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How to Take the Stress Out of Taking Time Off

Have you ever felt that time off wouldn’t be worth it because the planning and preparation effort — not to mention mountain of catch-up work — would be so overwhelming?

If so, you’re not unusual. More than 50% of Americans take less than their allowed vacation time each year. Some reasons for leaving vacation time on the table include feeling that one’s workload is simply too heavy, or concern that no one in the office will be able to do their job while they’re away.

Time management coaches say that pre-vacation stress usually falls into two categories: getting ahead on work before a departure, and the stress experienced while away from the office. Both of these categories can give rise to guilt and even fear. Some worry that if they’re not constantly available, something horrible will go down at work: What if a client needs me? What if colleagues think poorly of me for taking time off if I’m not entirely caught up on projects?

These worries can prevent some people from taking vacation altogether — and for others, the concerns lead to unhelpful behaviors like trying to complete all extra work before leaving, or just working straight through a vacation (rather than delegating projects or tackling them upon return). In the first instance, a worker could end up overstressed and sleep deprived. In the second, you could wind up bitter for being physically away but still working through vacation time.

While it’s hard to avoid all stress as you prepare to leave the office, the following tips can reduce your headache and boost the chances for success after your return.

1. Plan ahead. When approached correctly, an upcoming vacation can give you a huge incentive to complete unfinished projects — but you need to tackles this far in advance. If you plan to be away from a week or more, schedule a meeting with yourself on your calendar for 3-4 weeks prior to your departure date, and use that time to set your must-do priorities. Then think about would-like-to-do activities.

Setting aside time weeks before your vacation lets you assess your workload realistically while you still have time to tackle the key components. If you’re still struggling to prioritize 3-4 weeks in advance of a vacation, ask yourself what you’d do if you only had a single week left. What you come up with in this shorter time frame can serve as your priority activities, while everything else goes in the like-to-do category.

2. Next, block out time on your calendar to finish those must-do items. Draft your plan to finish these at least a week before you head out, so giving yourself a buffer to wrap up tasks in the case of unexpected items arising (which they always do). That extra padding is also necessary when activities take longer than expected. This week of margin prior to your vacation provides the needed flexibility to address urgent items and still wrap everything up.

3. Team up with your colleagues. No matter how well you accomplish tasks before your vacation, some items will still need attending to in your absence. If possible, ask a colleague to take that role on your behalf so you can have some real time “off.” Career coaches often suggest contacting coworkers a week or more in advance so they’re aware of what you’ll need, like overseeing specific responsibility or watching over certain projects. It’s usually clear who is the best person to cover for you, (usually a teammate already on the same project). When you’re not sure, ask your boss who might be the best fit.

And don’t forget to name an alternative contact in your voicemail message and email auto-response before leaving. That way if anything unanticipated arises, people will know whom to contact.

4. Make a commitment to waiting, and make clear what will simply need to be handled after you return. You may need to wait until 3-4 days before your vacation to make the final determination on what’s in or out. By that point, you should be clear about what you can reasonably accomplish, and communicate this information to your supervisor, teammates, and any else involved.

Having these conversations can be uncomfortable, but it’s much better to be honest about expectations in advance, instead of leaving people hanging and then having to deal with a mid-vacation crisis brought about by lack of communication. Keep colleagues updated on the project’s status and make clear that nothing will move forward until after you return to the office. Finally, give key stakeholders the heads-up that you won’t be available during your vacation time.

5. Commit to signing off. Taking a genuine break from work over an extended period can make some people feel panicky. And of course there are times when it may be wise to stay connected while you’re away (such as monitoring a deal that’s about to close). But if you really must check in, set limits. For instance, you could spend one hour on work each morning and then disconnect for the remainder of the day. Or you could ask a coworker to text you the status of an important project so that you’re informed — but don’t have to open your inbox and get sucked into work mode.

However, if you’re capable of completely unplugging, do it. There’s something liberating about realizing the world will go on without your micromanaging. Being disconnected from work has a number of health benefits including stress relief, improved sleep, improved connections with others, and better concentration and creativity. Moreover, stepping away from work gives us perspective. It allows us remember the importance of life beyond our jobs. This does more than increase enjoyment during your vacation: it can also lead to new day-to-day habit like spending an weeknight at home without checking work email.

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