Carolyn O’Hara

There’s lots of advice out there about how to disconnect from work and return to the office refreshed. But what’s the right vacation approach for you? Is it better to be completely out of touch? And how can you increase the chances that you’ll come back relaxed and revitalized?

What the Experts Say
If you care about your work, you’ll make sure to take regular vacations. “You’ll actually get worse at your job if you don’t have intervals of rest amid the stress,” says Scott Edinger, founder of the Edinger Consulting Group. “It’s like working one muscle too hard. If you neglect to rest that muscle, it begins to fatigue and will ultimately weaken.” And because we are so hyper stimulated all day, every day — whether it’s being bombarded with email at all hours, checking Facebook on our phones at every opportunity, or following round-the-clock news coverage — “we’ve lost even the micro-moments during the day” that give our brains a rest, says Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage. “Our brains never have the bandwidth to actually recharge or rejuvenate.” Here’s how to vacation the right way.

Practice with a mental “vacation” everyday
It’s unrealistic to expect an overworked brain to transition seamlessly into relaxation mode the second you hit your beach towel. So if you want to maximize your chances of a restful holiday, it’s critical to “practice” vacationing by shutting off a little each working day. Try turning off your smartphone for an hour in the evening. Or keep the radio off for the first 10 minutes of your morning commute, to reduce a little of the noise in your life. “These moments of quiet and disconnection help your brain realize that you can have that separation and still have that productivity and happiness,” says Achor.

Plan ahead and define “emergency”
The week before you leave, take steps to prepare for your absence. Let key colleagues and clients know that you will be away, and either pause your projects or ready them for a temporary handover. It’s also critical to explain to your team which situations warrant them contacting you. You might tell them to call if you are at risk of losing a client, or only in the unlikely event the company’s manufacturing facility is about to shut down.  “Ask yourself how much emergency stuff do you actually deal with on a daily basis,” says Edinger. Chances are, no matter how essential you think you are, “You’ll come back and lo and behold, the business has survived.”

Empower your team
Also let your team know which responsibilities they need to shoulder. That will not only clear your plate for a few days, but also signal to them that you trust them. “Employees need to have time away from managers so that they can grow,” says Edinger. Even better, allow your team to weigh in on decisions well in advance of your vacation, so that they aren’t suddenly on the hot seat for the first time when you go away. “If managers haven’t enabled employees, the team will feel stress, and so will the leader on vacation, because he won’t trust the team’s decisions,” says Achor.

Give yourself permission to check in
To check email or not to check email? It’s the perennial question. Achor says to let your “personal anxiety level” guide how much you check in. The goal is to separate yourself from work as much as possible, but often a quick scan of your messages can actually dispel fears that the office is falling apart without you, and let you retire back to the pool in peace. “It’s actually rare that something will arise that just can’t wait,” says Edinger.

Leave projects behind
It may be tempting to bring a small amount of work with you — a bit of reading, a short report to draft — on the theory you’ll get it done on the plane or lounging on the beach. But both Edinger and Achor say that’s almost always a bad idea. “If the vacation is going great, you’re not going to want to do it, and then it will hang over your head,” says Edinger. “And when we actually do the work, most of us underestimate how long it will take.” Either way, you’ll miss out on getting the full effect of a vacation. “The productivity of a vacation is you’re trying to lower your stress, raise your levels of happiness, and create novelty for the brain,” says Achor. “If you finish your vacation without getting those three things because you brought work with you, you actually missed out on the rejuvenating benefits of that time away.”

Manage your re-entry
Just as you carefully prepare colleagues and employees for your departure, take a moment to plan for your return to work. A rushed re-entry “completely burns away the good effects of the vacation,” says Edinger. Resist the pressure to dive right back into the fray. “Very few of us just show up and we’re at full speed,” he says. “The key for Monday morning is not to schedule any meetings.” That gives you a few hours in relative peace to get caught up on emails and other work demands. And whatever you do, try not to work late that first day back. “It’s just a bit of a jolt to the system,” says Edinger. “A couple of late nights at the office that first week, and it is easy to see why, when Wednesday afternoon rolls around, people often say their just-finished vacation feels like a distant memory.”

Savor your memories
To keep the positive effects of vacation as long as possible, try to bring part of the holiday back home with you. Make a point to look at your vacation photos regularly after you return, and set aside some time a week later to upload and organize them. You might also incorporate some part of the vacation into your normal, everyday routine. Edinger recently returned from a trip to Italy, where he took a cooking class with his family. “A few weeks after we came back, we made a special dinner with some of the dishes we made in Italy,” he says. “People who actually take time to savor their memories not only extend the positive benefits of the trip but that they remember it for so much longer,” says Achor.

Principles to remember:


  • Practice shifting out of “work mode” a little each day
  • Set boundaries with employees about when they should contact you — doing so in advance will help you relax and allow your team to grow
  • Get over yourself — the company probably won’t implode while you’re away


  • Beat yourself up if you check email — it may actually alleviate stress
  • Assume you’ll get a little bit of work done while away — you’ll never fully relax with it hanging over your head
  • Go back to work on Monday without blocking off catch-up time

Case study #1: Trust your team
Until this summer, Matthew Bellows hadn’t taken more than a few days’ vacation since 2010, when he launched Yesware, a Boston-based email productivity and tracking tool for salespeople. The fast-growing company had hit a number of milestones in recent months, including its first acquisition and plans for a second office. “I needed to just to take a step back, and get some perspective on what we were doing and my role in it,” Matthew recalls.

He booked a two-week trip to Greece with his family for June, but since he hadn’t handed the reins to anyone for such a long stretch, he wanted to prepare effectively should any issues arise while he was away.

He alerted his executive team that he would be gone, and tapped his co-founder and CTO as the final voice for any decisions that needed to be made. He also recognized that his absence might offer executives the opportunity to step up and stretch themselves in ways they may not when he is at the table. “A lot of my work has been hiring great people, and trying to let them be successful,” Matthew says. “But it’s hard for people to reach their professional potential if they aren’t given the chance. It’s like learning to ride a bike. If someone’s always holding on to the seat, you never actually learn how to ride it.”

Since he also wanted to minimize work intrusions on his time while he was away, he created a special vacation-only email address. He shared it with a few key staff members, who had instructions to only email him if they absolutely needed his input. That meant he could ignore his ordinary, overflowing inbox for the duration of his trip, and only periodically check the new address to see if there were pressing business matters that needed his attention.

After two weeks away, Matthew returned to find Yesware thriving. “I get back, and the company’s running great without me,” he says. “We had our best month ever,” with impressive sales growth, a major new client, and a lease for new offices in San Francisco. “And I was gone for most of it.”

“At first I felt anxiety about it — What is my role now?” Matthew says. “But then I just felt this intense appreciation for the company. And it helped me figure out what priorities I should work on for the next three to six months.”

Case study #2: Plan your return as well as your departure
A few years ago, Peggy Hill, then the vice president of supply chain for an outdoor industry company, went on a weeklong beach vacation. Her flight home arrived late on a Sunday night, and Monday morning came too early. She had an 8 am meeting scheduled, her office phone rang incessantly, and an endless stream of colleagues stopped by asking for answers to various emails and messages. “By the end of the day, I was exhausted, stressed, and thinking that I’d never take another vacation if it meant coming back to this,” Peggy says.

Peggy had several managers reporting to her, and she noticed they all had the same vacation re-entry stresses. “We all planned diligently for our vacations to make sure important issues were closed before we left,” she says, but judging by people’s first few days back in the office, “taking vacations was becoming more stressful than not taking vacations.”

Peggy decided it was time for a culture change. The next time she scheduled a vacation, she blocked off the first half day back as a work-from-home day — no meetings, just dedicated time to answer calls and emails. She also reworded her out-of-office message on email and voicemail to give herself more time to respond to issues upon her return. She found that the “focused, uninterrupted time allowed for a quicker grasp of the big-picture goings on in the company” and for a faster, response to emails and voicemails. And since her employees were already used to her being gone, the extra few hours out of the office that first day back didn’t make much difference.

Peggy encouraged her direct reports to adopt the proactive re-entry strategy, and the practice soon caught on. People “quickly saw the value in this approach,” Peggy says. Communication improved, stress levels dropped, and work-life balance improved. “It wasn’t a cure-all,” Peggy says, “but it was a step in the right direction.”

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