Traditional Vacation Is Dead. Long Live Vacation

Here are 3 tips for working smarter when you're away, so you can stay on top of your business—and enjoy yourself and your family, too.

The business world is abuzz with trend stories about unlimited vacation time. At Netflix, for example, they abolished their policy in 2004 and instead allow employees to take vacation whenever they need time (and as long as they get their work done). Gilt Groupe, a fashion-oriented deals site, offers up a similar policy, a sure way to attract talent in the competitive tech space.

However, thanks (or no thanks) to handheld devices and widespread Internet access, the reality is that for many workers it's hard to turn off. According to a recent Good Technology survey, 57 percent of respondents checked work emails on family outings. This is particularly true for entrepreneurs, like myself, who run small businesses.

I recently spent a couple of weeks visiting family on Prince Edward Island, once known amicably as the Garden of the Gulf. This tiny province is the perfect place for young kids to frolic in safe seas and for adults to disconnect from busy urban lives. For me, each summer when I visit, I continue to run my business, but it's taken me 10 years to figure out how to do so without jeopardizing quality time with my husband, three-year-old son, and dozens of family members.

Often time I see Moms and Dads working on holiday, and I cringe as I watch parents pound away on a BlackBerry (yes, they still have those) while a toddler is at risk of going under in a splash pad or a school-aged child is wandering too close to a busy road. What I see here is a clear example of professionals aiming to work harder, but they've failed entirely when it comes to working smarter.

While I'd love to turn off my email for two weeks, avoiding Twitter and Facebook messages in the process, the reality is that as an entrepreneur I am consistently fueled by the possibility of new opportunities. This means I need to be connected, but I don't need to be connected every hour of the day. I can rely on help from my team, but they can't possibly understand the context of every single digital message.

Here are some ways to work smarter when you're away, so you can stay on top of your business without ticking your family off (or putting your kids in danger, for that matter). 

1. Set email expectations (and exceed them if necessary). 

During a Work Flow interview with danah boyd, she spoke about informing her colleagues about any upcoming holidays months before she even stepped foot out of the office. She takes this one step further and programs her email so any message she receives while on vacation bounce back to the recipient—which she aptly calls an email sabbatical. The latter of these actions might be too extreme for many entrepreneurs, but there is value in the first step insofar as setting expectations for the people in your work circles. Once you're on holiday a simple auto-reply with details about how soon anyone can expect a response is a great idea, but also include detailed contact information for people on every level of business you do so you can better delegate without lifting a finger.

2. Block your business time. 

It's become fairly custom in my family that when we're on holiday I work for a couple of hours in the morning (when I'm most productive) and I don't check back into my work life until some point at the end of the day. This makes it easy to deal with my business in a condensed period of time, which often means writing articles and doing client work, and then I can focus on my vacation for the bulk of the day. If we're at the beach or playground, this means my phone is tucked away in my bag and I'm focusing on family fun (and family safety, of course).

3. Disconnect entirely. 

It's amazing how relaxed you will feel if you disconnect entirely for a day or two. This is a good thing to do at the start and end of your vacation. Aside from the total focus on your family, this can also be good for business. Think of this as a prolonged "creative pause," a term coined in the 1960s to define "the time interval which begins when the thinker interrupts conscious preoccupation with an unsolved problem, and ends when the solution to the problem unexpectedly appears in consciousness."

There are a number of studies that indicate that vacation isn't a surefire way to eliminate stress. In fact, it can sometimes mean that a worker returns to the office more stressed, which has been my experience if I don't engage for short periods of work time now and again to keep up with my work flow.

Perhaps, more than anything, we just need a new word. Vacation is in fact a fallacy since the term means, "a period of suspension of work, study, or other activity." I dare say that the traditional vacation is dead, thanks to today's digital times. So now it's up to us to figure out how to enjoy time off while still being somewhat on.

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[Image: Flickr user Stuart French]

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14 Comments

  • Dr. Marc Tinsley

    It's not a vacation if you're working. 

    If you want to be happy, healthy, and successful, you have to work smart, play hard and rest easy.

  • wescoat

    I have very little respect for workaholics who can't keep from checking in with their job for even a day or two. And even less for companies who condone such behavior. Prioritize, plan ahead, delegate and for god's sake, take an extended break once in a while and do nothing but enjoy the company of your loved ones. You owe it to them, and to yourself.

  • Sean

    I sincerely thought that the subhead was a joke at first. Sadly, it's not. But it does seem to sum up the author's - and many other's - life priorities: business first, family second. Staying "on top of" work is clearly seen as more important than connecting with family. I think we're getting to the point where the pros and cons of mobile technology are getting to be about even. 

  • MPawson

     I worked at a true startup tech company that became extremely successful and our policy was if you need to take a vacation, please take one just make sure you do not let your team down. But if we find you abusing it the limit of vacation is three weeks. That meant maturity to be able to organize your time, arrange with teammates when you would be taking vacation and not just dropping out on them out of the blue. But we did not flaunt this out to the public. It was something we as a team created and quietly adopted. It has been my experience that companies that have taken these ideas and feel they have to publicly broadcast them in order to make themselves appear as "the" place to work are simply sweatshops in sheeps clothing.

  • Wellness Tourism Worldwide

    There's a lot of good information out there about the importance of vacation and its role to health, productivity and happiness. In fact, I spoke on this very topic at the Wellness Summit in Singapore and as the keynote at the Well-Being Travel Conference last month. 

    There's a research study out there that i would encourage any US resident to take, called "What Motivates YOU to travel?" aimed at identifying motivations, trends and percpetions on wellness. The link is https://www.surveymonkey.com/s...

    The survey takes about 15 minutes and those that respond will have access to key findings as well as be entered into a drawing to win travel prizes. 

  • Hkjosh

    Greay way to do it is leave the charger at home when you go on vacation so you have full battery's worth of connection time. Most phones last no more than a full day on a charge so once its dead its dead no chasing after a loaner charger. Works the same as a money budget so you manage your time well.

  • dylan555

    The key should be setting expectations that you ARE suspending one activity so you can focus on another. You're not working so you can recharge, spend time with family, enjoy your life, improve your health, etc. Emergencies happen, things come up, I get that. But overall, shouldn't vacation time be seen as sacred? 

  • Guest

    A few tech companies may be the exception, but in my experience the "unlimited vacation" policies are nothing more than a way to eliminate the ability to "save up" vacation days or cash them in, and reduce vacation overall.  Law firms have been doing that for years and the result is that few (except senior people) ever take more than a long weekend because there's no policy that says you can take a week off. 

  • Dmanafo

    I know the draw to stay connected incase you miss something, someone, or an opportunity. But the ability to trust that a missed call or email is ok brings a greater amount of long term joy. I just took 2 weeks and didn't look at my work email once. I'm not in sales or have orders coming in, but I do fight the feeling of staying connected.
    I think our culture is hurting from not trusting that a vacation is OK and needed and justified and even adds to future productivity.

  • Jennifer Guess

    I like working in Europe. There is more of an appreciation for your holiday time and people don't expect you to be in touch while you are out - thus you don't have to spend months warning people.

  • Dave Thackeray

    Watch the video of the German guy who spent 23 years travelling the world in Otto, his battered Mercedes 4x4, covering 800,000kms and discovering more about life than anyone on Twitter. That shows us why all this digital pokery is dumb.

  • Katewestrich

    This article makes me incredibly sad. The rewards you reap from completely shutting down from work are wonderful ... and, I think, necessary.

  • Doug

    Couldn't agree more Kate. This article highlights some very harmful undercurrents at play in business where people are continually pushed to the max. Have a look at our rising and alarmingly high occupational stress and burnout rates...people are being decimated by corporate cultures that care little about their human resources.