Managing the Tension of Relaxation

Every time I go on vacation, I feel two distinct emotions: excitement and anxiety.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I adore my family and the time we spend together. And that includes stuff like changing diapers and putting groggy kids back to bed at four in the morning. Fun or not, I treasure it.

Still, vacation makes me anxious because I know I’ll feel torn. When I’m not working, I’ll feel like I should be, and when I am, I’ll feel like I shouldn’t be.

Some will accuse me of being a workaholic. But it’s not just that, and it’s not just me. We live in a world in which we’re expected to be available all the time for almost any reason. Worse, we expect it from ourselves.

Leashed to our technology, we find it harder to spend an unadulterated moment doing anything. Forget about vacation. How about a short break in conversation? We quickly check our e-mail. A walk from one office to another? Check voice mail. Bathroom break? I hate to say it, but it’s rare to walk into a men’s room and not see a man at a urinal with one hand on his BlackBerry.

Sure, we might say we have no choice. But while nonstop work might feel overwhelming, it’s also reassuring. It makes us feel busy. Valuable. Indispensable.

Unfortunately, there’s a downside to feeling indispensable. And going on vacation brings that downside up. You can’t get away. Or you won’t. Because getting away—truly not being needed for a week or two—raises all sorts of insecurities.

Two years ago, after 10 years of running my company, I took a month off and went to France with my family. As I prepared to leave, I spoke with each of my clients, letting them know I’d be away. One client, Ross, the CEO of a small company and also a good friend, smiled at me, his eyes twinkling.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “Just know that three things will happen: We’ll regress. We’ll forget you. And we’ll replace you.” Then he laughed. Ha ha.

I laughed, too, and then quickly added, “Of course, you know, I’ll be reachable if you need me.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Reachable if needed. And since we all like to be needed…

There are two reasonable ways to deal with this problem without ruining a vacation by staying plugged in 24/7.

Completely unplug.

I’ve done this a few times when I was literally unreachable—for example, when I spent a week camping and kayaking down the Grand Canyon. And while I find this close to impossible to do unless I am forced, it was a wonderful break.

When I returned to civilization—and a phone—I had more than 50 messages. But here’s what I found most interesting: The first half of the messages all raised problems that needed to be resolved, and the second half were the same people telling me not to worry about the first half because they had resolved the problems on their own.

It turns out that unplugging created an opportunity for my team to grow, develop, and exercise their own judgment. Still, for some of us, unplugging completely might not be realistic.

Which brings us to option two:

Schedule plug-ins.

Choose a specified time—and time frame—each evening when you will be reachable. A few minutes at the end of each day (or, if you can manage, every few days) to answer e-mails and make phone calls.

Of course, before you schedule the time, you need to admit to yourself that you will work during the vacation. But setting aside some time to work means you’re setting aside the rest of the time to not work. And that just might save your vacation.

This strategy is a good one even when you’re not on vacation, though the plug-ins will be more frequent. Scheduling specific time to take care of emails and phone calls each day avoids the technology creep that takes over so much of our lives. It allows us to concentrate on a single thing for longer without getting interrupted.

Scheduling time sets clear expectations—for you, for the other people on your vacation, and for the people reaching you. Everyone will be relieved.

Thankfully, when I came back from my month away, Ross’s company had not regressed. They didn’t forget me, and they didn’t replace me. Next time, when I leave for vacation, I’m sure I’ll bring my laptop. I still want to be reachable if someone needs me. But only for half an hour a day.

This article is excerpted from Peter Bregman's book 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.

Peter Bregman, MBA, MCC, RYT, is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that coaches, teaches, and advises CEOs and senior leaders in many of the world’s premier organizations.

Full Bio and Programs