Ready for a Real Vacation?
How to Make the Most of Your Precious Time
It's been a productive year of early mornings, lengthy commutes, and long, focused sessions at the office. Now you're looking forward to two wonderful weeks of doing as you please, when the only decision you need to make is what to order for dinner.
Fast forward, and you're sitting on a beach, with the warm breeze ruffling your hair and the sound of the surf filling your ears. Then your phone rings, and it's the office calling you about something urgent that you need to deal with. Just like that, the mood is broken.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you might wonder how you go about really "getting away from it all." Well, the truth is that taking a real vacation takes a good deal of planning and preparation – but it'll be worth the investment when you come back refreshed and revitalized!
Why Are Real Vacations So Important – and So Difficult?
Vacations can help us to establish a good work-life balance. They allow us quality time with friends and family, and they reboot our health  and vitality in the process. Research shows that taking just six days' vacation  can reduce stress, boost our immune systems, and ease depression.
However, to really feel these benefits, it's not enough to simply book a week's leave and hop on the next plane to Waikiki – you need to arrange a complete mental and physical break .
Sadly, complete breaks are now increasingly hard to come by, as technology allows us to take virtual desktops and cloud-hosted networks away with us. This makes it hard to leave work behind: one study found that 59 percent of Americans engage in work duties while on vacation .
If we never fully switch off from our working lives, our bodies and minds never get an opportunity to tune out and rest. So it's important for our health and well-being to get high-quality vacation time.
How to Plan a Real Vacation
So, read the six tips below to find out how you can get the vacation that you both need and deserve.
1. Start Early
A poorly planned vacation will leave you feeling just as stressed  as you were before you left, so start planning at least two months before you leave. You'll have a more relaxed build-up, and have more time to assess the issues that you'll need to deal with (increased workloads for your team members, for example). You'll also be able to give your co-workers plenty of notice that you'll be away.
Use the time to pick the right destination, and remember that you'll have numerous factors to consider. Will the vacation be active or relaxing? City or wilderness? A week on the beach is a great de-stressor for some people, while for others, it just creates space to worry about work.
Think about what you want to do while you're away. What is going to be most important to you? What do you most want to see? What things will give you the most pleasure? Whether it's visiting a particular museum, playing on a new golf course, or building the world's biggest sandcastle with your kids, it's important to make sure that your vacation plans will deliver the type of rest and relaxation that you need.
Learn about the customs and main day-to-day practicalities of your destination before you go (such as tipping, public transport costs, or the price of everyday products), and your vacation will more likely run smoothly. Also, be sure to research important aspects of your trip such as how you'll transfer from the airport to your hotel, for added peace of mind.
2. Time Your Trip for Maximum Benefit
Ask yourself questions such as, "When will I need time to de-stress?" or, "How long do I like to be away?". This will help you to set the dates and duration of your vacation, and make your precious allocation of vacation days go as far as possible.
Incorporating public holidays (particularly Mondays) and weekends is a great way to stretch your vacation allowance just that little bit further. Leave on a Friday night, stay all week, and travel home on the following Sunday, and you'll squeeze nine days' break from just five days' allowance, for example.
Short trips can also relieve stress. Try taking occasional Friday-to-Monday weekend city breaks, booking mid-week days off, or tagging extra days onto business trips, to provide a relaxing short break when you may need it the most.
3. Minimize Disruption for Colleagues
Swapping your desk for the beach would be a mistake if you did it while important projects were underway or during busy periods. You wouldn't be able to unwind and relax if you knew that you'd abandoned your colleagues at a bad time.
So, aim to go away without creating unnecessary stress or chaos for your team, and don't spring last-minute plans on people. Give your team members and colleagues plenty of notice, and keep the week before your vacation clear, so that you can finalize work, cope with overruns and last-minute crises, and still get away when you need to.
When you're delegating a task, be sure to allow enough time to properly hand it over. Consider the resources, instructions and information that your team members will need, and what they should do if things don't go to plan. Write clear expectations to guide them, empower them to perform specific functions if necessary, and leave your projects in an organized state.
Plan your return, too, so that you can relieve your colleagues, get up to speed quickly on what's been happening while you've been away, and have contingency time for dealing with unexpected tasks. A planned re-entry will allow you to pick up where you left off, without losing the positive effects of your vacation.
Always keep in mind that your co-workers will need to release stress and take a real vacation, too. Liaise with them before you book time off, to ensure that their needs, and the needs of the company, are met.
4. Define "Emergency"
Sure, go ahead and tell everyone that you're going to be out of the loop for a fortnight, and that nothing – absolutely nothing – is to get in the way of you having a great time. Most people will be sympathetic and won't disturb you. However, often the responsible thing to do is to be available if a genuine emergency arises.
To maximize your chances of vacationing free of interruptions, identify what counts as an emergency – for example, you're being taken to court, or a key client is angry, or there's been a fire at the office. Make sure that your team understands your definition and knows which situations will warrant people contacting you.
Then, once you're away, allocate some time each day to check your phone and email. This will allow you to respond to any messages that are left, without allowing work to intrude on your vacation.
5. Be Mindfully Present
It's important that you're fully engaged with the vacation, as your family, friends and, of course, you will have a better time if you're taking part in activities, conversations and decision making. One of the best ways to do this is to mindfully focus on the present.
Let go of your concerns about work as soon as you settle yourself on the plane, put your smartphone on silent, and concentrate on what you're doing right there, right then.
Unwind, let your vacation find its rhythm, and embrace the novelty of stepping outside your daily routine.
6. Savor Your Memories
You don't want your vacation to feel like a distant memory the minute that you get home, so counter the post-vacation blues by bringing small bits of your trip home with you.
You can't ever take too many photographs, and looking through them after you return will help you to keep feeling the positive effects of your time away. Maybe you've discovered a delicious new food or drink while you're away – can you source it at home?
When You Absolutely Have to Work
The reality is that, sometimes, it's simply not possible to switch off completely when you're on vacation. For senior executives, entrepreneurs and self-employed people, for instance, the business world keeps turning, 24/7.
But, even if you really can't unplug completely, you can still manage disruptions so that they don't overrun your precious personal and family time. It does mean making a trade-off but, if doing so allows you to dispel your fears and have peace of mind about what's happening back at the office, then it will be worth it.
Start by listing your vacation objectives and what you want to achieve – whether that's to learn the backstroke, to finish reading "War and Peace," or even to climb the north face of the Eiger. This will help you to prioritize your vacation time.
Then, pick a destination that allows you to do that and work at the same time. If your stress levels rocket when you can't power your laptop, should you choose somewhere remote or undeveloped after all?
After you've made it to your destination, self-discipline is the key to balancing work with your need for a proper break. Every email or call reconnects your mind to the office, so set up a daily routine of checking in – once each morning, say, for half an hour – and stick to it.
Try to work outside of normal office hours, to minimize your chances of getting dragged into discussions, and deal with just the most important messages.
In some countries, employers are not required to give a paid vacation allowance, and it's legal for your manager to ask you to check your emails each day or to keep your phone with you. If this happens to you, try negotiating. If you agree to check in with your office each morning, for example, they may agree to avoid calling you.
Start thinking at least two months in advance of your trip about where you want to go on vacation, when, and how you want to spend it.
Prepare for your absence by clearing, postponing, delegating, or outsourcing work well before you go. Plan your return, too, so that you can pick up where you left off without losing the positive effects of your vacation.
Consider allowing your team members to contact you in a genuine emergency.
When you reach your destination, be fully and mindfully present, so that you can really engage with your vacation.
Keep the memories of your trip alive when you're back home by bringing back some mementoes with you.
If switching off completely is not an option, self-discipline will be crucial. Schedule time to check emails and aim to manage the situation sensibly, so that work does not overrun your precious vacation time.
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