The first day back from vacation can feel overwhelming. You’re likely getting caught up on what you missed, tackling an overflowing inbox, and adapting from vacation brain to work mode. How you handle the day, however, can improve your productivity for the rest of the year, says Peter Bregman, author of Leading with Emotional Courage: How to Have Hard Conversations, Create Accountability, and Inspire Action on Your Most Important Work.
“You come back to a bucket instead of the normally dripping faucet of information,” he says. “With hundreds of emails and tons of phone calls, the question is, How do you filter through all of this information?”
Most of us do the logical thing: Start from the top or bottom and go through messages and requests one by one. Instead, Bregman says you should take advantage of the situation, pause and create a clean slate: “The first question to ask is, What is most important for me to accomplish?” he says. “What are my top three to five priorities—the things that will make the biggest difference?”
Once you have your objectives, write them down and look at them every morning and evening. “Looking at your list helps you recommit to them,” says Bregman. “Once you’re clear, the list becomes the glasses you put on to look at everything in the bucket. Filter every decision, conversation, request, to-do, email, and opportunity through this lens.”
Putting the plan into action
To be at your most productive, you should be spending 95% of your time on your own priorities. Requests or demands of your time that are outside of your priorities will happen, and you need to be willing and ready to communicate your boundaries to your coworkers and colleagues.
Be proactive: Look at every meeting you’re invited to and decide if it’s moving you forward, says Bregman. “If not, withdraw or cancel,” he says.
Look at your calendar. Does your schedule predispose you to accomplish these things? If not, change it, says Bregman.
If someone asks you for information or a decision or guidance, then ask yourself, Is spending time on this going to move me forward on my top priorities? If not, decline, says Bregman.
And at the end of each day, look back and ask, Did I work on my priorities? “If not, what can you learn for tomorrow?” asks Bregman.
Articulate your intentions
It can be uncomfortable or awkward denying someone’s request, so Bregman suggests using this phrase before your sentence, “Given that our priorities are X . . . ”
“For example, ‘Given that our priority is X, we should make this decision,’ or ‘Given that our priority is X, we can delegate this to Y,'” he says. “If you communicate it like that to everybody, they’ll get it. Then you not only create your own focus; you help everybody else set theirs as well.”
It can take emotional courage to be true to your priorities and say “no” to outside requests. “What stops us from focusing and following through isn’t our knowledge or capability; it’s that we’re not willing to feel everything we need to feel,” says Bregman. “It can be a hard conversation, defensiveness, shame or embarrassment—yours or mine. If I don’t want to feel those things, I’m not going to follow through. It takes emotional courage and willingness to feel what’s necessary to make that ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. But the willingness to feel is at the root of productivity.”
After a vacation is the perfect time to set yourself up for productivity, because time away gives you space to energize your focus, says Bregman. “When we’re on vacation, we have space in life to be a human being,” he says. “Once you’ve had space from the day-to-day, you can be clear on your priorities, because no longer are you covered in the rubble of daily fires and to-do lists. When we come back to work, it’s important to identify and be super clear on priorities—yours and your organization’s—and move forward.”