Illustration by Julie Houts
There I was—in mid-air, just launched off the diving board, and now perhaps 5 feet above the water—when it dawned on me that my cellphone was in my bathing suit pocket. There was no stopping it from being murdered within the next two seconds and, with it, my near-instant connection to emails and other vital work notifications. I remember my thought an instant before the belly flop: Serves me right.
It’s unlikely this exact scenario has befallen you; it’s a near lock you understand how it could happen. With communication and information platforms that know no calendar or clock, with Wi-Fi available no matter how many thousands of feet in the air we may be, how do we build a wall between work and relaxation—especially in an ever more uncertain job market?
When you’re away, you’re worried your boss is looking for you—because of course she is. You’ve made yourself someone to count on. And if your boss happens to be half your age, with zero kids, raised in a world of 24/7 connectivity, you may be especially reluctant to appear less than available at all times.
With that in mind, here are some tips for setting professional boundaries around your vacation—ones that won’t make you feel, as I did when I drowned my work lifeline, that your career is taking a dive.
Before You Go
Use the “medical group practice” method: You know how doctors rotate who’s on call and even who deals with emergencies when one of them is off? Do that. Ask a colleague who’s both trustworthy and roughly your rank to cover for you, as you will for her when she takes time off. If something comes up that only you can answer and it’s a work bottleneck, you should be contacted. If not? It’s in her capable hands. (Just make sure to buy her an extra-nice souvenir.)
Be clear with your colleagues about your availability.
Maggie Mistal, a career and executive coach, suggests telling them, for example, “I’m going to check email every day at 10 a.m., so if you need me, get to me by then.” That’s it. You’re not checking at noon or 4 p.m.
Set up your “I will not be reachable...” auto-reply email, with contacts.
Do not include the phrase, “I will have limited access,” which suggests that you will be checking, setting up expectations—or disappointment, when you don’t respond.
Manage who texts you.
Texting is even easier than emailing, so “set expectations by telling people you’re not even going to have your phone with you,” Mistal says.
If you’re a manager or executive, remember:
You help define the office culture. Be extra clear that your people shouldn’t expect you to check in, nor should they contact you except for a true work emergency. Grant your employees the same freedom and let them follow your lead.
You Are Gone
Once you’ve landed or arrived at the hotel, go to your phone settings and turn off notifications for your work email. That way they won’t be conspicuously popping up on your screen every time you snap a photo of your kids. If you’ve managed expectations and created a chain of contact, maybe you can even leave your phone in the hotel safe. Though the concept scares most of us, Mistal says studies show that “if your phone is in the room with you and you’re not even on it, it’s a distraction.” When people left their phones outside the room, they actually focused better.
Aim to be especially disconnected that first day or two.
It takes about 24 to 48 hours to turn off the neurons that have been engaged in your work activities, “just to get free of all the stuff you’ve been doing,” says performance psychologist and best-selling author Jim Loehr. Since you’re so wired to be on, force yourself to do activities that “absorb you so completely that you simply can’t think about work,” Loehr says. Is that scuba diving? Reading a thriller? Whatever it is for you, make sure you’re all in. If you don’t uncharge completely, Loehr points out, how can you recharge completely?
You Are Back
If you did it right, you shouldn’t return to an Everest of work. If you truly unwound, you’ll be in a better place, physically and mentally, for the backlog that awaits. And there will be one. To make it more manageable, don’t wait for Monday morning. The night before you return to the office, devote one hour at home to email and texts. Do it in sweats and fuzzy socks, a drink at hand, pleasant music in the background. It’s unlikely you can simulate the tropical breeze you just enjoyed, but at least this will feel less jarring and more—dare we say?—relaxed than if you wait until you’re at the office and back to the daily grind.