Breaking Free From The Work Trap While On Vacation

Fall’s coming. And as much as I adore this season, my mind can easily turn to the cold that will arrive and vacation adventure travels.. We love our vacations, yet the persistent challenge of working during cherished breaks is as ubiquitous in the leaders I coach as it is with their teams. Disconnecting from work and immersing in leisure is not just a luxury, it’s a fundamental human right. Making it happen may seem simple to imagine, but it’s not that easy to do. So let’s explore some strategies for making time to vacation, what often gets left out in communication before you leave, different styles of vacations and what to do if you’re failing to take a true break.

Streamline, simplify and succeed.

Let’s face it—getting away can be a challenge. After all, there’s so much to do. This is especially the self-talk of those who are experiencing work overload that never seems to let up. If you’re involved in far too many projects to ever consider taking time off to rest and reenergize, then it’s your job to negotiate people’s expectations of your role and streamline their demands. Proactively prioritizing, delegating and negotiating are the skills to put into action to make your working life reasonable and create the pathway to providing your brain with a mental break and stress relief.

Communicate your availability limits.

Once you set the date when you will be off work, it’s up to you to enable others to plan for your absence well in advance. Merely activating an out-of-office (OOO) email alert is too late and insufficient to announce your vacation status to those you work with inside the organization and out.

One partner in a financial services firm was on vacation when his client urgently communicated that there was interest in a company buyout. They hadn’t said anything to him for months prior, but now suddenly they were crushed with preparations and the deadline was imminent, leaving him little choice but to sacrifice a half-day of his time away with family because he was the only one on the team who could do the work.

To minimize surprises in the future, he’s taken to putting a proactive strategy in place. He initiates early client conversations, supplementing the communication of his upcoming vacation dates with a comprehensive checklist of common challenges and deadlines. This serves as a helpful reminder to jog their memory regarding potential impacts of his unavailability. This proactive communication has lessened client surprises and left him with peace of mind that he didn’t leave it all in the hands of his clients.

Expect to be surprised.

Nevertheless, let’s be real. It’s smart to do what you can to diminish the probability that you will be interrupted on vacation by a surprise demand. It’s also realistic to accept that no matter how resolute you are in your desire for uninterrupted bliss, and no matter what you’ve done ahead of time, there will be times when work comes knocking on your holiday’s door. High-stakes situations can arise while you are away that can’t wait for your return, and your team will reach out to you. But here’s the catch—make sure everyone is on the same page about what truly constitutes a “high-stakes” matter. Is it an intergalactic invasion threatening the fate of your company? Or a trumped-up fake deadline that your team has been duped to believe? What information can you provide to your team ahead of time to help them effectively spot the fakes and to triage the real, urgent messes?

Stop temptation with a habit.

It’s problematic to aim to de-stress and truly relax if you are checking your devices all day long and crowding out the benefits of why you took time off in the first place. There’s no chance of interrupting the sources of stress. Self-monitoring is easy for some but not for all. If you have trouble holding back from repeatedly checking for messages from people at work, there are plenty of hacks for you to experiment with. Recruit an ally and empower them to be your gatekeeper. They could safeguard your device(s), maintain the secrecy of your passcode and help you respect a time limit you make for yourself. With their assistance, you can override the temptation to constantly look at work-related messages.

Choose your vacation style.

Not all vacations are created equal. If you want to work during your time off, consider embracing the concept of a “working vacation,” and own it. Maybe you are a digital nomad—working while traveling on “holiday.” Be transparent about your intentions, letting your team know that you will be available to them while also taking breaks for personal rejuvenation. Setting these expectations up front can foster open communication and ease any hesitations from your staff and colleagues who might otherwise shield you from interruptions.

Get out of your own way.

Finally, if you have a pattern that you intend to disconnect but don’t every time, consider that it’s not them—it’s you. You might be getting in the way of your well-earned vacation. Reflecting on what saboteurs are causing you to avoid putting on the brakes is helpful, whether it be the ceaseless need for accomplishments, the driving fear of what could happen when you aren’t working, persistence in the role of the victim or the people-pleaser or a reluctance to put yourself first, to name a few. These saboteurs aren’t fixed for life, but their hold on you can be. They are at the root of your dissatisfaction and explain your unhappiness and frustration. It’s time to recognize them and lessen their hold on you.

Does anyone need evidence that taking breaks from work is a good thing and necessary? They offer relaxation, fill us with positive emotions and diversify our experiences away from the routine. It’s a no-brainer, and yet there are so many things conspiring to take us off our leisure time while away from work. One big one is work itself. Another one is us.

A version of this article was published by Forbes.com. Photo thanks to Priscilla du Preez.

Getting Hybrid Work Right

We’ve had a few years where working hybrid has become a new normal for many. Even so, businesses continue to apply trial and error to get it right. Like all workplace strategies of consequence, we are all learning from our mistakes to get better at it. Here are a few things employers are doing to get the best from in-person and remote work in a hybrid model, and what to guard against.

Leader Bias In The Wrong Direction

Many leaders regularly wrestle with the decision of whether to mandate employees back into the office for more days in a week. I hear this concern a lot. The mistake to avoid is to act on impulse rather than on data. Digging deeper, it exposes leader bias toward in-person work simply because at the root of it, it’s familiar, and they may enjoy it more themselves. Businesses need to ask themselves whether they have promoted people while using hybrid models and whether promotions have included young people and new hires. Leaders must also acknowledge that if the current system is working, there’s no reason not to listen to what employees want.

Making The Case To Come To The Office

Leaders have recognized that if they aren’t able to make the time in the office worthwhile, then all interactions will be virtual. Yes, there’s food and snacks on offer, movie night, cocktails and game nights. But most of all, facilitated, human, in-person connection is what draws people together. People want to experience their teammates in person, but the frequency varies. One pharmaceutical company makes it easy for people who don’t work closely together to meet, facilitating random match-making by lottery over lunch in the office. Leaders there frequently organize cross-functional coffees and provide introductions as a way of offsetting the decline of random encounters and shrinking networks. For many leaders, the new priority has become to check in with employees when they are together in the office and enable connections.

Employers are more choosy about creating moments when everyone comes together, working to be intentional about the reasons why to do it at all. One professional services firm coordinates bi-weekly, in-person team meetings and reserves other in-person encounters for annual planning, off-site retreats and year-end events where celebration and being together is something people look forward to.

A financial investment company regularly has large employee turnouts by bringing people together for networking socials, training and skills development and sessions to promote well-being. Whatever the reasons to invite in-person gatherings, I’ve noticed that smart leaders have understood that employees want them to be designed for meaningful participation. There’s less of a desire for passive entertainment or lectures or information sharing where few are speaking and most are only listening.

Rethinking Meetings

For many, most days are filled with back-to-back meetings, exaggerated by the ease of virtual communication and WFH where the day starts earlier and ends later since commuting isn’t frequent. In fact, we now know that meetings have multiplied in some cases by more than double. Employees have become challenged with blocks of virtual meetings that can become stale without alone time reserved for thinking, planning or strategizing.

There have been plenty of remedies for the relentless challenge of meeting fatigue such as reducing the number of meetings in a week and the length of each meeting, leaving a day free of meetings, mandating meetings to no more than two people and encouraging employees to reserve time without meetings.

Other changes to make meetings productive are the introduction of meeting management training and training people on the power of negotiating boundaries and how to maintain them. Some have mandated intervals between meetings to leave time for casual chats and so the business of meetings starts on time, and others are clawing back early starts and late days in favor of shorter workweeks for less pay, and offering a compressed workweek.

Securing “core hours” is popular—a dedicated block of time typically in the middle of the day when colleagues are available for real-time collaboration and meetings and personal obligations. What businesses and organizations are realizing is that the sacred cows of pursuing increasing efficiency and speed are exacting a high cost on people over time. There are plenty of ways to make work enjoyable without losing productivity by considering alternate ways to collaborate with others and exercise limits to prevent overwork.

Not Penalizing Women

There was a time when flexible work, part-time work and leaves from work were considered “accommodations” that were encouraged for women, but this often stalled their careers and stigmatized them, as they were viewed as more committed to their families than to their work, which hindered their chances for advancement. Hybrid and other flexible arrangements may bring on fewer incongruities between genders as more men opt in. I know of a technology company that goes beyond having a flexible work policy on paper to actively encourage male and female employees to take advantage of the under-utilized opportunities available to them, with assurances that their careers won’t suffer as a result. Early data shows that they’ve been successful with this approach.

As one senior woman leader I know puts it, there’s finally recognition that working less, taking leave and even working from home isn’t slacking off and that most people are happier to have the option to choose it.

There is plenty we aren’t yet doing well, such as configuring office space where use, not hierarchy, is the sorting decision; promoting inclusivity when not working from home; and driving innovation while reducing collaborative overwork. There’s never been a time when high-performance culture did not require flexibility rather than rigidity, and a workplace approach that balances the benefits of virtual and in-person work is no different. The conversation about the future of hybrid work will continue to evolve with input from all areas, bringing people’s best thinking together.

Thank you to Shridhar Gupta for the image. A version of this article was published by Forbes.com on May 31 2023.

The Secret To Productivity Isn’t Time Management

When the only answer to a leader’s personal productivity challenge is better time management, you know that it’s missing the mark. After all, it’s not likely that one causal answer can’t remedy a very long list that amounts to trouble. Leaders bring concerns about broken time management to executive coaching hoping that five dos and don’ts will solve what pains them. It’s can be simpler than that, but it takes some self-insight to succeed. Let’s take a look at the real symptoms behind less than optimal productivity.

We ignore the underlying cause.

All of us procrastinate. Doing something other than what you’re supposed to can be a welcome relief, but getting a fifth cup of coffee and doing unimportant work is not getting you anywhere. You already know that. With hybrid work, the challenge of doing double-duty when working from home makes a single-minded focus even tougher. The clock ticks toward the due date for everyone when they deliberately delay.

Contrary to what most people believe, it isn’t lack of discipline that causes procrastination. We procrastinate when we are feeling a strong emotion about the work we want to avoid and that causes us to put it off.

An engineer in a consulting firm delayed writing a bid because she was aware that if she was successful the requirements would mean undue pressure on her staff at a difficult time when they were already working weekends.

A physician researcher with chronic procrastination challenges admitted to himself that the research he had signed on to no longer matched his interests. He did it for reasons that seemed right at the time, but those reasons didn’t hold.

To address procrastination, you have to look inward. Tune into your thoughts and emotions to better understand what you fear. With the clarity you gain, you are in a better position to give yourself good counsel and make adjustments that relieve whatever is interfering with the work.

We are overwhelmed with collaborative overload.

Who isn’t distracted by unnecessary email, wasteful meetings and demanding requests? Most people believe that this is where we waste the most time at work and take measures to lessen the distractions. It turns out that if you are an average user of digital media, those aren’t the biggest time wasters you can do something about. The culprit is over-collaboration.

Rob Cross has spent decades studying networks. In his book Beyond Collaborative Overload, he writes about the reason leaders become overwhelmed and, ultimately, undermine their success: Many involve themselves in work they shouldn’t be doing, caught in a mess of excessive demands on their time.

Cross’ work made me think of the vice president of marketing I know who joined a project and admitted that he did it to show that he was right all along. Or the vice president of operations who revealed that she went forward in a multi-functional initiative because she was concerned with what colleagues might think of her if she declined. Or the countless others who are pulled to get involved because of the project’s prestige or because they want to show they are indispensable or because they haven’t considered if the project could be better served with others in their place. Diving in to collaborate won’t do you or the project any good if you are tied up with a project that you shouldn’t have become involved with in the first place.

Efficient collaborators are selective because they are attuned to their own triggers for self-sabotage. Strong performers who value their boundaries turn away from their known temptations.

We are focused on distraction management, rather than forming good habits.

Time is a valuable non-renewable resource. Since we’ve come to rely on our electronic devices to serve multiple functions and with the pervasiveness of social media, people know to reign in digital distractions. This is widely known as attention management. It also focuses on productivity as a function of time management.

What’s worrisome is that with distraction management as a lens, people rely on willpower alone. Willpower is a strange thing. In my work with leaders, we design a habit sequence to override willpower because it’s so fickle. Sometimes it works, and other times it fails you. If you have a habit in place it acts like a force field because you are no longer thinking “Should I or shouldn’t I?” You are simply repeating the tiny actions you’ve designed.

We misunderstand willpower.

And that’s not all. In the past, we’ve been told that our willpower depletes over time, and that it’s better to sync up your must-do activities that require your focus for the time of day when you are at your best. Yet Carol Dweck and others at Stanford University found that self-control is as strong as you think it is. If you think it’s less available and easily depleted, then you are right. If you believe it isn’t limited and your self-control can be generated with a good challenge, you are also right. In practice what this means is you can persuade yourself that you aren’t so easily depleted, you’ll do much better at avoiding distractions. A growth mindset provides us with a view that we can replenish our willpower. This has not only changed my mind about willpower, but I can also predict that I can keep my focus when I most need it.

Are there more distractions on your time now than ever before because you are working from home? Maybe. We know that addressing procrastination means looking within to notice what you’re telling yourself. To resist over-collaboration is to first know your weak spots and keep your boundaries firm. And shifting your mindset about self-control can increase your willpower. The maxim of the Ancient Greeks is as relevant now as it was then: Know thyself. No number of time management strategies and tools can hope to replace it.

This first appeareed in Forbes.com. Thank you to Bruno Figueiredo for the image.