In mid-August, our family took a ten day vacation to Nashville where we stayed on a 200-acre working ranch with horses, a pool, and a spotty internet connection. If it were over two years ago, I would have panicked at the thought of not being able to check my work email, but on this trip, I deliberately unplugged from work—no emails or phone calls for eight of the ten days. This is progress for me. Although I’ve rarely brought “real” work on vacations, up until two years ago, I had always checked my email several times a day to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, or to answer simple questions. The problem was that I never really disconnected enough to actually enjoy my vacations—there was always an underlying sense of anxiety about what was going on at work.
This all changed two years ago when I joined a program for entrepreneurs. It was there that my coach introduced the entrepreneurial time system, which included free days. Free days are 24-hour periods of complete disconnection from work—no email, no phone calls, no reading any business material. The idea is for you to free your mind and focus on other activities you might enjoy (for me that includes drinking wine, massages, playing tennis, or hiking). This concept seemed so crazy to me at first. What if a potential client emailed me? What if one of my CEO clients had a question? What if people were annoyed, they had to wait over a week for me to get back to them?
In February 2018, I tested the concept out on an eight-day vacation we planned at a resort in southern Virginia. Day one and two were very challenging for me. I found myself frequently grabbing my phone out of habit, but the only thing I could check were my personal email (which was mostly sales emails) and Facebook. I felt an underlying sense of anxiety for two days as I wondered what I could be missing at work. And then something magical happened. By day three, the anxiety had disappeared. I was actually enjoying our vacation—truly enjoying it—without thinking about work. My husband and I went on a hike and had a great conversation, and I wasn’t constantly distracted by things I couldn’t do anything about.
This trip was a huge learning lesson for me. I realized by staying connected to my email, I became worried about small things—things that could wait a week—and it impacted my entire vacation. If a client emailed to ask a simple question, I would think about it all day until I could find a minute to reply. I would begin thinking about all the things I had to do when I got back to the office, instead of being present and enjoying my family who was right in front of me.
It may seem impossible (or feel irresponsible) for you to imagine going on vacation and completely disconnecting from work. I’m sure you take pride in doing a great job, being responsive, and getting things done. But you are truly missing out on an opportunity to free your mind of distractions, improve your relationships, and clear your mind. After your break, you will return more focused and rested, and with creative and better ideas. Your body and mind will get the rest it needs to work at your peak performance.
Our modern culture is so different today then years ago when you didn’t have a phone in your hand or email and texting at your fingertips. As a society we have blurred the lines between work and home. So many professionals are feeling burnt out, exhausted, and overworked from being constantly connected.
There are a couple of things you can do to prepare for your trip to reduce your own anxiety, while also alleviating the questions others may have while you are away.
Set up your auto responders. Before you leave, set up your out of office responder in your email and on your voicemail. This sounds simple, but I can’t tell you how many people I email who are on vacation and forget to put their out of the office message on. This just causes frustration and delays for your members and your colleagues. Here’s a tip: even if you are at a conference or away for one day and plan to check your emails, still set up your out of office responder. This way you are setting the expectation that you will not respond, and if you do, the receiver is pleasantly surprised. For example, I recently attended a four-day conference in Denver and set my auto response message saying I was at a conference and would respond when I returned to the office. I responded to more urgent messages the same day I received them and saved the others for when I actually returned to work.
Provide a contact. Always provide the name and email of someone who can be contacted when you are out of the office (and make sure they are not out of the office too!). When I set up my auto responder, I always include my assistant Lisa’s contact information so clients can have someone to reach out to if they need it. I tell Lisa she can text me if something urgent comes up and she thinks I need to be involved. This rarely happens, but will give you and the person emailing you relief in knowing if something is truly important, it will be handled.
Tie up loose ends. Make sure you follow through on any commitments or projects before you leave the office. Colleagues will be frustrated if you leave and they don’t have what they need while you are gone.
To really enjoy your unplugged vacation, you need to set expectations. Since I started taking unplugged vacations two years ago, I have not once (that anyone has communicated to me) had an issue where a client or partner was frustrated or mad because they received an auto responder and had to wait. In fact, several people have said it’s inspiring to them that I am able to really disconnect. As long as you set expectations of when you will respond and you follow through, it will rarely become an issue. You can be a successful, high performing leader and still take unplugged time to recharge. In fact, you will become more successful and high performing when you do. Personally, I have made more money both years I have taken unplugged vacations compared to years I have not.
And the upside? You will truly enjoy connecting with the special people in your life, and will return more rejuvenated and focused.