4 Tips for Really Unplugging on Vacation

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Article by Mark Royal

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These days, when work is just a phone call, email, or text away, "unwinding" and "unplugging" are no longer synonymous with "vacation."

Technology, which makes connectivity possible in all but the most remote places, is only part of the problem. Thanks to globalization, vacations in one part of the world are treated as business as usual in others. Executives' commitments to their responsibilities and competitive personalities also play a role. However, the biggest culprit of all might be a failure to plan. Clearing the desk to have a week off is hard work, and taking a vacation is a project in itself. Planning better for downtime – and negotiating with family and friends for when plugging in is a must – will help you have a much better time.

Most of us stay tethered to the office while on vacation. In one survey, three-quarters of executives admitted to connecting to work at least once a day while on vacation, including more than one-third (34 percent) who said they checked in multiple times a day. Only 3 percent said they do not check in with the office while they're away. In addition, nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) said they have cut short or canceled a vacation due to work pressures.

These behaviors fly in the face of research that shows the positive impact of taking a vacation, including the health benefits of de-stressing and improved productivity upon return to the office.

While almost all executives (90 percent of respondents) do take at least one weeklong vacation, being gone does not mean being fully away from the office. It's a common sight at any amusement park: parents standing in line with their children, reading email on their phones.

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Many executives blame the need to "put out fires," which is a legitimate reason given the fact that technology has squeezed response expectations down to hours or even minutes. Plus, companies are running leaner these days. When a team member or leader is out of touch, there are fewer available staff to cover key accountabilities. Progress can slow or grind to a halt. That lack of slack in the system means more people feel compelled to stay plugged in.

While 18 percent of survey respondents cite avoiding increased workloads upon return to the office as their primary reason for not unplugging, for some executives, staying connected is somewhere between an impulse and an addiction. Twenty-five percent of survey respondents said they stay connected because they enjoy it.

These statistics tell a sobering story of how work gets in the way of vacation – and how perceptions can lead to changing norms across the workplace. When the boss responds to emails while away, colleagues and direct reports get the impression that being unplugged on vacation is a bad career move. That attitude becomes engrained in the organization, eventually becoming an unwritten expectation.

Given the prevalent attitudes toward staying connected while on vacation, it's no surprise that executives are wary of unlimited vacation policies. Even if they could take off as many days as they wanted, three-quarters of executives said they would not increase their number of days off. Indeed, some would take fewer days due to worries that their bosses or colleagues might think they aren't working hard enough. That fear is a hard taskmaster, driving people to keep one foot in the work world while the other is on a beach or a mountain trail.

But there are solutions. Here are four tips to plug in less and relax more while you're on vacation:

1. Work to Play

If you want to have a week away, you need to work ahead. Get things done in advance and schedule important calls for before or after your vacation. This won't happen if you don't think about vacation until 4 p.m. on the Friday before you leave.

2. Refine Your Filter

Have a good internal filter about when and how to connect to the office while you're away. Although staying connected has becomes a badge of honor to some, it might not win you any prizes if you're not careful. If people know that you're on vacation but still responding to every email that's not urgent, they're going to wonder why. Is it hyper-vigilance, or a need to know that supersedes the need to relax?

3. Have a Designated Hitter

Ask colleagues to back you up – you'll return the favor when they're away. Take advantage of opportunities to delegate certain responsibilities to junior colleagues who will benefit from stretch assignments.

4. Set Plug In Times

Arrange in advance when you'll be plugging in. For example, you could allow yourself to look at email early in the morning or in the evening. Negotiating with your significant other can avoid conflict and will keep you from looking at your screen instead of the scenery.

While unplugging completely during vacation is too much of a stretch for most of us, a little preplanning can go a long way to promote relaxation – instead of frantic texting at the poolside or surreptitious phone calls behind a palm tree.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

As an executive with Korn Ferry, Mark Royal also plays a leading role in directing annual research with Fortune magazine to identify the "World's Most Admired Companies" and uncover the business practices that make these companies highly regarded and highly successful. Royal's research has been published in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, The Journal of Compensation and Benefits, and The Journal of Organizational Excellence, as well as featured in Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Human Resource Executive, and Workforce Management.