The secret to actually enjoying your vacation is the day before it starts

The standard two-week vacation policy looks increasingly outdated.
The standard two-week vacation policy looks increasingly outdated.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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When I touched down at the Orlando airport last January, I was supposed to be on vacation. But I had a few more emails to fire off to my coworkers before I could truly relax—so I settled into a tiny airport workspace, hunched over my laptop.

I’d done the same thing the previous fall, but in the Syracuse airport, while my girlfriend idled in the bag pickup lane, and I frantically tried to zero out my inbox.

It wasn’t just on vacations that work crept into time I’d reserved for relaxation. On most evenings and many weekends, I would shove aside commitments to friends and family to labor on my big project at work.

The irony, of course, was that this big project happened to be a report on work-life balance (or as I prefer to call it, “work-life conflict”) for the American knowledge worker.

As I completed my research for the report, I began to understand one aspect of what made it so easy for my work to creep into my personal time: My non-profit employer had great intentions. I learned that the very tools that managers hope will empower and inspire people can also lead them astray.

Schedule flexibility, for instance, means people can “flexibly” work early in the morning, Sunday afternoons, and in destination airports en route to vacation. Instilling a sense of autonomy and ownership makes this feel fine; employees get to decide that working this way is important to them. An emphasis on collaborative teams can make people feel like they are failing to support their colleagues if they don’t respond to emails when they are “unavailable.” In short, I found that policies designed to maximize quality of life and minimize stress were actually pushing people to work more.

My team and I published that report on work-life conflict—yes, after all the long hours!— detailing behavioral barriers to finding balance, with an emphasis on recommendations that employers and managers can use to create more beneficial policies for their staff. One of my favorite recommendations is something we have already started doing ourselves. It’s called “transition days.”

On the day before and the day after our vacation time, I don’t schedule meetings. I put a block on my calendar that lets my team know that I’m not accepting meetings those days, and then I use the time before leaving for vacation to clear my task list, informally touch base with key team members to hand off any tasks, and generally set things up to run smoothly in my absence. On the return transition day, I can go through the emails that have piled up and get caught up with what’s happened while I was away, without having to rush to meet about something that I’m not clued in on. Critically, having that return transition day means I don’t ruin my Sunday night (and end of my vacation) by plugging back into work to prepare for the next day.

Transition days are a simple change that can go a long way toward reducing stress. They work because they create a bit of slack in your schedule for the unexpected, directly address our failure to plan for all the small details that need to be squared away before unplugging, and facilitate team communication (ever tried to chat with someone “sometime this afternoon,” only to find you’re both stuck in meetings until 6 pm?). Having transition days make me feel much more relaxed at the start of a vacation and ensures my parting memory of that time off isn’t about all of the emails I went through on the flight home.

I’ve found vacation transition days so useful that I’ve started to make every Friday a “transition day.” I don’t schedule any meetings, and I use the unscheduled time to clean up the work to-dos generated by the preceding four days of the week. There are significant benefits to my team, too, since I’m much more available for quick, informal consults.

Transition days aren’t going to solve work-life conflict by themselves. But anyone who’s looking for a small improvement in their workweek (and has the ability to carve out meeting-free time) should give them a try. Every element of the work environment is a choice, and while we don’t always control those choices, being thoughtful about what we can control can have a surprisingly large impact on our happiness.

Dan Connolly is a Senior Associate at ideas42.