Haven’t booked your vacation yet? What’s your excuse? Too much to do? Prioritizing staff vacation over your own? Project timelines keep moving? Ok, stop it. I’ve heard every rationalization in the book and, in fact, I’ve used most of them. 

I have put off or canceled multiple vacations. I’m guilty of pulling an all-nighter on Friday when my plane leaves on Saturday morning. More than once my husband has been packing the car while I’m shouting from my home office “Five minutes Honey! Just need to send this one last email!” I’m also the Queen of answering emails while on vacay – most famously from a giant jumping rock in the middle of a lake while canoeing with my nieces and nephews. 

Here’s the deal. I was doing it wrong. All wrong. This is not a vacation. And if you relate to any of this, you might be doing it wrong too.

Unfun facts and cold hard truths

Unsurprisingly, research shows that those of us living in North America are terrible at taking time off from work. In fact, we seem to glorify the 9-5 grid – which, let’s be honest, rarely ends at 5 when you’re in management. People are working more hours, taking less time away from the office, and some are quite literally making themselves sick. And on top of this, COVID-19 has brought the office into our homes, exacerbating the issue further. 

In contrast, however, research also shows that vacations serve to increase mindfulness, reduce stress, and even improve heart health. 

So, there you have it. There’s the proof. So, I’ll ask again – what are you waiting for?

Yes, yes, I know. I hear you. You can’t just leave. Obviously! What if something happens? What if they can’t find the thing? Or worse, what if they send out the whatchamacallit without the doohickey and so-and-so finds out? I know, I know. You’re right, you should definitely stay at work just in case (sarcasm).

Ok, all kidding aside, I get it – it’s hard to disconnect from work and truly leave. You have many responsibilities and you’ve worked hard to get to where you are. You’re worried about your staff, your projects, your boss, your work – all good managers are! But here’s the cold hard truth: you’re no good to anyone if you burn out. There is no reward for overworking yourself, and we as a society need to stop rationalizing and normalizing this behaviour.  

Work will always be there, and there will always be more to do. Time away from the office and a little bit of self-care is important for your overall health and wellbeing and it will make you a better, more present, manager in the long run.  

How to successfully leave (and return!) from vacation

After many years of vacationing incorrectly, I developed a trusty list of practical tips to help managers successfully leave (and return!) to the office. Here are my top 10 must-dos:

1 Mark your vacation in your calendar 

Sounds simple right? It is! Not only do you have a date to mentally work toward, but your direct reports, colleagues, and bosses can presumably see your calendar too. Marking your vacation in your calendar helps prevent it from sneaking up on you, and if you use time-blocking as a time management technique, you can carve out time for the must-dos before your vacation. 

2 Prep a “While I’m Away” list

Create a document or a checklist of key dates, deliverables, and deadlines that will occur while you are on vacation. Annotate this checklist with any special notes or directions for your team and boss. Having something in writing helps keep your team on track and mitigates any misunderstandings or misremembering of your verbal pre-vacation directions to team members. 

3 Have a pre-vacation meeting

Book some time with your boss and your direct reports a couple of days before your vacation starts (not the day before you leave!). Review the major deadlines and projects that will be occurring while you’re gone and provide direction about what items must be completed and what can wait until your return. 

4 Put one person in charge

When you’re out of the office it is important to have one other person calling the shots. Assuming that “everyone knows what they need to do” might be fair, but all ships still need a captain. Select a direct report who has a solid overall understanding of team operations and clearly communicate to this person the types of things they might need to make decisions about in your absence. Also, make sure your boss and all your direct reports know who has been left in charge. 

5 Tell key people you are leaving (and cannot be reached!)

One of the best ways to prevent emails and last-minute requests or emergencies is to tell people you’re leaving well in advance, remind them, and then stick to your vacation schedule no matter what. Communicate to your counterparts in other departments and even key suppliers, partners, or clients that you will be on vacation as of a certain date. Let them know who is in charge in your absence and encourage them to get their questions or last-minute requests in ASAP before you leave. Be sure you take a firm approach in the language you choose, saying something like: 

“I will be out of the office for two weeks as of August 1 and I will not be reachable by phone or email. Stacey will be managing the day-to-day in my absence. If there is anything you specifically need from me or want to discuss before I return on August 14, please let me know by July 25. Thank you!” 

6 Ask your team to keep a collaborative set of notes or journal

If you prepared a “While I’m Away” checklist for your team, share this document with direct reports and ask them to annotate it regularly with their updates and project progress. Over the course of your vacation, this shared note will morph from a checklist of what was supposed to be accomplished, into a briefing note (or journal) of what actually took place. This collaborative document now becomes the very first thing you read when you return to the office, instead of your email. 

Pro tip

Use a meeting management tool like Fellow for all your collaborative notes so you can enjoy your vacation and be easily updated in one place when you return!

7 Turn on your Out of Office Alert 

While you may have told people you were going on vacation, most of them likely forgot. As such, it’s important to turn on your out of office alert to remind people you are away, who to contact in your absence, and underscore that you are not reachable. It’s also a good idea to change your voicemail (for those few people out there who still use the phone and leave messages!) 

8 Do not reply to your email or voicemails until you return

Replying to your email or answering your phone while on vacation sets a precedent and signals to people that you’re away but secretly still available and working. This is the exact opposite of what you want to accomplish. If you’re away, you’re away. Put down your phone and don’t answer your emails. 

9 On your first day back, carve out 2 hours in the morning to get up to speed

If your staff maintained a solid journal, set of notes, or annotated your “While I’m Away” checklist, read that document as soon as you return and you will be able to hit the ground running. Most times when I returned from vacation, this document was about 10-12 pages long – but it was a better starting point than 800 emails! My advice is this: get an early start to the day, pour a coffee, read your document from your staff, book an hour with the person you left in charge, check in with your boss, and kill it on your first day back to the office!

10 Tackle your emails from the bottom up, sort, and delete or file

Once you have been briefed on the key happenings during your departure, your emails actually become less important and therefore less overwhelming. Sure, there are likely several emails you need to read and likely a few items that did not make it to the attention of those you left in charge. As such, start from the date you left on vacation, and work your way up through your inbox. Flag anything you might need to deal with, but sort by subject or person first to see if the email was indeed handled by one of your team members in your absence. Don’t get trigger-happy with that reply button as you could end up doing more harm than good by causing confusion or usurping your direct report. 

Always be preparing for your next vacation 

A final piece of advice: play the long game with your staff and always be preparing for your next vacation (literally!). Share information about your specific work, deadlines, challenges and decisions with your team openly and honestly so they can learn more about you, your style, how you think about work, and your expectations on the job. The more your staff know about you and how you work, the easier it will be for them to step up to the plate the next time you go on (stress-free!) vacation.