Pre-Vacation Checklist: Preparing to Disengage

Six Steps to a Stress-Free Break

Jul 10, 2018
Management and Organization

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – You’ve got your flip-flops, sunscreen, beach reads and sunhat all packed. You’ve double-checked your travel reservations and downloaded some tourist apps. But before you walk out of the office for some much-deserved vacation time, there are some important tasks you must attend to, says Cynthia Kay Stevens, associate professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. And it goes beyond setting an automated out-of-office response on your email. (Though you should, absolutely, do that.)

Stevens recalls hearing a conference speaker years ago explain the importance of this kind of preparation, likening it to parking your car on a hill, pointing downward, so that when you return to the car it’s already pointed in the direction where you need to go. “I love that analogy,” she says.

It’s how we should prepare our offices for our limited absence, both so that the office can cope without us and so that we can genuinely disconnect.

1. Draft a status update on ongoing projects: “Most importantly,” Stevens says, “take some time to draft a status update on your pending projects.” Share the status update with your colleagues and supervisor, outlining what’s been done on a project and what tasks remain unfinished. Include as much detail as you can – including deadlines that might pass while you’re away, relevant passwords and client contact information.

“This is helpful for the firm, but it’s also a good way to clear your mind before you go on vacation,” says Stevens, who is also the associate dean of undergraduate studies at the Smith School. “You are, in effect, leaving breadcrumbs for your colleagues and for yourself when you get back.”

2. Set a disengagement gameplan with your boss: “Ideally, before you plan your vacation, find out what the vacation expectations are at your workplace,” Stevens says “Every workplace is different, and every boss has different ideas about vacation issues and how disconnected people will be.”

In the days before your vacation, discuss with your supervisor and immediate reports how disconnected you expect to be while you’re away. If you are planning a hiking trip in the remotest Yukon without any internet access, it’s a good idea to offer a heads-up. Stevens recommends unplugging as much as possible during a vacation – completely, if feasible. It’s the best way to ensure that you’ll return to the office feeling truly rested and recharged. “When we stay engaged, I think we get a sense – a false sense sometimes – that we can’t leave our work. And I think that feeling, that sense of almost false importance, can cause us a lot of stress,” she says.

“Technology has made it possible for us to complete many of our work tasks from anywhere in the world. But that’s not to say we should,” she says.

3. Out-of-office alerts: Set the all-important out-of-office automated email reply, indicating when you’ll be back, how often you’ll be checking emails (if at all) and whom to contact in your absence. Ditto for your office voicemail. And if colleagues and clients typically call your cellphone, update that voicemail as well, including alternative contact names, phone numbers and email addresses.

4. Tidy your workspace: Remember that analogy of parking your car on a hill as you tidy your office. If there is a task that will require immediate attention when you return from vacation, put a reminder – a Post-It Note or an invoice, for example – front and center on your desk. “Organize your desk and your office calendar so that the project and the tasks that are most important are right there in front of you, guiding your return to the office,” Stevens says. 

5. Schedule a long meeting with yourself: Block off two hours on your calendar for the morning of your return to the office just to catch up on emails, voicemails and other missed correspondence. You’ll be giving those messages your full attention for a set time, rather than trying to wedge them into every spare second between other demands.

6. Omiyage: Say farewell and a preemptive thank you to the coworkers whom you’ll rely on to put out fires while you’re off frolicking. Plan to return to the office with chocolates or other edible souvenirs for those trusted colleagues. And as you return, tanned and bestowing little gifts, you can find out the status of your projects and whether there are any new fires for you to extinguish.

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About the Expert(s)

Cynthia Kay Stevens

Primary Research Areas

Recruitment & Staffing
Decision Making
Working constructively with difficult co-workers
Workplace diversity 

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