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How to Maximize Vacations

Many times over the years, I’ve heard clients state some version of this:

I can’t take vacation this year.

This is no surprise, since Americans only take half of their paid vacation. Of those who do take vacation, 61% work during it.

But why?

What We Tell Ourselves

Every situation is different, but the narrative often goes like this:

It’s a critical time in our organization. I’ll generate tons more work for myself and my team if I attempt to take vacation now.

I’ll just have to work three times harder the week leading up to vacation, get pinged while I’m away, and take weeks to catch up when I return. It’s not worth it.

Banking vacation time is often a badge of honor. Eventually, some people are “forced” to take vacation time that was otherwise going to expire.

It’s become such a cultural expectation that when I made a casual mention to my Dad recently about things being busy at work, his instant response was:

Don’t cancel your summer vacation.

The Real Story

There are times in almost every career when vacation time doesn’t make sense. I have clients that have been working on single projects for customers for 4-5 years. The month before final delivery is probably not the time to leave.

Yet, when I read an article by Scott Edinger on how he used to obsess over getting everything done before a vacation, I came to the conclusion that for many of us, vacation stress is mostly self-inflicted.

A lot of us, even if encouraged otherwise by our organizations, work like crazy leading up to vacation. Then, we spend the first 2-3 days of vacation recovering from the preparation for it.

A good chunk of vacation ends up being recovery time from the week prior, rather than time to focus on family, travel, or relaxation.

What You Can Do

In his book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie advised:

Rest before you get tired.

In order words, be proactive with your rest and plan things out so you don’t find yourself exhausted later.

A good practice is to work a reasonable schedule the week before you leave. Contract in advance with your organization on what must be done before you leave and what can wait for your return.

While there are always exceptions, it’s been my experience both personally and with clients that more often it’s the employee pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion before a vacation, not the employer.

Once away, resist the temptation to “check in” on email. Your inbox will never be empty and it’s tempting to jump right back into work mode. If essential, limit checking in to just once or twice during time away.

How to Help Others

Nobody should be forced to take vacation, but managers can help by being mindful about communication leading up employee vacation time. What you say (or not) says a lot about how the organization values time off.

Many regular tasks of individual employees can be put on hold for a week or two. Those that can’t should be delegated in advance. Employees should be encouraged to plan out delegation and work a reasonable schedule in advance of vacation.

I can’t think of a single time in my entire career where someone’s absence for a week or two was a anything more than a minor inconvenience to the rest of the organization (and usually, a lot less).

Even if you’re not the manager, how you dialogue about vacation sets the standard for others. Statements like, “This is the first real vacation I’ve taken in five years,” may be intended as positive, but also suggest that you and/or the organization doesn’t really value time away.

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