Confronting Just-Back-From-Vacation Dread

Harvard Business Review

On the way to work one day last week, I caught myself having a terrible thought.

"Let's see," I mused. "No more vacations coming up soon. In fact, probably no more long vacations this year. Excellent."

It's not that I don't like vacations. It's just that returning from them, as I was doing last week, is such a pain.

I had pretty wiped out my to-do list before I left, so it wasn't that I was way behind. I'd also spent 20 minutes every day during vacation checking my emails and responding to the handful of urgent ones, so I didn't return to a scary backlog. But there was still no avoiding a big post-vacation pile of little questions and proposals begging for responses. And, because I'd told people who I'm working on things with that I'd be back in the office on Tuesday, there was some big stuff, too. By the end of the day I had five article drafts and a book manuscript in my inbox, all requiring some sort of response. Plus I had a moderately busy calendar of meetings and events for the week.

The result: I started the week playing catch-up, yet never really caught up. I wasn't working on the things I really wanted to be working on, I was feeling guilty about not getting back to people, and I didn't feel like I was making much progress. It seemed like it would take a week or two to get back to where I felt in control again — which is what got me looking forward to the long stretch of vacation-free months ahead of me.

Not all jobs are like this. Back when I was a newspaper reporter, a colleague would simply cover for me when I was gone. When I got back, I'd have to do a little bit of catching up on what I'd missed, but there wasn't ever any kind of backlog I needed to work through — if something really important happened on my beat, the paper had already run an article on it. Same goes for any job where someone else has to take over your duties while you're on vacation.

Interestingly, bank regulators in the U.S. require that bank employees "in key or influential positions" take off at least two straight weeks every year — long enough that someone else has to take over their duties for that time, making it harder to cover up any ongoing shenanigans.

I'm not going to hold my breath for a similar decree from magazine regulators. For one thing, there aren't really any magazine regulators, at least not in my country. And the nature of the job that I do — which is, at least in this respect, similar to the work of most white-collar workers these days — doesn't lend itself to vacation handoffs. I work on projects with durations in the weeks, months, and sometimes years, usually involving several people, with each playing a distinct role. It's usually easy enough to put off my part of the work for a week, while it would take tons of coordination and bringing-up-to-speed to hand it to somebody else. So, most of the time, finding someone to take over for me isn't practical — and vacations become postponements of work rather than vacations from it.

This wouldn't be a problem if I perfectly calibrated my workload to leave room for a few weeks of vacation a year. I have lots of freedom to decide how much work to take on, so in theory this would be possible. But in practice, I'm quite impressed with myself when I get the work/time balance right for a single workweek. Adding in the vacation calculation is simply beyond me.

Seeking advice, or maybe just solace, I typed "vacation" into the hbr.org search box. It turns out that if we wanted to start a spinoff publication called the Harvard Vacation Review, we'd totally be able to fill it. We've run lots of pieces on the importance of vacations — so okay, I'll keep taking vacations.

There was also Dorie Clark's piece on "How to Take a Month Off," which I remembered reading when it came out. But part of the attraction of taking a week off is that you don't have to spend a year planning for it, as Dorie did for her big trip.

Then I came across Peter Bregman's "The Right Way to Come Back from Vacation," which addressed exactly the catch-up problem I was facing. Peter's advice was basically stop trying so hard to catch up. Block out lots of time for activities that aren't related to clearing out your backlog, and spend time thinking about who you are at your best and what your goals are. Then tackle the inbox, but with a clear sense of what's important and what you can leave hanging.

There was no way I was going to do exactly what Peter advised. I'm too wary of self-help advice for that, especially when it's self-help advice from a guy I've known since he was a freshman in college (and I was a junior). But I found myself nonetheless following his recommendations in spirit, by ignoring my to-do list for three hours and writing this. And now I really do feel much better — I took control, I accomplished something tangible, and I forced myself to think about things bigger than just catching up. True, I'm still far from caught up. But I'm no longer resolving never to take another vacation.

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