Crucial Skills®

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3 Skills For Getting the Most From Your Vacation

Dear Justin,

I’m back to work after returning from our family’s annual week-long summer trip. I’ve got to be honest, as much as I love getting away with my family, I dread returning to what piles up in my absence. I stress during vacation when I should be relaxing and enjoying time with my kids. I just now opened my email and I have hundreds of messages. HELP!!

Buried After Vacation

Dear Buried,

I’ve been in your shoes. In fact, I just returned from a week off. I understand how the threat of a backlog can distract and prevent one from enjoying the present moment. Let me offer some tips that should help you on your next extended leave.

Set Yourself Up For Success BEFORE You Leave

Go beyond setting your out-of-office reply and arranging the time off. Focus on getting your physical and virtual workspace “clean” before you take off. This will allow you to fully enjoy your vacation. For example, before I take an extended leave, I will spend 60 to 90 minutes doing a weekly review. During this review, I make sure I have full control over my tasks and calendar by surveying my whole work landscape. I block out time on my calendar for this review weeks in advance, and on the day before my vacation this is what I do:

  • Collect loose papers and materials hanging around my workspace and file or organize them.
  • Empty my head—capture (write down) everything I’m concerned about and what the next actions are.
  • Get my inbox to zero by assessing email messages and organizing them into appropriate action lists or folders.
  • Review my next-action lists and make sure I don’t have any loose ends.
  • Review my calendar for the week ending, the week of my vacation, and the week of my return.

You might try the same. Doing this allows you to step back from the weeds of your daily work and see the trees. You can then, if necessary, renegotiate agreements, notify specific people you’ll be out, and postpone certain tasks to a later time. YOU drive the bus. The bus shouldn’t drive you.

Upon Return: Clean Up First, Work Second

Before you take off, block out time on your calendar for the morning of your return. Then use that time to get up to speed. Now, this does not mean you do all the work in front of you. The purpose of this time is not to work, but to get clear on your work. You might be thinking, “But Justin, I need to get to work. I need to DO, DO, DO in order to catch up.” If you give into this impulse without taking time to review and reflect, your first week back will be busy yet unproductive; you’ll chase emergencies rather than purposefully produce value.

During this review time, you might do what you did before you left—collect loose papers, empty your head, etc.—but you really should focus on your inbox. That’s where the majority of inputs will have piled up, making it the primary cause of potential stress.

Get Your Inbox Current—Maybe Even to Zero.

The idea of getting your inbox to zero might seem like heresy but hear me out. Approach email as something to decide on rather than work on. Clarify what each message means to you and determine where it belongs. How? Consider whether each message is actionable or not. If not, determine whether it’s something you need to FILE, TRASH, or INCUBATE (note: incubate items you don’t want to/can’t act on immediately but may want to do later). If the email is actionable, determine whether you should DELEGATE, DO NOW (tasks that take two minutes or less), or DO SOON.

These are your six rules for processing email: File, Incubate, Trash, Delegate, Do Now, Do Soon. That’s it. When you realize you can respond to email in only one of a few ways, you can more quickly get clear on messages and their corresponding actions.

For example, let’s say you receive a marketing email for a service you’re not interested in. What does it mean to you? Nothing. So where does it belong? In the TRASH. If the content of a message should be saved for reference, FILE the information and archive or delete the email. If you should DELEGATE a message, forward the email to the appropriate person then archive or delete it. If you receive a request you can DO SOON, decide on the next action you need to take and write that on a to-do list. Too often people read an email, decide what it means, then move on because it’s not critical, only to return to it later and reread it. No wonder we rarely feel caught up. Rule of thumb: if you read an email, determine what it means to you and handle accordingly—only once.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Ok, my inbox is at zero, but no work is done.” That’s untrue. In the world you and I live in, much of our work centers on defining what our work is. For most of us, our job is to take vague inputs and transform them into clear actions and outcomes. The late Peter Drucker wrote: “In knowledge work . . . the task is not given; it has to be determined. Results have to be clearly specified if productivity is to be achieved.” Once your inbox is at zero, you can review your to-do lists and see a full inventory of everything you COULD do. Consequently, you’ll be better able to determine what you SHOULD do. And you’ll DO more of the right stuff.

Next time you take a vacation, try this approach. I think you’ll find yourself more relaxed and present before you leave, while you’re gone, and when you return.

All the best,

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2 thoughts on “3 Skills For Getting the Most From Your Vacation”

  1. Jardena London

    Great article! One thing I do for my vacation colleagues is send them an email the day before they return titled “READ THIS FIRST” to give them a summary of what’s important, open and what’s been resolved. That way they don’t have to read through email threads of issues that are already resolved.

  2. Ann Austin

    Great article! Thanks!

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