how to leave work behind when you go on vacation

If you’re looking forward to a vacation this summer, are you confident that you’ll be able to truly disconnect from work while you’re gone – or are you likely to find yourself answering work calls and emails from the beach?

Some advance planning – and a firm determination – can help you truly unplug on your vacation. Here’s how.

1. Enlist a gatekeeper. It’s impossible to unplug from work when they keep contacting you with emergencies or – worse – run-of-the-mill questions. So consider giving your vacation contact info to only one person, and charge them with acting as your gatekeeper. Obviously that person should be someone who you trust to use good judgment about when you truly do need to be contacted – and you should make sure they’re on the same page as you about what truly counts as an emergency. Then, let everyone else know that this person can reach you, and all contact while you’re away should be funneled through them. You can even tell your gatekeeper to only contact you by phone, which will allow you to truly get away from your email.

(If you have an assistant, that’s probably the obvious person to serve as your gatekeeper – but your manager or a sensible peer can often serve this function for you.)

2. Prepare your office to handle anything that might come up while you’re away. Enlist coworkers in helping cover pieces of your job that will need to be covered while you’re gone, document the key elements of your job that might need to be done by someone else, in a pinch, make sure you’re not the only one with key passwords, and inform your boss about those arrangements so that she knows what you’ve set up. (After all, all this work will be for naught if your boss doesn’t know about it and calls you with a question you’ve prepped someone else for.) Speaking of which…

3. If you’re a manager, train your team to function without you! As a manager, part of your job is ensuring that your team’s work will continue to get done even if you’re unavailable. Vacations can be a good test of that – and can help you spot holes where you need to do a better job of it. Any team should be able to stand on their own for a week or two without you. (And resist any temptation to check in to make sure you’re not needed. Trust that your staffers will contact you if it’s truly an emergency.)

4. Use 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 be sure that your out-of-office messages are clear that you’re on vacation, what date you’ll be back, and who to contact meanwhile.

5. Remove your work email account from your phone. If your phone is set up to receive your work email, it’s going to too hard to avoid reading work-related emails while you’re away. Delete the account from your phone for now, and add it back after you return.

6. If all else fails, go somewhere where you won’t have cell or email reception, or at least not without high cost. This is good for extreme cases – people who just can’t manage to unplug while they’re away or people whose offices keep contacting them. Cruise ships and remote islands are good choices here.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog.

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Chocolate Teapot*

    All good points, however I find it difficult to get back into a work frame of mind after having been away, especially when the weather is good!

  2. Natalie*

    Go to the woods. I was in Superior National Forest last week – no data and the phone signal was so weak you couldn’t make calls, although texts would intermittently go through. And when you don’t have anywhere to be or anyone to answer to, you can really slow down.

    1. Cautionary tail*

      In Zion National Park the cell phone reception is terrible. To get a signal good enough to make a call you need to hike Angels Landing, climbing the chains and besting the 1,200 foot drop that is 2 feet from the trail. Finally, way up on the summit you get perfect reception.

  3. Meg Murry*

    If you have a job that allows for it, Randy Pausch’s out of office message is pretty great too [from “The Last Lecture”, a great book – highly recommended]

    “Hi, this is Randy. I waited until I was thirty-nine to get married, so my wife and I are going away for a month. I hope you don’t have a problem with that, but my boss does. Apparently, I have to be reachable.” I then gave the names of [my wife’s] parents and the city where they live. “If you call directory assistance, you can get their number. And then, if you can convince my new in-laws that your emergency merits interrupting their only daughter’s honeymoon, they have our number.”

    Apparently no one bothered him. Of course, he was a college professor, so YMMV.

  4. Ann O'Nemity*

    I’m a big fan of #6 – going somewhere remote without reliable reception. And even if there *is* reception at your destination, prepare your team like you won’t have it.

  5. LQ*

    I just got back from several days of vacation. I actually did check my email. But I spent less than 5 minutes a day on it. 90% of that was marking messages I’d have to deal with when I got back and marking everything else as read. I had an autoreply that told people if it was urgent to contact someone else, if they didn’t they can try me again today.

    That said I’m glad I have a job where if I told my boss I did even that he’d tell me I really don’t need to do that.

    (Also? I HIGHLY Recommend vacation! Take it!)

  6. anon-2*

    Working in the IS/IT field – it’s common to have to leave a contact number.

    Many years ago I worked in a place – I was the only one responsible for a particular system. I begged my management – please allocate me a backup. “yada yada yada, oh yeah”.

    I walked into the office in April – asked for two weeks va-ca in July, and I would be going to Britain. They approved it. I booked flights. I booked hotels. I rented a car.

    Two weeks before – because they hadn’t allocated a backup – they asked me to CANCEL my vacation! Said “no – you approved it.”

    “What would it take to get you to cancel?”

    So I itemized my outlay – tacked on 33 percent to cover taxes, and handed them a bill, plus a notification that it will cost them an extra week.

    Oh, they balked at that. Then “where are you going to be? Can you file an itinerary with us?” I said I could not – because we were renting a car and had no clue where we were going to go. “Wha–at? You’re not on an escorted tour?”

    No – mrs anon-2, anon-2 and little anon-2 are free spirits.

    “But we’re in a CRISIS!” Yeah a “Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker crisis”. They created it THEMSELVES.

    1. James M*

      Good God, I absolutely hate when a “crisis” occurs because somebody had 1001 excuses for ignoring as many warning signs on top of my informed prognosis. It’s not ‘crisis management’ when you engineer the crisis yourself. [/rant][/needs a better job]

      1. Erin*

        “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”

        T-Shirt logic, but there you go.

      2. LQ*

        I work with some people who say they prefer to work under the adrenaline of being overdue. I tell them to jump out of a plane and then come back and do their job in a timely manner.

  7. ClaireS*

    I’m so lucky to have a really great culture where I work. Managers routinely take vacation off and don’t respond (except in real, actual emergencies) while they are away. This gives staff a feeling that you can truly take vacation and shut off. I usually let a few people know that I’ll be available in a pinch but the response is typically “oh no! We’ll manage. Enjoy your vacation, it’s well deserved.”

    On the other hand I do know some people who would hate this as they always need to feel needed. It’s “heros” like that who can ruin this sort of office culture as it sets a standard for others.

    1. Laura*

      Yep. I am grateful that my team lead and the system architect both set the standard of taking real vacations and not responding.

      My manager actually tells us, “I’m on vacation, but I’ll be checking email several times a day. If it’s more urgent than that, just call my cell phone.”

      That’s…not a vacation.

      I was very unamused when I was recently on vacation and my husband’s work called him repeatedly the first day with issues _they_ made critical by scheduling something when they knew he’d be on vacation. Unamused because I had to handle two kids under six by myself in an airport while he helped them, and even more unamused because I had to ask him to get off the phone, grab his bags, and board the plane with us. (And then as we picked up our luggage at the other end, it continued. We had a long drive to where we were going, and he spent a couple hours of it on the phone with them.)

    2. Sparrow*

      Same here. My work culture is great and taking vacations is encouraged. I work in IT, so I’ll let my lead developers and managers know about any major issues. Otherwise, I’ve never really been bothered on vacation.

      The hardest part is getting motivated and catching up on emails when I’m back!

  8. ExceptionToTheRule*

    I did #6 a couple of months ago. It was fabulous. No wifi or cell service. My cell phone was good for two things: playing music and telling time. The only person who had the number to the place I was staying was my mother and she could only call if the house burned down.

    I highly recommend it.

  9. Frances*

    As a tip for leaving documentation for your co-workers — I start my vacation instructions document about a week or so before I leave, which is when it start becoming apparent which ongoing tasks may become an issue while I’m out. Then I just add items as they come up, rather than trying to think of an exhaustive list on my last day in the office when my brain is already half on vacation mode. If I can, I try to give the list to at least my “gatekeeper” with at least a little time to spare so they can read it over and ask questions if something’s not clear.

    It also helps to save at least your most recent vacation list, to help jog your memory about the type of instructions you left last time (especially if you have a job where certain tasks will always need to be handled while you’re out).

    1. LQ*

      Leave documentation is amazingly helpful. I have a coworker who doesn’t do many big projects but he does a lot of regular stuff. It’s incredibly easy to miss those things so he leaves a list of all the stuff he does (and it’s basically the same every time) and another coworker and I always marvel at how much he gets done with all these parts he has to manage every week.

  10. ThursdaysGeek*

    #3 sounds like good advice all around. How will you know if your documentation and training is adequate? The vacation serves a similar function as testing your computer backups. If you’ve had vacation tests, so that your people know they can function without you for a time, you won’t be so worried if you suddenly have a health emergency or win the lottery. You already know things are in good shape, because you’ve tested it with vacations.

  11. De (Germany)*

    I think a culture of having a lot of vacation time helps with that. Everyone around me has around 6 weeks a year, so we’re just used to people being unavailable. Even in IT :-) I have never experienced someone being called while on vacation.

    1. D-orx Nami*

      I have (,i.e. me being called) and I feel like strangling the person over the telephone…lol..

      I have done it on some occasions, but then it’s either because I didn’t know they were off, or because it was urgent information only they held or know of….either way I’d always say “sorry xyz to call you on your holiday but I need abc information and saw only you knew it…”

  12. Bend & Snap*

    I’m on “vacation” now and I fail at all of these. I’ve worked every day and can’t mentally disconnect.

    I chose an especially problematic week for vacation and I just feel anxiety. Not enjoying it at all.

  13. Cath in Canada*

    The most relaxing vacations I’ve had in the last few years were in places with no internet access – kayak camping locally, and in Cuba. Bliss!

    Any tips on how to avoid the feeling that all the benefits of the vacation relaxation disappear approximately 20 minutes after walking back into the office and opening your email?

    1. Sarahnova*

      I promise, they really don’t! Your mental capacities will be refreshed, and you’ll benefit from the time unstressed even if dealing with your email backlog sends your blood pressure up on your return.

      Maybe it’s also being in a culture where we have better holiday policies, but I find at least 80% of the email I get when I’m gone can be deleted anyway. I always set an OOO that makes it clear that I’m NOT checking, and so most people either a) suddenly discover they can wait for my attention or b) get someone else.

  14. Erik*

    I often choose locations where I can’t get cell phone coverage. Problem solved. When I would travel to China, they automatically knew I couldn’t be reached even though I was in a large city with a cell phone.

    I generally got everyone up to speed on my work, gave them pointers on where to go for help and made sure they had everything.

  15. Arjay*

    I just got back after disconnecting completely for about 10 days of vacation. It seems that most of the critical stuff was covered, but I’m wading through a lot of messes that should and could have been handled by someone else while I was gone. Yuk.

  16. Alex*

    I had to share this OOO alert from one of my bosses – I love it:

    “PLEASE READ – July 7 through 11, I am out of the office with ABSOLUTELY NO ACCESS TO E-MAIL. Seriously, there are places on the planet without service, I’m off the grid. If this is urgent please call xxx at xxx-xxx-5292.”

  17. Elizabeth West*

    Or go someplace where there is a huge time difference, and by the time you get back to anyone who calls you, they will have had to deal with it on their own. :)

    I’m going to be out for eighteen days (woo!) but I already have procedural documents for most of what I do. This was a thing that we did when I was hired–my predecessor had documents and I updated them (which also helped me learn during training). My boss will handle the majority of it, probably. My personal cell phone won’t work in Britain, but I’ll have it forwarded to a mobile I’ll get there in case there are any problems with the pet or my house. Though I’ll be doing as much as I can for month end before I leave, I can’t imagine any situation arising that isn’t covered by the procedurals.

    I already made my out-of-office email a couple of months ago. :D

  18. Jennifer*

    I do three primary things to make my vacation less worry-free and the return less painful.

    First, when it’s possible I pick the least busy time of our business cycle. I have one month per year with fewer deadlines than the others, so I usually take my long vacation at some point during that month. In addition to less work piling up for me, it’s less work for my coworkers to cover.

    Second, to corral email I set up quite a few rules (in Outlook) to feed some of my email to folders, some to other people to handle, and some to the trash. I start this about a month before scheduled time off so I am more likely to capture everything I want to file/redirect. I get lots of status notifications and by the time I get back they’re worthless. Also, I have a few things that come to me to do from the same person each time. If someone is taking over this while I’m out, the rule forwards the email to them and then files it.

    This helps in two ways– obviously my Inbox has less crap in it, but also, an analyst on my team checks my email once per day while I’m away. It’s easier for him to find the things that still need to be handled when there are fewer emails to wade through.

    Third, I leave a detailed out-of-office message about how specific tasks will be handled while I’m out. I put a short message, like “I will be out July 15-30 with no email access. You may review the list below my signature for specific directions.” and then my standard email signature. Since it seems everyone is multitasking/has ADD, it gives a short message to those who need it, but task specific information is available. I work with salespeople who have to get their call and sale data into “the system” by a specific day each month for performance reporting. Telling them that draft reports will still be generated, corrections will be done in time for the business review, or that they will be handled by Jane while I’m gone, tends to keep the panic to a dull roar. We have many many cases of artificial urgency. Some people need everything yesterday, even when they really don’t, but most read the road map and follow directions. One small bonus is that it sometimes keeps me out of cc purgatory. In many cases, if someone knows to reach out to Jane, they’ll take me out of the loop, instead of emailing me again and the person they think they need to go to, but are keeping me in the loop JIC.

    One thing I do when I cover for my team members is start a draft email and add to it the things I took care of that they need to know about, or any other things they should be aware of. I try to keep their email volume low by just keeping a running list, instead of cc:ing them on the email chain or forwarding a copy of everything. I then send it to them when they return. It also saves, the “oh, I also forgot to tell you about X”. I try to just cc them/forward the emails where they really do need the email string.

    Finally (and I’ll shut up), I also raise my hand for having a boss who values time away. She takes all of her allotted leave and isn’t a slave to her BB while she’s out, so the rest of us feel safe to do the same.

  19. Anx*

    None of these really apply to me, so I thought I’d ask in the comments:

    For those of you that usually like to keep to yourself and really don’t want to get into work drama, how have you had success getting the contact info for coworkers without any expectations of text chatting (especially at work) or going out a lot?

    I ask because I’m starting a new job soon, and while I’m very excited to be working again, I’m not looking forward to the panic of being scheduled for a shift you requested off and trying to to find someone to cover. I recall two particularly stressful incidents: one where I booked a vacation I had to leave early from (it was only 4 days to begin with) and getting sick before a shift. I wasn’t at work so I didn’t have access to everyone’s phone numbers, plus I was really shy about it.

    Any advice in forming a network of ‘shift buddies.’ I already cover others’ whenever possible.

    1. D-orx Nami*

      Just ask? Or ask your new boss what the scenario is in that case. S/he should have a plan/idea to cover. Any good rosterer would be the point person and contact for all schedule changes anyhow.

  20. Crazyxl*

    I don’t have any delusions about being irreplaceable while I’m away on vacation. I would love to take a vacation.

    I don’t work in a cubicle-type job. I don’t have e-mail or my own phone extension at work. If I’m not at work for a day, the work doesn’t pile up and wait for me; they have to make do without me. The same goes for anyone else who isn’t there for a day. We have critical staffing requirements and that is exactly how many people we are alloted each day. That means it is impossible to get a day off approved. It’s been that way for the last twelve years I’ve been in my agency.

    It drives me crazy when people condescendingly tell me to get over myself and take a vacation. I’d love to do that. I put in for it all the time; it’s just always been denied for the last twelve years.

  21. D-orx Nami*

    Simple…. tell your boss and/or coworkers not to contact you.

    or delegate some tasks to coworkers in your absence. People who call you on holidays…well they either lack basic social skills/courtesy, or they’re too dumb to figure out things for themselves…

    Work is for work, holiday is for HOLIDAY!!! lol… I don’t think people should work on vacations is ABSOLUTELY required. And by that I mean literally life or death, the organisation may collapse/go bankrupt/cease operations, a major incident injuring life or property, etc.

    The government, even the UN and other global bodies, give all workers these rights for a reason…enjoy your free time and DON’T do work!! :)

  22. Joe*

    I love this. As a manager, I try very hard to stress to my team that they should not be working while on vacation. I set up with them in advance who will cover emergencies while they’re out, and make sure we have adequate knowledge transfer. You’d be surprised how hard it is to convince some people not to work while they’re on vacation!

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