Working on Vacation – Why We Do It, and Why We Should Take a Break

by Amy Steinberg Published May 29, 2018 Last updated May 29, 2018

Vacations conjure up images of beaches, sand, and relaxation. Even if you prefer an active vacation, full of sightseeing or adventurous exercise, taking vacation time is designed to be a break from work. The goal is to return from a vacation with less frustration and less prone to burnout.

A recent trend has been, however, to take work on vacation with us. Some people see it as the best way to keep the office running smoothly while giving their families and friends some needed attention. However, there are reasons why taking a vacation and working at the same time is a bad combination.

Vacations Lose Some Meaning When We Work Through Them

A HomeAway study, cited on Fast Company, discovered that working during your vacation places you in a category of people who are 43% more likely to have trouble remembering that vacation. Our brains focus on what is both distinctive and engaging, and vacations in their purest form are supposed to accomplish that. Distinctive and engaging experiences enrich our lives and often bring us surprising insights that can be helpful when we return to our work. However, working during those times tends to make our brains see those days as just the same daily work with new scenery.

Smartphone Time Counts as “Work”

Most of us know that we need less time on the phone, but compared to sitting in front of a computer at our desk, using the smartphone seems a little less like working on vacation. Studies have found that people feel noticeably uncomfortable when those around them are on their smartphones instead of participating in a vacation. If you see how often you check voicemail or work email in your downtime, you may realize that you are also letting work time creep into time off.

We’re More Productive When Rested and Refreshed

The Harvard Business Review reported on some recent productivity studies that indicate that our first 40 hours per week tend to be the most productive, and taking the rest of the time off is part of what makes that possible. When people let work edge its way into vacation, they actually aren’t very effective, per hour. For example, if someone is throwing a beach ball at you while you try to type a complex email on your smartphone, you are probably not nearly as productive as you are in the office.

These truths make it clear that most of us are guilty of doing some work during our vacation time, and that we are neither enjoying our vacations nor as productive as we would be if we kept those two separate. Here are some ways to make sure your next vacation is truly a time to recharge and reconnect with things that matter to you.

  1. Plan Extensively For Your Coming Trip

If you know you are prone to vacation working, you need a plan for exactly how your tasks will be handled. For instance, if you are worried about important phone calls, get ahead of the game and make those phone calls the week before your trip; if they aren’t ready, schedule a call for after the trip. Most of the work that sneaks up on us when we are on vacation could have been done a little early or a little later, but planning is necessary. Some delegating is also important: some of your colleagues can hold down the fort while you are gone, and you might be surprised by how few things must be assigned to others in order to make your absence seamless.

  1. Make Rules for Yourself

If you bring all the items you need to do your work while you are on your vacation, you are most likely going to turn to them at some point, so the planning doesn’t stop when you pack your bags. What is going to tempt you to work: should your work laptop stay at home? Should your smartphone stay in airplane mode?

If you are a big productivity lover, it can be tempting to think about the vacation as an experiment: what happens to your brain, your motivation, and your mood as you fully “detox” from work-brain? If you let yourself lapse back into thinking about work over and over, you’ll notice that you can’t really get to a state of real relaxation. This experiment may be, ironically, just what you need to return to work better than ever.

  1. When On Call: How to Not Work When You “Might” Have to Work

It is a reality of modern work that some people are just on call in some respect, even when they are on vacation. If this describes you, try to create a pathway in which you will know that any communication you receive is urgent. For instance, designate your cell phone number as a number for emergencies. Americans now look at their phones on average 46 times a day, so even if you are on call you can make a plan that will help you to not spend quite so much time compulsively checking.

There are those who enjoy doing a little work on vacation, but this article is focused on those who feel like this is the only way to succeed. The truth is that taking a real vacation is good for you, so it is worth the extra effort before and after to really make some memories and let go of the workplace concerns for a week or so.