What to do before a vacation to make sure coming back to work isn’t pure agony

Prepare to unplug.
Prepare to unplug.
Image: AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos
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I went on vacation last month. In the final 15 minutes before leaving my desk for a week, I set out-of-office messages on Slack and Gmail, made an Evernote to-do list for my first day back, and closed my laptop, confident I’d return rested, organized, and ready to jump back into work.

Vacation is over now. I am none of those things. I’m groggy from too much cheap rum and not enough sleep. Pre-vacation Corinne thought the note “CALL THESE GUYS” next to a phone number sufficed as a to-do-list item; it doesn’t. Plus I’m distracted by thoughts of the trip. It was amazing. I saw a turtle. Can I even go back to the life I lived before that happened? I don’t know.

The last week at work before a vacation is often a frantic scramble to finish projects. But while meeting commitments to colleagues and clients matters, planning for your return may be a better investment of your time than crossing off tasks that don’t have hard deadlines. A few simple steps before a vacation can make returning it a lot easier. Here’s everything I wish I’d done before leaving town.

Clear out your digital and physical clutter

“You keep saying you are going to do this. Now is the time,” Craig Jarrow, author of the blog Time Management Ninja, told Quartz in an email. “Emptying your inbox before a break can be a extremely satisfying task. It will also ensure that there are no hidden ‘time bombs’ waiting for you upon your return.”

Likewise, taking a few minutes to tidy to your desk can boost productivity (but not necessarily creativity) upon your return.

Use that out-of-office message wisely

Don’t say you’ll be checking email sporadically. Give colleagues the tools or resources they need to resolve issues without you, rather than encouraging them to contact you on vacation or to leave problems for you to resolve upon return.

You may also want to set the end date for a few days after your actual return to the office. It keeps the world at bay for a few days while you get caught up on more pressing tasks.

Make a to-do list. A good one.

“Have as thorough of a to-do list as you can” for the first week back at work, says Lindsey C. Holmes, CEO of the Newark, New Jersey-based digital consultancy Usable Tech. And then offload the cognitive burden of remembering to follow up on your list items to technology. Reminders and notifications are your friends here. Instead of my vague “CALL THESE GUYS” note (Which guys? Why?) I could have entered the phone number, along with a more detailed note, in my digital calendar at the time I wanted to call them back.

Taking the time to make a detailed return-to-work plan before you leave can save a lot of time when you’re back. “You’re going to be in kind of a daze,” says Regina Lark, owner of A Clear Path, a Los Angeles-based professional organizing and productivity service. “Having those important tasks in front of you when you first sit down will jog your memory in ways you probably need to have it jogged.”

Give yourself a freebie

It’s often easier to resume a project than to start one from scratch, so carve out time before you leave the office to make headway on a task that will be easy to complete upon returning. It may help you easily generate momentum in your first day or two back at work.

Tech writer Alexandra Samuel calls this “parking on a downhill slope.” Don’t mistake this for an excuse to defer unpleasant tasks. “If you’re choosing which projects to wrap up before vacation and which to leave for completion upon your return, leave the most enjoyable or interesting challenges unfinished,” Samuel advised in the Harvard Business Review (paywall). “[T]hat way you’ll have something enjoyable to tackle when you get back.”

Take a first swing at something big

The time just before a break from the office can also be a good opportunity to scratch out the first draft of or the initial plans for a project that will require more creative thinking. “Start a new creative project now, and you might be surprised what has developed in your subconscious mind upon your return,” Jarrow says. And if you don’t want to start on the ambitious idea now, ask yourself whether it’s time to just scrap it altogether and make room for new ideas.

Once you do leave for vacation, really leave the office behind

I couldn’t help peeking at Twitter and work email while I was away. It didn’t take much time, but I often put the phone down feeling more stressed than when I picked it up. Psychologists say we’re better served by unplugging entirely. Stepping away from devices gives the brain time to recharge, the cognitive psychologist Amanda Crowell told my colleague Jenni Avins last year. That downtime is what allows us to come back to work energized and ready to take on new challenges. If you aren’t going to let it happen, there’s not much point in leaving the office in the first place.

“The problem is that people go on vacation and they feel guilty about it,” Crowell said. “They don’t seem to recognize that the vacation is serving their business, and their productivity, and their success at their work.”