A couple of weeks ago, I had a family emergency that required me to drop everything and run.
I had time to put an out of office on and call my assistant to ask her to cancel my week.
There wasn’t time to respond to text messages or social media mentions or even post a status update (which, BTW, makes people feel like you’re mad at them because you don’t respond, but that’s another topic for another day).
It was a crazy week and it was the first time in my entire career I’d had to do it, but it was also very enlightening.
Even those closest to you just cannot help themselves. Everyone. Must. Email.
I am lucky to have someone who can check my email and respond on my behalf, but what if I didn’t? What if, like many, many other working professionals, I’d had to have dealt with my family emergency and sorted through panicked emails?
That level of stress on top of what I was dealing with likely would have sent me over the edge. Straight into the looney bin.
Sure, there likely were some balls that were dropped because I hadn’t planned to be out, but I also have an extremely capable team who can pick things up and run…which also is a great test in giving up control and letting them do their thing.
That and we’re not brain surgeons. No one died because an email or a tweet went unanswered for three days. True story.
Vacation Does Not Mean Time Off + Email
Likewise, we have a client whom I adore. He was on vacation about a month ago and I was shocked to see his team (because they CC’d me on everything) emailing him non-stop.
I will put part of the blame on him. He responded to those emails, in between activities with his kids, but the onus also belongs to the people who work for him who just couldn’t let him be for five days.
When he got back to work, I asked him how his trip was, and he grinned at me sideways. He hadn’t had a relaxing trip. Rather, he’d worked while he tried to balance being with his family.
That’s not vacation.
It’s not unplugging. It’s not recharging. It’s not thinking strategically. It’s not being creative.
It’s trying to be all things to all people and it does not work for human beings.
Email is Killing Us
That’s why “Fixing Our Unhealthy Obsession with Work Email” caught my eye.
It turns out, I’m not the only person who feels this way.
There are scientists and doctors and researchers—people with far more credentials than me—agree.
Email is making us tense, stressed, overly tired, and non-creative.
There is all sorts of advice from business leaders on how to manage email.
In the HBR article titled, “How to Be a Pro-Vacation Manager in a High-Pressure Industry,” the author talks through how to give your team time off without consequence.
While I agree with most of the article—require people to take time off, spread the work among the team, follow a pre-approved plan—this one tip made the hair on the back of my neck stand up:
Put away your devices while you’re on vacation. Designate a couple of consistent times per day, so your team knows when you will be checking in. The rest of the time, refresh and relax. You will return a better leader and manager, and a more productive and constructive member of your firm.
Yes, put away your devices. Yes, refresh and relax. Yes, you will return more productive.
But do not designate a couple of consistent times per day to check-in. This defeats the whole purpose of unplugging!
Let’s say that something does go wrong while you’re out. If you check in on Monday at noon, while the kids are napping, you’re now in a panicked, stressed state, work all through the nap, and then can’t let it go after your time from work email is over.
And then you’ll mull it over all week, you’ll be stressed that you aren’t there to fix it, you’ll sneak check-ins to see how things are going, and you won’t relax.
This is not being present for your family. This is being present for your team…while on vacation.
Email Spurns Creativity
We live in a world where 24/7/365 is expected, but it doesn’t mean we have to adhere to that.
Sure, I know there are plenty of people who say things such as, “If you really love what you do, you don’t need to take time off.”
That is complete and utter BS.
Even if you are doing exactly what you should be doing, you still need time off.
Human beings aren’t robots (as much as I’d like to pretend I am one) and the only way to be more creative is to actually stop thinking about work.
(Why do you think so many wickedly creative people, such as authors, are alcoholics or stoners?)
I do my very best thinking when I ride my bike every day. Likewise, your best thinking comes when you actually stop thinking about work and start relaxing.
You’ll come back to work more productive, more energized, and more creative.
Get Out of the Email Trap
I know not everyone is in a position to take a vacation and not check emails. Some of you may have bosses who are tyrants so you have to comply.
My advice to you?
Find a new job…and then take a week off.
But the majority of us can tell clients, colleagues, and bosses that we are going to take some time off and we are not going to check emails.
If you lead an organization, your behavior dictates the culture.
If you send emails late at night, can’t refrain from sending them while a person is on vacation, or send during holidays, your team will respond. They won’t be happy about it, but they will do it. And you can say, until you’re blue in the face, that you don’t expect them to, but that is not the message your actions are sending.
If you are an employee, you are the only person who can set your own boundaries.
If you go on vacation without a plan, without involving your team, or without preparation, you’re probably going to get some emails or phone calls…some of them panicked. If you respond, you have now said, “I’m on vacation, but it’s cool if you email me.” Do what you can ahead of time, prepare your team and your internal or external clients, and leave with everyone knowing the first time you will check in is when you are back from your time off.
Even brain surgeons don’t have to check emails while they’re on vacation. The world won’t end and you will be happier for it.