How To Get Real Breaks… Even If You’re in Charge

Last week, I wrote about the joys of real breaks from work. Today, I want to write a bit about how to make that happen, even if you’re the person in charge at work.

One Foot Island, Aitutaki
Another vacation photo. At the time this was taken, I was a project manager and group leader at a contracting firm.

I have been taking “real” vacations since I entered the workforce. By “real” I mean: actually not working, not in a new location, but still mostly working. I have done this since graduate school. I did it when I was an ambitious junior scientist at a biotech company, and I continued to do it as I moved up the ranks. I did it as a consultant at a contracting firm where we were expected to always respond to customers, and I did it as a group leader in biotech companies. I do it now as an independent consultant and entrepreneur.

I do it for the reasons I outlined last week: I think it makes me a happier, healthier person and that it makes me better at my work.

But how do I do it? It was fairly easy when I held more junior positions. I asked for the time off and took it. Once I had a team to manage and/or was in charge of projects, though, it took a little advance planning. I could pretend that I immediately realized this and that I always appreciated the importance of the tips I’m about to write. But that would be a lie. No, I fumbled through like everyone else, and found some of this out by pure luck. You can learn from my luck (and my mistakes), though. Here’s how you arrange your work so that everyone can get a real vacation—even the boss. As a bonus, all of these tips are good management even if you insist on staying a workaholic chained to your desk.

Cross-train. You can’t take a vacation if you are literally the only one who can handle an emergency in your functional area. So make sure you aren’t. Cross-train your entire team, and make sure that everyone has a backup person. This does not mean that you have to make it so that Johnny can do Jill’s work as well as she can. You just have to make it so that Johnny can step in and put out a fire (or at least keep it contained) while Jill is out of the office. It is a little harder to cross-train someone on your role as the boss, but you should do it as much as you can.

Extra benefits of doing this: everyone can pitch in and help more effectively in crunch times. Also, you aren’t quite so screwed when a critical team member wins the lottery and runs off to Aruba. Or just gets a different job.

Empower your team. If you’re going to have a real break, decisions need to be able to get made without you. This will be easier for everyone if you’ve practiced it while you’re around to help smooth over any issues created by novice decision makers. So, figure out what sorts of decisions actually need your attention and what sort don’t, and then delegate the ones that don’t to the appropriate people. They will probably still come to you for help at first. Don’t just make the decision when they do that. Instead, ask questions and walk them through the process of making the decision themselves. Eventually, they won’t need you.

However, for this to work, you have to trust your people, and you have to demonstrate to your people that they can trust you by backing them up in their decisions. If something goes wrong, don’t get mad. Fix the problem, and then coach the person on how to make a better decision next time.

Extra benefits of doing this: you’re less overworked, and your team gets to grow their own skills. Also, they’ll feel more ownership of their work, which tends to lead to better work and higher morale.

Set clear contact rules for your absence. Leave instructions on how to reach you. I usually tell people to call my cell phone (if I’m in the US) and/or to email my personal email account. However, I’ve had jobs where I needed to check in on my work email daily while on vacation. In those cases, I told people to put “NEEDS IMMEDIATE RESPONSE” or something similar in the subject line if they really needed me to respond. Otherwise, I would just skim the emails and would respond only if I thought something was really urgent. You also need to tell people when they should contact you. My parameters are: If it will save someone hours of work to ask me a simple question, send me an email. If involving me can help keep a situation from turning into a raging firestorm that will greet me on my return, contact me. Otherwise, I trust my team to handle it.

If you have formal approval powers for things like purchasing, make sure that requests will route to your alternate (usually your boss). If you need to designate someone to make certain decisions in your absence, do so. I have rarely needed to do this, though, because I’ve already empowered my team to make decisions on their own. If something comes up that they can’t handle, then it probably meets my criteria for contacting me.

Extra benefits of doing this: you demonstrate how much you trust your team.

Pre-load as much as you can. If I have tasks that I can’t delegate for some reason but that still need to get done while I’m on vacation, then I prepare as much of the work ahead of time as possible, and schedule specific time on my vacation to log in to do just the minimum necessary work. This has become more important as an independent consultant/entrepreneur, when I don’t always have a team to which I can delegate things. However, it was occasionally necessary in my other jobs. For instance, sometimes you need to send someone a slide deck or report, but need a certain experiment or analysis to complete before you can send it in. In that case, I would create everything that I could ahead of time, and then just log in for an hour or so to add the missing information once it became available.  I’ve also had to call in to teleconferences (this happened most often when I worked at the contracting firm). In this case, I had all the information I might need gathered and organized before I left, so that all I had to do was call in.

Extra benefits of doing this: it is good practice for front loading risk on projects, which is something that can really improve your chances of finishing projects on time.

Actually stay off email. Once you’re on vacation, don’t undermine your good work by checking in and answering emails that don’t really need your immediate attention. People will see that you’re working and start sending you things that can wait and you’ll be right back to having no real break from work.

Extra benefits of doing this: see last week’s post.

And that’s it. That’s how I take real vacations and always have, no matter what my work situation. Feel free to leave more ideas for how to take real breaks in the comments.


  1. TodayWendy said:

    So many of us are addicted to that feeling of being needed. Things falling apart when we’re away means that people will appreciate us more and calms the imposter syndrome a little. (Not that these are good things!)

    I’m off on vacation next week and am actually planning to spend about an hour a day working on a paper. Partly because the paper needs writing and is easier to do while away from the office…but also partly because this ‘vacation’ will be at a family cottage with a pile of people around, and as an extreme introvert having a rock-solid excuse to hide away for a couple hours a day is going to make things a whole lot more relaxing (just reading a book wouldn’t work because it would leave me open to feelings of guilt about not helping out enough). Not sure how applicable this is in general, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the topic.

    July 30, 2016
    • Melanie said:

      Sorry for the slow response… I answered this in my head when I saw the notification and forgot to come answer it for real!

      Anyway, I think there is nothing wrong with what you’re doing, but you still owe yourself some real downtime at some point. It sounds like this particular vacation isn’t really true downtime for you for a couple of reasons. So maybe try to get a true long weekend at some point, or something like that.

      Also: if future vacations are likely to involve the family cottage, you should work on that guilt. Make a plan for when you’ll help out and then go read a book sometimes! If your only escape from work is family obligations and vice versa, I think you’re at risk for burn out.

      August 2, 2016
      • TodayWendy said:

        I suspect that distinguishing between vacation and downtime is pretty important sometimes. I followed up the fairly stressful trip to the cottage with a few days of serious downtime at home – its just that to anyone else cottage = fun and random time at home just sounds boring.

        August 6, 2016
    • Judy said:

      Cool! That’s a clever way of lokniog at it!

      August 16, 2016

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