The Mostly Unplugged Vacation

I’m going on vacation with my family in a few weeks, and I’m anxious.

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 4 am. 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 email. A walk from one office to another? Check voicemail. 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 (the other hand, well, I’m not looking).

Sure we might say we have no choice. But while non-stop 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 — brings up all sorts of insecurities.

Two years ago, after ten 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, Marc, the CEO of a small company and also a good friend, smiled at me, his eyes twinkling.

“It’ll be OK,” he said, “Just know that three things will happen. We’ll regress. We’ll forget you. And we’ll find someone else to do what you do for us.” 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 over 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 timeframe — 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 emails 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 by setting aside some time to work, it 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. And it allows us to concentrate on a single thing for longer without getting interrupted.

Last week, in The Cardinal Rule of Rules, I wrote about how to avoid being interrupted. It’s important when you make a rule to stick to it. If you tell people you can’t be interrupted — or reachable — and you want them to take you seriously, then you can’t allow yourself to break your rule.

Sometimes it’s impossible or inappropriate to wall yourself off completely. When you need to respond, you need a different rule. 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, Marc’s company had not regressed. They didn’t forget me, and they didn’t replace me. This time, when I leave for vacation in a few weeks, 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.