how to truly unplug during your vacation and leave work behind

If you’re getting ready to go on vacation for the holidays, are you planning to truly disconnect from work or do you expect to get roped into work calls and emails while you’re away?

While there are some jobs where this genuinely can’t be avoided, more often than not some advance planning and a steely resolve can help you truly stop thinking about work while you’re away. Here are seven keys that will help you take a real vacation this holiday season.

1. Start planning for your vacation well in advance. If you know that you’re going to spend half your vacation stressing out over the pile of work that will await you when you get back, then get through as much of that pile as you can before you leave. For instance, if you’re a writer with due dates looming in January, pre-write some of your January pieces before you go, so that you’re not facing immediate deadlines when you return.

2. Give people plenty of advance notice before you leave. Depending on the type of work you do, it might help to warn people far ahead of time that you’ll be out – through an office-wide email a week before you go, checking in with individual people directly before you leave, or adding a line to your email signature all month letting people know that you won’t be checking email the last week of the year.

3. Give your contact information only to one person, and have that person act as a gatekeeper. When multiple people are able to reach you, some of them aren’t going to be as discriminating about what’s worth bothering you as others are. Figure out who has good judgment about when you truly do need to be contacted and get aligned with that person on what constitutes an emergency. Then, let other people know who your gatekeeper will be while you’re away. (This is obviously easiest if you have an assistant, but often your manager or a peer can act in the same role for you – especially if you’re willing to return the favor when they’re away.)

4. Set up an informative out-of-office message and outgoing voicemail message. If you don’t set these up at all, people won’t know that you’re on vacation and may try to call your cell phone or otherwise track you down. So make sure that your out-of-office messages specify that you’re on vacation, what date you’ll be back, and who to contact if they need to reach someone in your absence.

5. Take your email off your phone. If your phone is set up to receive your work emails, disable that function while you’re away. Otherwise, it’s too hard to avoid reading work-related emails that come in while you shouldn’t be thinking about work at all – and once you start thinking about work, even if just for a few minutes, it can be hard to disconnect again.

6. Resist any temptation to check in to make sure you’re not needed. Trust that your office will contact you if it’s truly an emergency. But in all but the rarest cases, your office will be able to survive without you for a week or two.

7. If you really can’t unplug completely, limit the ways in which you’re checking in. Don’t offer your office constant availability; you shouldn’t take work calls when you’re relaxing on the beach or enjoying your dinner. Instead, if you can’t unplug altogether, let coworkers or your boss know that you’ll check voicemail or email once a day (or once every two days) and will only respond to messages marked “urgent.”

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 32 comments… read them below }

  1. Ash*

    One more way — go somewhere exotic where cell and email service don’t work well without high cost. That’s what I’m doing…

    1. Ann Furthermore*

      Ha! This is what I was coming in here to post. I spent a week this summer in a pretty remote area of the Outer Banks, and was not able to get service on my work phone. So the problem was solved for me. And it was heavenly.

      1. Tax Nerd*

        I had a colleague in another department that had to either go on a cruise or go camping to keep his boss from interrupting his vacation. Once, he admitted to coming back to town on a Friday after a week off, he ended up working the weekend after he returned.

        If I ever have a boss that expects 24/7 availability when I’m on vacation, I’d start going on cruises, too. Even though I get seasick.

    1. esra*

      It is pretty nice. That said, I’ve worked Christmas coverage in the past, and it was kind of refreshing to work when everything was so quiet.

    2. Bea W*

      My company closes the whole week between Christmas and New Year’s so not only do you get a break, but no one is emailing or calling because they are also off.

  2. Ann O'Nemity*

    What are everyone’s thoughts on lying about cell coverage?

    I once took a vacation in which I literally did not have cell coverage for days. My boss was aware of this before I left and we planned accordingly. It was the most relaxing vacation ever, and I returned fully recharged. But for every other vacation I’ve taken, my boss thinks I should be available to answer calls/email at least daily. I’ve tried various strategies to change her mind, but nothing works. At this point, I’m considering lying about the cell coverage I’ll have just so that I can avoid answering calls/emails.

    1. Ruffingit*

      I see nothing wrong with lying about the cell coverage in this situation. It’s self-protective. Your boss is being unreasonable and refuses to budge so I think it’s acceptable to do an end-run if you will around her stance and just say it’s literally impossible for you to receive calls/email.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        I think it could get you into trouble if you’re found out, though. I’d try this only if you’re capable of keeping mum about the details of your vacation in general — because if it slips out that you were in, say, Los Angeles, then your boss will figure out that there is indeed cell coverage in LA.

    2. Brett*

      Be careful about that backfiring with an unreasonable boss.

      We now have to have “leaving town” time off approved separately from “staying in town” time off so we can verify that we will still be reachable while out of town. We deal with actual life-threatening hazards when called in, but at the same time we have plans to deal with missing (or dead) staff members in those situations. No one has tried yet to go somewhere out of cell coverage, but we have been handed new phones when going to foreign countries with different service.

    3. KellyK*

      I think out-and-out lying is almost always a bad idea (both morally/ethically and practically).

      However, do you *know* you’ll have good coverage where you’re going? Have you been there before? I would see nothing wrong with saying that you don’t know what coverage will be like, since you honestly don’t, and planning accordingly, since that worked well before.

      1. Bea W*

        Yes, I’m not a fan of lying except in extreme situations, and I don’t see this as one of them. Not to mention, if you boss finds out you are lying, it won’t be pretty. Is it really worth causing your boss not to trust you and possibly jeopardizing your job? If your boss is unreasonable about expecting you to be available on vacation, just think how unreasonable s/he’s going to be if s/he finds out you lied.

        If you’re going to lie, lying about coverage may or may not be a good idea. It depends where you are going. You really have to know your boss and know yourself and know your destination. I normally check coverage before I leave just so I can inform my coworkers or the pet sitter how to reach me in an emergency. If it looks spotty or like you will have to incur roaming charges, you can certainly use that.

        Whatever you come up with, make sure it’s plausible and I really encourage people to be as truthful as possible even if that means just saying outright that you will be busy during the day with plans that won’t allow you to check your cell or email except maybe at night when you are back at the hotel. As someone mentioned, if you claim you won’t have service and your boss gets wind you were in LA, it’s only going to be bad for you and will make it impossible to try to get out of being in contact even when you are legitimately going to someplace with iffy coverage.

  3. Shannon313*

    I love this. Lately it seems like, when vacationing with the family, it’s a competition to see who has to do the most work while taking time off. It feels like a contest of importance, and those doing work are certain to be ticked off about one thing or another. I realize that there are life or death situations that crop up, but my family members are dealing with routine workplace annoyances. All I can do is put my feet up, sip my vodka drink and repeat “sheesh, sounds like something that can wait til you get back!” (With a polite smile, of course).

  4. Lamington*

    I have reminded politely but firmly to my boss that vacation time is sacred and to call only in emergencies, so far in my 2 years I only got a call during Thanksgiving. I also told my boss we will do
    the same for him in his time off, we just call him for real emergencies

  5. Eric*

    What to do about the reverse situation? There have been many times that I’ve forwarded or copied or sent an email to someone on vacation, just to keep them in the loop and/or not expecting a response until they get back, and they do respond. I always feel terrible when that happens. Is there any professional way to indicate that I DON’T expect or need an immediate response?

        1. Bea W*

          True, and if I am the one that has lost this battle “Please do NOT think about this until you’re back.” just makes me think about it. Nothing like telling someone NOT to do something to make them want to do it even unintentionally. That seems to be how the human brain works. Put at the top of the forward “This can wait until you get back.” if you have to write something.

    1. anon*

      Maybe include something in the subject line, so that the recipient knows it’s not urgent and can wait? That way if they just can’t help themselves and check their email anyway, they’ll know they can let that message go until later.

  6. Ann O'Nemity*

    I usually add a disclaimer like, “I’m sending this now so I don’t forget. I know you’re on PTO and I don’t expect or need a reply until you’re back. Enjoy your vacation!”

  7. Holly*

    The biggest mistake I’ve made, personally, has been learning how to use my work’s webmail application; I’ve been known to randomly check my emails at 10 at night or on holiday breaks. It’s such a hard habit to break. >:/ That said, at least my office is good about not asking for me to reply to anything or do work related stuff during my time off (barring emergencies or quick questions.)

    1. Thomas*

      It’s a bad habit of mine, too. I don’t answer anything, so I haven’t set up an expectation that people can always reach me, but randomly checking webmail when you’re not at work is killer on stress level.

    2. Bea W*

      Can’t check email without a company device where I work. It’s frustrating when I’m not on vacation, but really excellent when I want to unplug.

  8. KAS*

    The Time I Made Someone Work On Holiday: A Confession
    By KAS

    A few years ago was working with a peer on Project BIG STINKING DEAL. We had very clearly defined roles and a reasonable deadline. My peer had some holiday vacation looming–but again reasonable deadline. Not a big deal. A week before his vacation we walled-off and spent days working on our sections together–so we could bounce ideas, polish, etc. The day my peer leaves–he sends me his part, with an email saying it is complete. I open up the document to discover the document was about 70% completed. Long-story -short—I did disturb him on his vacation. (OK, I hunted him down) I told him that if he was unable to finish he should have told me–not leave the piece unfinished, NOT TELL ME and assume I would finish it. Peer ended up spending about 6 hours finishing up while on vacay and sent me his completed piece. Fast forward in time, peer is still known for this type of behavior in other project groups. He doesn’t, however, do it with me…. He says that “you hunted me down and held me accountable–so I don’t do that to you.”

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      This should be renamed “The Time I Held a Lazy Co-Worker Accountable After They Left for Vacation: A Success Story”

    2. Yup*

      I love that he admits to being inconsiderate to colleagues because he can get away with it. (My own ‘conscientiousness’ behavior regulator is freaking out right now. GAH.) Good for you for tracking him down and making him finish the work!

  9. AB Normal*

    I don’t see much point in going out on vacation and continuing to behave as if you are normally working (which, leaving work email active on our cellphones would feel like). Having a method of communication for emergenciesmakes much more sense than continue to use work email, since then you will be forced to look at least at the subject line of messages you don’t need to deal with, as you check for relevant messages.

    What my husband and I do is to tell our bosses / coworkers to contact us via our personal email if there’s an emergency and they need us. Since we’ll be checking the personal account for planning outings with friends and family, it’s not extra work to check it every day.

    Nobody had every to email us during our absence (our projects wait for our return), and we get to enjoy our vacation without being interrupted by irrelevant messages that would just distract us from truly recharging our batteries, which after all is the point of a vacation.

  10. Graciosa*

    I think Alison omitted one major way to minimize vacation disruptions – train your team! I don’t mean train them not to call you in a real emergency (mine know I will check voice mail once a day, but no email while I’m off duty). I mean train them to do your job.

    This is a critical part of a manager’s job which is often overlooked, especially by people who are participating in the “Who is too important to unplug on vacation” competition. Part of my job is succession planning, and making sure that our function’s work will continue to get done even if I am unavailable is a big part of that.

    I regard vacations as a good test of how this is working – it challenges my team to make decisions, take responsibility, and find solutions without relying on my experience. This is a fantastic learning opportunity in manageable doses (I do, alas, eventually return to the office) and has the added benefit of letting me enjoy my time off.

    So my advice to protect your vacation is to train your team to function without you. I hope – in time – to be promoted to start training a new one. :-)

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