Americans are terrible about taking time off from work. While reasons may vary, the Pew Research Center recently reported that 46% of U.S. workers who receive paid time off from their employer take less time than they are offered.
I get it: I’m writing this article over a holiday weekend.
It’s also why I opted to consult an expert. Rashelle Isip, a New York City-based productivity consultant and time management coach, has literally written the book on time management: The Order Expert’s Guide to Time Management.
I know that I’m not great at stepping away from work. Part of it is because I’m a control freak (I worry that things won’t get done) and part of it is because I want to keep my clients and co-workers happy (I’m clearly a middle child). According to the Pew Research Center study, one of the most common reasons—and one that tax, accounting, and legal professionals no doubt cite—is the worry they might fall behind at work if they took more time off. Others may worry about how it impacts their ability to advance or the burden they might place on their colleagues.
No matter the reason, Isip says that we need to normalize taking time away from work. “People take holidays,” Isip says simply, especially during summer.
Why Take Time Off?
While relaxing feels like a luxury, it shouldn’t be. According to Isip, there’s a practical reason for taking time off: If you’re exhausted, you can’t serve your clients in the best way possible.
In fact, it’s one of the first things you’ll hear when hopping on a plane for a vacation: The flight attendant always instructs you to “put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.” You can’t effectively help others if you’re running on empty.
Even though we know this to be true, in a client service heavy business, like tax, accounting, or law, it can be tough to see the value in taking time for yourself. But Isip suggests that if this is a primary concern, it’s likely an excellent time to re-examine how you work and who your clients might be. When it comes to clients that demand all your time, you may want to ask yourself, “Is that the kind of client I want?”
Plan To Relax
For some of us, simply booking time off can be a big step. Then what?
Isip advises that part of your vacation or holiday planning should involve creating a mini-plan for your return so that everything doesn’t hit you at once. I’m a list maker, so Isip suggested a short list of items to do when I first return to the office. That way, those pending t0-dos won’t be front and center in my thoughts during my time away.
Also part of that mini-plan? Scheduling meetings for when you return. Often we pile up on meetings to make up for the time away. But Isip says to schedule those meetings for later—much later. When you return, she says, you’ll want to take time to get organized and catch up on what you’ve missed before you dive into a new round of meetings. Scheduling those meetings a few days (or weeks) out after you return allows you to ease back into your work routine.
Part of your plan should also involve setting boundaries. Before you leave for vacation, Isip advises to consider whether you want people to be able to contact you while you’re away. While we know that the goal is to get away completely, realistically, the answer to that question may be yes for many of us. If it is, Isip says, you need to manage expectations.
Isip is a fan of auto-responses. I often feel guilty about turning mine on, but Isip says that using them effectively can be a good idea. Communicating your availability to clients and colleagues can help ease some of the stress associated with feeling like you constantly need to check email. The same goes for voice mail. And, she notes, advising when you’re available is the equivalent of a brick and mortar business posting their hours—it’s good advertising and lets people know when they can realistically expect to do business with you.
If you can’t completely disconnect, consider time-chunking or time-blocking. I’ll admit to being a big fan of this strategy. When I need to return client calls, I try to schedule those next to each other in blocks of time so that my day doesn’t become a series of interruptions. I do the same for emails that aren’t emergencies—I flag lower priority emails to respond all together in the same hour or so. It helps me be more productive during the work week. Isip says that it can also be an effective strategy if you have to work on vacation—scheduling time to work (and sticking to it) can allow you to feel better about freeing up time later in the day to relax.
You should, however, be consistent and, Isip stresses, explicit. If you are only available to take calls from your workplace at a particular time each day—which is ideal—make that clear. Your email or voice mail should clearly communicate, “I will only be available from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.” or whatever your window looks like.
Similarly, if you absolutely need to check in at the office during your time off, tell your colleagues or assistant what time to expect your call.
Outside of those times, she says, make clear that you’re only available “if it’s an absolute emergency.” Key to that strategy? Make sure that your colleagues or assistant understand what constitutes an emergency. If you have an ongoing project related to an audit or a tax return, for example, outline the action items that would merit a response and be specific.
- A letter from the IRS noting they’ve received your correspondence but need more time to respond? That’s not time-sensitive enough to warrant a call or email.
- The client finally getting you their documents? That can wait until your return.
- But an IRS Revenue Officer at your client’s door? That would deserve a call or email (though, thankfully, an unexpected visit is not as likely these days).
“If it can wait,” Isip advises, “let it wait.”
Get Rid of Distractions
It can be helpful to get rid of distractions. That includes turning off notifications on your phone—you can reactivate those when you get back. And if you have apps you use for work, like Slack, consider deleting them temporarily. You don’t need to know what Dave in accounting or Maryann in HR is worried about right now.
As for social media? Isip advises you not to look at social media while on vacation. It’s too easy to get sucked into what’s going on elsewhere—and not focus on where you are at that moment. While on vacation, she say, “enjoy the world around you.”
It can be hard to unwind, especially for those of us who feel like we are always doing something. Isip says vacation can offer an excellent time to practice not scheduling anything in your calendar, including tours and events. Overschedulers tend to do the same behaviors while on vacation, but she notes, not every moment of the day needs to be filled.
I’ll admit that I find that piece of advice a bit challenging. I like to stay busy. For those of us who find it difficult to do nothing, Isip has an alternative suggestion—practice not scheduling something for one hour or more every day you’re away from work. Don’t fill that time and just see what happens.
“We associate doing nothing with laziness,” she says, “but there is value in winding down. Be brave enough to see how relaxed you can get.”
Do Your Best
If you just can’t say no to work, think of ways to put in time without feeling like you’re working. That might include professional development—catching up on reading articles or watching a seminar that you’ve been putting off. I’ll admit to spending some of last year’s winter break watching continuing legal education (CLE) courses—I needed the credit hours but couldn’t find the time. While it wasn’t wholly relaxing, it helped me move some things off my to-do list and feel like I accomplished something while still allowing me to spend time with my family.
While relaxing as much as possible on vacation is preferred, it’s helpful to recognize that it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing pursuit. “Do your best,” Isip says. You have to be aware of your limitations and plan accordingly.
For the most part, however, she stresses that vacation is vacation. Read a cheesy novel, she offers, or do something else that is relaxing. Most other things can wait.
Returning To The Office
Assuming you do take the time to relax, what’s next? If you’re like me, one of the worst parts of vacation is the return to the office because my mind automatically goes to what I need to do when I’m back. I want everything done as quickly as possible.
That can be a mistake, according to Isip. By rushing back to work, you’re undoing any bit of relaxation you just accomplished. You need to ease back into your routine, she warns. When you get back, consider making a list of all of the things that you think you need to do—not necessarily in order. A brain dump of things you have to address can be a relief in and of itself. Write it all down, she says, and then start planning your next steps.
And remember those meetings you put off by scheduling them a few days or weeks out? That comes in handy by giving you time to breathe. Instead of rushing off to meetings, you can go through the mail and take care of what’s outstanding so that you’re ready to eventually ramp back up.
Practice During The Year
Isip says that some of our work routines are just that—routines—and don’t account for how well we use our time. Taking time to think about how can you better arrange your work schedule can be a game-changer. For example, you don’t always need to be at your desk simply because it’s what’s expected of you. Ask yourself, “Am I working for the sake of working or am I actually getting things done?”
If you’re having trouble walking away from the office, Isip advises trying a mini-break. That can take the form of working shorter hours in the summer or at less busy times during the year. When you’re in a deadline-oriented business, like tax, accounting, or law, you tend to know when your busy times will happen. If you know you’ll be working around the clock in March but might have a bit of a lull in November, plan to adjust your hours accordingly.
If your work isn’t seasonal, it may vary depending on the day of the week. Take note of the natural ebb and flow of work throughout the week, says Isip, and consider ways to take a break. Practice taking a full hour for lunch, for example. It’s one way to give yourself a break without taking too much away from your day.
Make A Plan Now
If you haven’t taken time for yourself—no matter the reason—don’t get discouraged. Isip encourages you to consider your next vacation now. “Make the plan,” she says. And for those who find it hard to push work away, she says to put the guilt aside.
“This is owed to you,” she explains. Vacation time and paid time off aren’t just recommendations. Most full-time jobs have built-in vacation time plus paid time off each year–they are written into your job summary or description. She stresses, “part of your job is to take a break.”