The Power of Being “Out of Office”

Beach scene with out of office written in the sand. Image courtesy of DepositPhotos.

The Power of Being “Out of Office”

When I was a kid, and we went on a family vacation, my dad would never truly unplug. He’s a businessman and always had to take work calls (this was pre-internet/email), which upset my mother the most. I never understood why he couldn’t just cut off all communication and enjoy our vacation like the rest of us. That is… until I became an accidental entrepreneur myself.

If you frequent my blog, you’ll remember my advice to play hooky and how important it is to take a mental health day from time to time. In fact, I’m considering re-naming these and setting aside one “spontaneous” day a month (just blocking off the day) and then deciding that morning what I want to do: read all day; take a hike with my dog; visit a winery; have lunch with a friend. Whatever I want to do, the day will be mine and it will be new and exciting because it won’t be planned. And for those of you who know me, I keep a tight schedule so these spontaneous days are just what the doctor ordered.

But what happens when mental health days or spontaneous days aren’t enough to get us recharged?

Most Americans don’t take their vacation days for fear of work piling up or that they’ll somehow be discovered as expendable in their role. If you think about it, it’s the same fear mindset that keeps us from doing a lot of things that we may desire to do. Are we being practical, or is fear really behind it?

I aim to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk. You already know I’m super organized and that’s why I can help set up systems to get others organized. I had no idea when I started this business five years ago that it would be so successful and that I could make a living organizing other people full-time. But when you own your own business, you wear a lot of hats, and if you’re manning the ship alone, the thought of a vacation – even for a few days – can be daunting.

But a vacation suddenly became a priority after I felt overworked and exhausted. I was really urging for some down time to relax and unplug. This year marks the 20th anniversary of my post-high school graduation European backpacking adventure with lifelong friend Michelle Tresemer. Both strong female entrepreneurs who are living the dream, we knew we couldn’t take off a week to head back to Europe for some fun, so instead we decided to stay a little closer to home.

We had been talking for years about going to Hawaii together and decided we’d finally make it happen in late April of this year, as a belated birthday present to myself. I was super excited about the trip! In the early stages of planning I had ideas of grandeur where I would work on my kids book series because I’d finally have the time (my writing always gets pushed off for something else; can anyone relate?). As the vacation approached, and I felt more burned out, I decided that I was going to ditch those plans and just relax. But could I do it?

Michelle – ever the planner like me – emailed me to ask “what do you want to do while we are there?” Surprisingly my response went something like this “My daily life is so over planned and scheduled, I don’t want to plan to do anything. Let’s just decide when we get up what we want to do. Does that sound ok?” Michelle was shocked, immediately asked who I was and what had I done with her friend, but then said that sounded good to her (and this is why we’re friends). The thought of no plans really excited me; this was very new to me.

Now came the really hard part of going on vacation: the worry about the work piling up and not responding to emails in a timely manner. I’ve never gone more than a few hours without checking email. Just like the lab rat who gets the cheese when he pushes the button, I had to get my fix of checking my emails, responding and getting them out of my inbox (yes, I just compared myself to a lab rat). I blame my obsessive need for “inbox zero” but it had become more than that. I was out of control. Could I possibly go 5 days without checking my email? If I could, would I incessantly think about it and worry what I was missing out on things (how can one possibly have FOMO* when it comes to work email?!)?

*fear of missing out

When I told clients and friends that I wasn’t planning to check email, they were happy, but unsure I could do it. This response elicited a reaction in me: it now became a challenge. Not only was I going to do it (I’m a taurus if you can’t tell; bullheaded for sure), I was for sure going to do it for five days. The question was how would I stop myself from cheating?

It turns out I have a strong will (probably not shocking to some). I set boundaries by warning clients in advance that I’d be going on vacation (everyone was very supportive). I put on an “out of office” notification (work email only) explaining that I was unplugging and recharging and would answer emails when I got back on a specific date. The night before my trip, after packing my suitcase, I got down to inbox zero and put the out of office on. The next morning I did one more quick sweep and then logged out of my gmail account (I use the web-based version and not apple mail or outlook), which added to my success in not cheating.

I set myself up for success by hiding my email app three pages deep on my phone.
Now came the really difficult part – email on my phone. I didn’t want to delete the app entirely so I took my mail icon and I hid it on my iPhone – three pages deep! I knew it was there but at least that blue icon with the red bubble wouldn’t haunt me when I checked the time or weather, or accessed my camera (which I did frequently).

I allowed myself to use social media which definitely helped. I still felt connected and got to share with others, but that was in fun mode, not in work mode. And not once was I even tempted to check email. Well, until my friend commented on one of my Facebook posts that she sent me an email of things to do on Kauai. Shoot… I’m not checking email!

I handed my phone over to Michelle and said “I need you to check my email for a message from my friend Tiffany. She has some recommendations for things to do and places to eat.” Michelle opened my email, kept the number of emails in my inbox under wraps, and read through the recommendations. And that was that.

Not checking emails for 5 days was blissful, I tell you.

The funny part was there were two instances where I thought, “wow, I can’t believe I haven’t gotten an email about that,” before realizing I probably DID have an email, I just wasn’t checking them. Waking up to Michelle checking her work email daily didn’t even tempt me. I couldn’t believe it!

We arrived home quite late on a Monday night and I vowed not to check email until the next morning during office hours. Come 8am, coffee in hand, I opened my phone and began with my personal accounts (3 – they had the least amount of emails to get through). Then I opened my computer and worked on my business account and the emails I monitor for our organizers forum. In total I had 252 emails (95 in my work inbox alone) which was really not bad considering. In 4-hours I was able to get it all back down to inbox zero, albeit for only a few minutes.

The lesson? You can – and should – absolutely step away from your email (and social media if you want) to recharge and unplug for a few days. There will be a pile of things to do when you get back, but if you’ve truly let yourself relax you’ll come back so energized you can dive in and get through that pile more easily than if you had spent your entire vacation checking email or worrying about what you were going to come back to.

Look, if I can do it, I promise you can too, especially for just a few days. We always make things out to be way worse in our heads than then end up being, and the pile of work or masses of emails are manageable. If you’re an entrepreneur, plan the morning after your vacation as “office hours” to catch up on emails and to do’s. If you work for a corporation, or even manage a team, hopefully your colleagues or team will have helped take on your tasks while you’ve been gone (just as you’ll do for them when they are on vacation; remember this is really a time to give them a challenge and let them shine). My hope is that you’ll realize that you are not expendable – you are valuable – and that with the right leading and delegating you can take that vacation and come back a better manager and employee because of it.

The key though is to really step away from work duties and set those clear boundaries in place in advance of your trip, and then not waiver from them.

We’re human BEINGS not human DOINGS. We biologically need to unwind and rest; heck we do it every night when we sleep. But give yourself this gift a few times a year so that you can come back to your work refreshed and energized. You’ll produce better work and be a better colleague to be around.

A photo of us all relaxed after 4 days of vacation on Kauai

Aloha! What four days of R&R looks like.

I’d love to hear what tips you have for me on unplugging and going on vacation. What has set you up for success or helped you get over that mental hurdle? What vacations do you have planned? Or if nothing is on the books, what’s your dream vacation and what steps can you implement now to make it happen sooner rather than later?

Lauren Mang
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