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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]