Vacations are for unplugging: we all need to escape the daily grind from time to time, after all. But that doesn’t have to mean unplugging from the entire internet. In fact, you may have a more enjoyable and meaningful vacation by staying connected–as long as you’re staying connected to fun, friends, and family, rather than to work.
That takes a combination of planning, tech tricks, and self-discipline. In an ideal world, you’d work-proof your devices and online activities so that you could use the phone, computer or internet without coming into contact with any work-related stuff.
But many of us simply aren’t in a position to take completely off-the-grid downtime, so you’ll need to figure out just how disconnected from work you can be so you can appropriately minimize the frequency and duration of your work-related check-ins and trigger each of those check-ins manually (so you won’t be tempted to respond to the ping of each incoming message). It will also be essential to draw a clear line between work and personal technology use.
Plan before you go.
Whether you’re planning to disconnect from work completely or simply to keep your work time minimized, you need a clear plan for how you’re going to use your devices while in vacation mode. Ask yourself these questions:
What’s the least amount of work connectivity I can get away with? Understand your office culture and separate your colleagues’ expectations from your own anxiety. If the idea of ignoring all your work email fills you with fear, is that because you like to be in touch, or because you really could lose your job if you disconnect? What is the minimum connectivity that will be accepted at your job?
What do I still want to use technology for while I’m away? Make a list of the specific ways you want to use your phone, tablet or computer while you’re on vacation and limit your tech use to what’s on that list. (This will focus and constrain your tech use more effectively than making a list of online activities to avoid.) For example, I am using the fantastic app RoadTrippers to organize my family’s itinerary and activities, an Evernote notebook as my personal travel guidebook, Yelp as a travel journal, and Facebook to stay in touch with friends.
Which accounts will I disconnect from? It’s easier to disconnect from entire networks or accounts than to ignore work-related correspondence once it hits your radar. So once you know what you want to keep doing—and how much you can stop doing—identify which accounts you’ll stay away from and plan accordingly, setting up vacation messages or alerts as necessary. If you use email, social media, or text messaging for a combination of personal and professional conversations, get clear up front about how you’re going to draw the line between what counts as work and what counts as play.
What do I and my fellow travelers expect from one another? Your work colleagues aren’t the only ones you need to consider. If you’re traveling with friends or family, get clear up front about your technology game plan. Agree on when it is and isn’t ok to use your devices – for example, you may agree that it’s fine to read the morning news on your tablet over breakfast, but not ok to check sports scores over dinner. Setting shared expectations about tech use is especially important if you or your fellow travelers have kids you’re trying to keep offline or off-screen.
Prepare to leave. The work of disconnecting begins well before your vacation. Here’s how to set expectations – and set up technology – to increase the odds that you’ll be able to unwind without unplugging completely.
Plan some out-of-cell-range travel. Whether it’s a few days at an off-the-grid cabin or a few hours in a wifi-free plane, it’s great to be truly incommunicado for at least some portion of your vacation. This allows you to sincerely set the expectation that you will not be reliably reachable, making it easier to assert control over how much or how often you’ll check in.
Set up a vacation email address. It’s hard to avoid your work email while you’re on vacation if opening your inbox is the only way you can access certain information or check if there’s a crisis with a key client. You may find it easier to avoid peeking if you set up a separate account to use during vacations. Share the address only with the people you really want to stay in touch with while you’re away (like your spouse, house-sitter, or traveling companions). Use mail rules and filters on your work account to automatically forward any travel-related emails to this address (flight confirmations, for example), as well as any key messages (like any email message from a key client or from the company CEO). Just make sure you don’t reply to messages from your secret address, or share that address with more than a couple of people, or it defeats the whole purpose.
Set up a smart out-of-office reply. When you set up the vacation auto-responder message on your primary work account, write a message that helps you avoid the dreaded backlog that typically awaits your return: let your correspondents know that you may not review all the messages you receive in your absence, and that they should email you again after X date if they need a reply. As a courtesy, provide an alternate way of addressing their issue more quickly, such as contacting your assistant or colleague. If this isn’t a possibility given your clients or prospects, set up a more conventional message for external correspondents and then set up rules and filters so that their messages are automatically filed in a separate folder where you can review them promptly without being sucked into the rest of your inbox.
Move travel info out of your email. TripIt is an itinerary manager that you can connect directly to your email account; it monitors incoming emails for anything that looks like a travel confirmation, and puts it into an itinerary you can access from the web or the TripIt app on your phone or tablet. Not only does this keep you out of your inbox, but it gives you a more convenient way of tracking travel details or sharing them with your fellow-travelers.
Set up a check-in schedule. If you are planning to check your business email or voicemail during you holiday, set up a schedule in advance. Maybe you’re going to look at your email for 15 minutes every morning, or twice a week after the kids have gone to bed. Talk with your traveling companions about this schedule so they know when you’re going to be in work mode. And share your game plan with your colleagues, so that they know if and when you will be checking work-related email.
Pack only personal devices. The easiest way to separate work from play is to leave your work phone and work computer at the office. This doesn’t mean having to go out and buy new hardware; for your phone, for example, you can buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card, so that you can use the device without using your work number. Similarly, you can set up a separate user profile and account on your computer. Another trick is to get a set of walkie-talkies: that way you can stay in touch with the rest of your travel party, even if you turn off your phone or go out of cell range.
Adjust while you’re away. The moment your vacation begins, implement your disconnection game plan by making the following tweaks to your devices.
Turn off notifications. Disable any work-related notifications on your phone and computer for the length of your vacation. On a Mac or iOS device you can disable notifications on an app-by-app basis or by using do not disturb; Android users can turn off notifications for individual apps or download an app that lets them turn off notifications globally. Windows users can get away from notifications by using an alternate user account on their computer, or by turning off reminders associated with an individual application like Outlook. And don’t just do this for email and calendar reminders: I share Evernote notebooks with some of my colleagues, so even though I disconnected from email over my last vacation, my work brain got reactivated when Evernote notified me of a new note titled “Things to discuss with Alex when she gets back.”
Limit access to work-related accounts. You can go a step beyond turning off your notifications and disconnect from certain accounts altogether. For example, since all my work-related social media accounts are connected to HootSuite, I sign out of HootSuite for the duration of my trip, and use an alternate app to check my personal Twitter account – and only my personal account.
Get yourself on board. The biggest obstacle to disconnecting isn’t technology: it’s your own level of commitment or compulsion when it comes to work. If you work 80 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, you may find it pretty hard to get your head out of the office – and even harder to break the Pavlovian association between hearing the ping of an incoming email and immediately shifting into work brain.
That association is exactly why it’s so useful to develop strategies that put your devices in vacation mode. You probably don’t leave Oreos in the cupboard when you’re dieting; for the same reason, it’s best to put work out of arm’s reach when you’re on vacation. Instead of relying on sheer willpower to keep you from checking in on work, you can use your vacation tech setup – and a little up-front planning – to support your efforts to minimize work time.
With that setup in place, you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of online connectivity and digital tools, as well as the benefit of disconnecting from work. And instead of apologizing for bringing a phone on vacation, you’ll be able to relax even with your devices in tow.
The story was originally published in the Harvard Busines Review.
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