Even though popular articles suggest maximizing efficiency can be as easy as taking shorter showers, I believe that the number one way to increase productivity is as simple as taking personal time off (PTO). Sound counterintuitive? Check this out. In addition to sharing time-management tips, expert Stephen Covey includes “Sharpen the Saw” as one of his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In a nutshell, this means making time to invest in strengthening our most valuable asset—ourselves. And vacationing is a great way to do just that. But, sometimes this can be hard to do, especially if we don’t see the benefits of going on holiday, adequately preparing to go away, or giving ourselves permission to disconnect while we’re out of the office (OOO).
When PTO Doesn’t Help Increase Productivity
Five years ago, I reached burn out. My approach to work turned from excitement to exhaustion. Work practices I enjoyed—brainstorming, problem-solving, networking, decision-making—became a chore. But, every time I took a break, even if it was a really nice vacation, I’d come back feeling like I needed a nap. The problem? I wasn’t truly disconnecting. To use Stephen Covey’s phrase, I wasn’t sharpening the saw and investing in myself. In other words, I clocked out but I wasn’t really taking time off.
Even though investing in ourselves is an important way to increase productivity, taking a vacation that leaves us feeling renewed and more efficient upon returning to work isn’t a given.
Raise your hand if you relate to any of the following statements:
- If I were to unplug during my PTO, I’d have to work triple time just to get myself out the door. Who has that much time?
- I could never take a completely work-free vacation. I mean, who would handle the urgent issues that may arise in my absence? Things could fall apart if I weren’t available to handle them.
- If I check email while on vacation, I get in trouble from my travel companions for not being able to walk away from my work. People just don’t get all that my job requires.
- After taking time off, I often feel like I need a vacation from my vacation. I return to the office feeling both behind and tired.
If you answered “yes” to any of the statements above, you probably can relate with the stress that often comes from preparing for, taking, and returning from that dream vacation. So, how can PTO actually result in you feeling renewed so you can increase productivity once back on the job?
9 Ways to Make PTO Work for You
Before you put on that email OOO auto responder, here are nine things to do so that going away will help you get ahead.
1. Approach your vacation with the right mindset.
Before (sing it with me) leaving on a jet plane, you should be 100 percent in pro “leave work behind” mode. Sometimes this is easier said than done. To assess where your mindset is at, ask yourself: “Do I understand the benefits of going all in and disconnecting from work while on vacay and am I up for taking the steps ahead of time to make that happen?” If you’re still figuring out how you will get wifi or otherwise connect to work while away, you’re likely still in a work mindset.
To shift to the right mindset, check out a whole list of benefits taking PTO can bring in this post on How Taking 3 Weeks Off Put Me 6 Months Ahead. My favorite discovery? Just preparing to take time off streamlines your business, helping not only you, but also your entire team, increase productivity. Score!
2. Create and/or update processes and workflow.
Imagine coming back to work after vacation ahead of the work curve—truly being able to increase productivity. That would be amazing, right? The good news? It’s possible. Simply begin planning for your vacation as early as six months ahead of time. And, no! I don’t mean booking that food tour that is sure to help your pic go viral on Instagram. I’m talking about work planning. More specifically, reviewing each team member’s roles and responsibilities and accompanying processes and workflow (tools), including your own, to ensure they are both clear and current.
Being able to leave the office and ensure your and your team’s critical tasks move forward without a hitch is key to disconnecting. If everyone is clear on their roles and responsibilities, knows how to perform their assigned jobs, and has the tools to do so, you will not have to be available to explain, train, or otherwise share information with team members while you are away. They will already have it.
Tip! If your processes, documentation, or tools are not in great shape (not clear, not current, or non-existent), then either hire someone to create and/or update the information or build in time before you leave to create and/or update it.
3. Assign/train resources to cover critical job functions in your absence.
Determine which team member or team members will assume responsibility for which of your tasks in your absence. If needed, also assign team member(s) to be in charge of other resources so everyone reports directly to someone else in case of an emergency work situation. Having both clear roles and responsibilities and an understood chain of command instills trust and keeps everything moving as planned.
Tip! One of the key things people worry about while on vacation is email. Consider doing the following to most easily walk away from email management:
- Choose one team member and assign him or her to manage your email while you’re away.
- Put on an OOO auto responder, sharing the team member(s)’ name and contact information who is handling issues in your absence.
- Set up (or have your team member set up) folders for specific types of emails and save all like emails in folders for review upon your return to work.
- Review emails for anything of an urgent or critical nature. If such an email pops up in your inbox, have a protocol set up for how to deal with it.
- Delete spam. With a clear understanding of what constitutes spam email, any team member should be able to move unwanted emails directly to your trash folder.
4. Identify one personal and one professional emergency contact.
As much as we prepare, emergencies pop up when we least expect them, including while on vacation. Having one team member assigned as your professional emergency contact and one family member or friend selected as your personal emergency contact is key for such circumstances. These contacts should be the only people allowed to call or to text you and should do so only in cases of absolute emergencies. Have every other team member or personal friend/family member go through your assigned contacts to streamline communication.
5. Perform all essential tasks before leaving town.
Planning for a trip months in advance will help you know exactly which tasks will hit during your time away. Therefore, get a head start on or complete them in advance to avoid having other team members have to carry such a heavy load for you. To do this:
- Identify the tasks you perform daily, weekly, and monthly.
- Prioritize any tasks that would be considered either urgent or important—tasks that will or could need attention in your absence.
- Note each task’s status and what needs to be done to move it forward in your absence.
- Determine which resource(s) is responsible for each task and ensure he/she/they is/are clearly trained and accountable.
Tip! The single most important key to taking a trip that leaves you renewed and helps you increase productivity is planning ahead. Use your time to get your business in shape and you’ll see a dramatic difference when you return.
6. Set personal work boundaries and communicate those to your team.
Each person’s personal and professional situations vary. Therefore, setting boundaries that work for you, your job, and your ability to decrease stress and truly rejuvenate—and communicating those boundaries to your team—is key. As just one example, let’s talk about unplugging.
Some people may find that being plugged in to do things like play phone games or share on social media are stress relieving. Others may find such tasks prevent them from being present. Personally, I love hopping onto email every couple of days and deleting everything possible to avoid overwhelming my inbox. My purpose is to delete, delete, delete. Something about doing that relaxes me while also helping me avoid major work once I’m back in the office. So, I set an email boundary that I allow myself to jump online and clear out my inbox, but I put a time restraint to avoid getting sucked in by tempting email subject lines. Only you know what takes you away from your vacation, so create boundaries that move you closer toward being present and re-energizing yourself.
Here are a few areas to consider and some questions to ask yourself in each one when setting boundaries:
- Email: Will you check email while on vacay? Is checking it necessary or can you let this task go? If necessary, how often will you check email? How much time per day (or per week) will you allow yourself to be on email? What if a work email pops up that looks like it requires your assistance, how will you handle it? What systems can you put in place before you leave town to avoid having to check email as much while away? Can you have someone else handle your email in your absence? Can you completely unplug?
- Phone calls: Will you take work phone calls on your trip? If so, can you limit them to only urgent issues and from only one to two contacts who are pre-approved to call you?
- Social media: Will you share on social media while on holiday? If so, how much time will you allow yourself to spend on social media (sharing or viewing social channels)? What boundaries will you put in place to not let social media get in the way of your R&R?
- Texts: When is your team allowed to text you and for what reason? I recommend texts only for urgent issues with the word URGENT in all caps at the beginning of the message. What if you get texts from other family/friends? How much time, if any, will you allow yourself to hop on your phone to check texts?
- Urgent issues: When would getting in contact with you be warranted? In other words, what is the definition of an urgent issue? In those situations, what is the optimal way to contact you? How should the resource identify an issue as urgent so you know to pay prompt attention to it? How can your team member(s) do everything possible to avoid reaching out to you? Once having reached out, how can your team member(s) jump back in and take over the situation so you aren’t having to spend additional time managing it?
Again, you know what boundaries will help you be able to truly renew yourself and come back ready to increase productivity. So, just set those and stick to them and you’ll be good to go.
7. Trust your team, unplug, and enjoy your vacation.
You’d think that the hardest step to taking a vacation that leaves you feeling renewed would be all the planning before leaving. But, I have found that giving myself permission to unplug and actually doing it to be the hardest parts. Once I’ve unplugged and have felt the wave of disconnection wash over me, I’m all in and good to go. But, that moment where I have to take the leap and trust that everything is in place and will be OK and that I can truly let go ties my stomach in knots every time.
The good news? Ripping off of the “turn the OOO auto responder on and go already” bandaid by unplugging and trusting your team to have your back lasts a quick second, but yields huge dividends. Trust yourself that you have planned accordingly and that you will be OK in case of emergencies. Trust your team. You hired and trained them. They’ve got your back and are awesome. Now pull the plug. Literally! Disconnect and enjoy your vacation.
8. Follow your work boundaries.
Phew! You made it. You’re on vacation. Now it’s time to let your work boundaries work for you. Be religious about following them. You set them up to ensure you’d be able to get some R&R and increase productivity upon your return. Ensuring that happens is in your court. Proper planning plus following your own boundaries are key.
Tip! If checking in infrequently was one of your boundaries and should you need to check into work while away, make a practice of saying no to projects, delegating work, delaying non-urgent or unimportant tasks, or deleting things from your to-do list. In other words, only accept urgent or important tasks that may take you away for a few minutes but that won’t distract from you being in vacay mode.
9. Build in time to play catch up before returning to the office.
When you make it back from holiday, you may be tempted to return to the office or take off that OOO autoresponder immediately. Resist that temptation. Planning a work day from home to get caught up on email, your most urgent and important tasks, and otherwise catch your breath work wise will make re-entry so much easier.
Wrapping It All Up
Being deliberate and diligent about following all of the above-listed steps dramatically increases your chances of returning to work completely re-energized and ready to increase productivity. Not only will your processes and work flow (tools) be updated and in practice by your team, but you will have made progress on all of your urgent and important tasks. Furthermore, your team will have a greater sense of clarity, accountability, and after performing tasks in your absence with your trust, they’ll reach a higher level of responsibility and you can validate them for their contribution and skill set. All of these things will help you return to work ready to take meetings, respond to questions, and otherwise jump right back into your work.
Are you due for a break? After reading these tips, go ahead! Turn on that email OOO response. Pack your bags. #YOLO. You’ll be on your way to experiencing how to increase productivity in no time.
What are your top ways to increase productivity? Is taking PTO one of them? Why? Why not?