already home stop you from taking the personal time you desperately need.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.