The Right Way to Come Back From Vacation

“Daddy, come look at our island! Quick! Before it disappears!”

We were in Bluffton, South Carolina playing on a sandbar that emerges only at low tide. The sun was barely up — we had woken early to watch the sandbar disappear as the tide rose — and now my wife Eleanor and I were relaxing in the warm salty water, eating juicy South Carolina peaches, soaking in the moment, enjoying our children and each other.

Our children, Isabelle, Sophia, and Daniel, were creating islands and moats in the sand as the ocean slowly rose, sending a trail of water through their creations.

“Quick, Daddy, It’s almost gone,” Sophia yelled.

“I’m coming,” I yelled back as I made my way to the one last remaining bit of exposed sand on which they were constructing their fragile world. Sophia was right. In another ten minutes her islands, and the entire sandbar, would be gone.

As would our vacation; this was our last day. Soon, we would be back to normal life, waking up not to get in the boat and watch the sunrise, but to eat a quick breakfast and get the kids to school.

And, like the unstoppable power of tidewaters, the reality of our lives would rush in: an overflowing pile of snail mail, a deluge of emails, a flood of phone calls, and a stream of meetings. Colleagues, projects, shopping lists, homework, and even simply maintaining relationships — all of that would inundate us again.

What’s the right way to come back from vacation?

Here’s what I’ve done in the past: Stay up late the night I return, trying to go through everything, answer all my emails, and create a long to-do list of everything that accumulated while I was away. Then, the next day — my first full day of work — do my best to go through that list as I maintain a normal schedule of work, meetings, and phone calls.

But that’s a mistake. A surefire recipe for wiping out the benefits of vacation within a few hours, letting the island disappear underwater forever.

There’s a better way.

First, let your last night before work still be vacation, or at least your personal time. Don’t open your email or check your voicemail. Unpack, do laundry, make your kids’ lunches if you have kids and they need lunches — but don’t get back to work until you’re back at work.

Then, on your first day back from vacation, try this three-step plan for not only getting back into the swing of things but taking some of the island with you:

1. Ready: Who are you at your best?

Before you listen to that first voicemail, sit quietly for a minute, and think about what you most liked about yourself on vacation. Was it the relaxed way you listened to the people you were with? Maybe it was the time you allowed your mind to wander? Perhaps it was the way you immersed yourself in each moment because you weren’t distracted by constantly checking email on your phone? Maybe it was your patience, your generosity, or the ease with which you slipped into laughter? Write down a few of your observations and keep the list close. The busier we get, the less we cultivate the aspects of ourselves we value so deeply because they aren’t necessarily efficient.

But they are us — possibly some of the most important parts — and leaving them back on the sandbar diminishes who we are. Which weakens us, reducing our energy, creativity, and effectiveness. Not to mention our pleasure.

The solution? Become less efficient. Which means you will get less done. Which, ironically, will make you more productive, as long as you choose the right things to get done.

2. Set: What Is your focus for the year?

In order to get the right things done, we need a filter to help us decide what not to get done. Identify the most important things you want to focus on for the year. Every year I choose five major things on which I want to spend 95% of my time.

My five things form a lens through which I focus on the world. Without them, everything would be a blur. With them, I can distinguish what’s important — and worth my time and attention — from what’s not.

Before touching a post-vacation email, look at your list of five and connect with the priorities that will make this year productive, meaningful, and fulfilling for you. Remind yourself what’s important.

3. Go: What are you going to do? 

It’s a good idea to block out your first morning back from vacation — or the first day if you can — to go through what’s waiting for you. Don’t rush this — it’s the most strategic thing you can do.

It will be hard to resist the temptation to try to get it all done. But if something doesn’t fit into one of your five areas of focus, defer it to someone more appropriate, politely decline it, or, if you can, simply ignore it. This goes for items of personal interest as well as business. (I know Banana Republic is having a 40% off sale, but still, do you really need to browse their site?)

Your first day back will set the tone for the new post-vacation you, so build yourself into your schedule. Look at your “Who are you at your best?” list and bring that person back to work with you. Block an hour for lunch with colleagues. Take a ten-minute walk in the morning and one in the afternoon to allow your mind to wander. Listen to someone else’s story with attentiveness. You’ll have the time to do those things if you haven’t over-scheduled that first day.

This doesn’t just have to be your first day back from vacation plan; it can be your everyday plan. Each morning, look at your “Who are you at your best?” list and recommit to bringing that person from the sandbar to the office. Then look at your “What is your Focus for the Year?” list and process your work through that filter, making strategic choices about what to do, and what not to, scheduling your day so you have time to be yourself at your best.

“Look!” Isabelle screamed just as Eleanor and I approached. She was pointing to several Hermet crabs she had collected and placed on the island they had created with piled up sand. The five of us stayed there for a few minutes, quietly watching the water rush through their paths and tunnels as the crabs crawled away.

Which reminds me, there is one more thing you can do to soften your landing from your last vacation: pick a date for your next one.


  1. Nuria says:

    Holidays are great, don’t take wrong, but considering that we’ll be spending most of our time/life working, shouldn’t we start enjoying work?

  2. Kevin says:

    The biggest part of learning to enjoy work is making sure we are doing the right things at the right time, in the most efficient manner. It also helps to ensure that the tasks you are doing make maximum use of your personal core competencies, and you delegate the tasks that better match someone else’s core competencies.

  3. Cindy Marks says:

    I love my work, but I’ve learned this doesn’t make me immune to becoming burned out. I’ll always need to set aside time where I’m not trying to be uber productive – even “vacations” from home as well as work. I think the techniques here and in other of Peter’s posts, offer some solid strategies for helping me stay human and available and strong during task-oriented hours by remembering your best traits from relaxed moments outside of to-do lists. A lot of these posts have definitely helped me enjoy my work in a more sustainable way.

  4. NancyD says:

    You’re a great writer, Peter – thanks for the words that put us in touch with the nature of our being and help us to pause and reflect. It’s like the old woodcutter who took a break every hour. When the job supervisor asked why he did that (figuring it had something to do with age), the old woodcutter replied, “Because I need to sharpen my axe.”

  5. david says:

    Sounds like you had a nice time. Thx for sharing it. dbm

  6. LynAnn King says:

    What a fabulous article. Great reminder to keep the inner strength. I have forwarded this article to numerous folks. Thanks so much for articulated so well, and giving us best practices in re-entering the business world. Nicely Done!

    P.S. How do I post a photo with my response?

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