You worked hard to earn that paid time off, so take it. Follow these steps before, during, and after your break to ensure a relaxing trip and easy reentry.

By Kathleen Murray Harris
July 19, 2019
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You need a vacation. Your brain needs a vacation. Research shows that downtime makes you more productive, less prone to burnout, and a happier, healthier employee, says economist Caroline Webb, author of How to Have a Good Day ($16; amazon.com). “People who take vacations are more effective on their return and more likely to receive promotions and raises,” she adds. Yet 52 percent of Americans don’t use all their vacation days, according to research from the U.S. Travel Association. The top reasons cited: They fear they’ll look replaceable and feel uncomfortable relying on colleagues. Here’s how to avoid that trap and actually enjoy your time away.

1. Ask for time off ASAP.

The early bird gets first choice of dates. Plus, having ample time to plan for being away lets you be more strategic about delegating and organizing your work. One idea to boost vacation camaraderie: Choose your days collectively. This gives managers the chance to encourage taking vacation and covering for one another in the office. “There should be no grumbling when someone asks to take a vacation,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done ($15; amazon.com). Ask, “How do we split up the year so there’s always coverage? When are the busiest times of the year? When are school breaks and holidays? Who shouldn’t be out of the office at the same time?”

2. Choose your backup team.

With your manager, decide who should cover for you while you’re gone. Assign one point person and enlist several colleagues to take on various tasks. If you run the department, look at this as an opportunity to empower people to try out new skills or train them in aspects of your job, says Vanderkam. It’s also a great trial for someone you’re considering promoting. Tap those who have been asking for additional responsibility and avoid those who might be already swamped with other projects.

3. Share your vacation schedule.

A month ahead, tell your clients, vendors, and key colleagues when you’ll be gone. “Don’t try to hide your vacation time,” says Webb. Being clear about it lets everyone make a plan that minimizes stressful uncertainty. Send them a note with your vacation dates and coverage plan and ask, “What do we need to get done before then? What can we push until I’m back?”

4. Prioritize your to-dos.

Automate what you can. You can schedule blog posts, client newsletters, and even emails. Then make a list of what you must accomplish before you leave. Kate Northrup, author of Do Less ($17; amazon.com), suggests asking yourself three questions. First: Does this need to be done at all? This can help you realize what is truly essential, she says. Second: Does this need to be done by me? If the answer is no, who can you ask to do it? “We tend to overestimate how much time we have and underestimate the other players in our lives,” says Northrup. Third: Does this need to be done now, or can it wait until I’m back? Skip or delegate anything that doesn’t make the cut and tell your boss and your team the tasks you will finish before you go.

5. Prepare your backups.

A week before your vacation, review with your backup team a detailed list of big projects and everyday tasks that will require input or execution. Store any necessary files in a central and accessible location, like Google Drive or Dropbox, says Laurie Palau, an organizational coach and the author of Hot Mess: A Practical Guide to Getting Organized ($15; amazon.com). Show your backups the ropes—bring them to important meetings and introduce them to clients or colleagues they will work with on your behalf.

6. Write an out-of-office message.

Don’t skip this task. Keep your autoreply short and to the point: Mention what days you’ll be gone and the person to email with inquiries. (You don’t have to be clever. “I don’t need to know that you’re ‘finally taking a much-needed vacation,’” says Vanderkam.) If there are questions you’re constantly asked over email—for example, “How do I apply for a grant?”—include links to web pages with answers or create an FAQ document. Anything you can do to stave off excessive emails will make for a smoother transition later.

7. Create rules for working while on vacation.

While there are many benefits to completely unplugging, it’s not always realistic. Maybe your goal is to be present with your travel companions yet accessible for short windows. What will work best for your vacation? If your teens sleep in, you could check email every morning for 30 minutes. If you’re on a road trip, you might field calls during one long stretch of driving time. Before you leave, establish with your team how and when you will check in and what you want updates on. Be as specific as possible: What should they do if something goes wrong? When should they touch base? “If you set clear boundaries, people will organize around them,” says Northrup. Stick to your rules—when that window of time is up, stop working. “That will keep your family or travel companions from being unhappy and your team from feeling like you’re micromanaging from vacation,” says Vanderkam.

8. Pack a notebook.

When your brain takes a break from work and constant decision-making, it processes and consolidates all the information you’ve received and begins to make connections, says Webb: “When you ‘sleep on’ something, you feel calmer and more capable of tackling a problem. Multiply that by five days and you can see how you’ll come back with a fresh approach and new motivation.” You’re likely to gain insight or uncover valuable ideas while you’re away. Have a notebook or journal with you to capture your thoughts so you can refer to them when you return.

9. Build in a buffer.

If you have control over your calendar, avoid scheduling a block of meetings on your first day back. And though your inbox will be beckoning you, don’t try to catch up on email immediately. “It’s more efficient to talk to everyone you work with, either in person or on the phone, and ask them, ‘What did I miss? What needs my attention first?’” says Vanderkam. If someone has emailed you something urgent, chances are they will follow up with you.

10. Tame the email avalanche.

After you’ve settled back in, tackle your inbox. Sort your emails so you first read those from VIP senders: your boss, a top client, and so on. Then sort by date received. Do a quick pass for emails that require a response so you have a clear to-do list; archive any you’ve been cc’d on. Next, batch-delete any promotions, newsletters, and junk mail (sorting by sender quickens this process). And finally, take it easy on yourself. Will answering an email tomorrow rather than today jeopardize your career? “We create a lot of drama and anxiety about having unchecked to-do items or unread emails,” says Northrup, “but you need to become comfortable with the fact that there will never be some day in the future when you get to every item.” Take it slow, pin up a souvenir, and savor your vacation glow.

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