How to plan for a work-free holiday

Planning a holiday, whether relaxing on a sunny beach or exploring exotic locations, always seems like a great idea at the time.

But the reality can often mean increased stress at work as you try to clear your desk, being stuck in the office until 2am on the night before your departure, or even being forced to take some paperwork with you.

To avoid losing out on the positive benefits of a holiday that should focus on relaxation, rejuvenation and a much-needed break from your inbox, life coaches suggest several steps that you can take to help you prepare and to switch off.

Chelsea-based life and business coach, Rachel Coffey, argued that one of the most important is to communicate well enough in advance that you’re going to be away, to prevent an influx of work at the last minute.

“Definitely communicate two to three weeks in advance to avoid a sudden rush of people,” she said, adding a reminder not to forget to set up your out-of-office email.

The next thing is to make sure your final deadline is a day or two before you leave. “People tend to organise their days for 4pm on the day that they finish and then inevitably things spill over and they end up having to finish work when they are on holiday,” she said.

Likewise, it is always better not to schedule meetings for your last day, or you could end up with a long to-do list that will weigh on your mind. On a similar note, it is helpful to plan post-holiday meetings for the day after you’re get back, to allow yourself time to catch up again.

To mentally prepare for a holiday, it is good to do something a week before you go that will signify to your mind that a holiday is coming up, said Coffey.

“It might be buying a new outfit or new luggage or printing off tickets,” she explained. “What that does is actually let the unconscious remember…it also allows us to start looking forward to going on holiday which means that we’re much more mentally prepared to switch off.”

It’s also crucial not to feel guilty. “It’s really important to remember that taking that time off is every bit as important as the work because it’s the people who don’t manage to relax who end up burning out and failing,” she said.

Carole Ann Rice, who runs the Real Coaching Company, argued that setting boundaries are important when it comes to taking time off.

“Quite often people get stressed and find they are working extraordinarily long hours for two reasons – one, they have poor boundaries and two, they are perfectionists,” she said.

“With proper preparation you should hit your deadlines and be able to clear your desk and go. If you’re taking hours and hours, and are doing 14 hour days in the office, you need to really be thinking am I working effectively or am I overworking, overthinking, overstressing?” she added.

“Be effective. Finish what you’re doing and don’t go on social media and respond to emails and texts from friends. Do the job, complete it, and then do the next one. And be sensible with things like timeframes.”

It is also good to keep things in perspective, Rice said. “It’s a horrible thought, but we are dispensable and the world won’t come crashing to a halt because we’re not on email,” she pointed out.
“So trust yourself enough that it is possible to unplug and leave and everything will be okay. If need be, have an ally or an advocate in the office, or wherever you work, who’s got your back when you’re not there.”

When it comes to mentally switching off on holiday, it helps to find an easy read novel to pull your brain away from work. The headspace app, which can be downloaded for free to offer a daily ten minute meditation slot, is also a great way to unwind, Rice suggested.

“Things like swimming, running, walking, doing anything that requires repetitive movements, is also a very good way to get your brain to calm down because your body is in motion but your brain goes into a state of unwinding,” she said.

Like Coffey, she believes it is vital to remember that you have earned the right to unwind and relax.

“I don’t think we need to justify having time out. It’s the most important thing for our health and wellbeing to have an investment in our relaxation, nourishment – our recuperation time,” she said.

“We’re not getting it right. I believe in the dignity of leisure, not of labour. And I think the more happy and relaxed and joyful we are, the better the human being and the better the human race is.”

A holiday can also give you the space to take a critical look at your professional happiness. “If you’re really dreading going back to the office, or genuinely terrified of people back-biting when you’re not there you maybe it’s a wake-up call to say you shouldn’t be there.”

Dr Mariette Jansen, who runs Life Coach Directory, argued that people had to manage their expectations about holidays to avoid unnecessary pressure.

“There is something really funny in the human mind that says…after the holiday everything is going to be different. So before the holiday, I’m going to need to make sure that everything is finished because I’m going to have a new start. It’s a myth,” she said.

“I think with projects it does make sense to look and see if it’s really helpful to put that deadline before the holidays.”

People also had to learn to detach from work stress in day to day life, otherwise it would be difficult to switch off on holiday, she said.

“You can learn to meditate because you detach during the meditation process but that will spill over in daily life,” Jansen pointed out.

Learning simple techniques like slow and deep breathing, or an exercise called “soften my shoulders” (SMS) where you focus attention on letting tension flow out of your shoulders, were easy methods to build a few minutes of relaxation into your day, for long term benefits, she said.

Jansen added that another key discipline was to train your “inner dialogue” to prioritise what was important and what was not.

Plan realistically, she said, and try not to overestimate how much you can do or underestimate the time you have. Planning open gaps into your schedule for unforeseen events like telephone calls can help foster a feeling of control.

The Ivy Lee method where you take time at the end of the day to prioritise six tasks for the next day had also proven to be “massively successful, she said.

“First start off with quite an easy task, to give yourself the satisfaction of getting something finished, and put a big tick there. And then you start with the next job,” Jansen said. “The first and the last jobs should be the easiest and the less time-consuming tasks.”

Finally, Claire Buck, a Leeds-based lifestyle coach, advised that preparing for a holiday was less stressful if you prioritised the urgent tasks and diarised the things that could wait.

“The more you can destress before you go and the more that you can have ready for when you come back, the less likely you are to feel anxious,” she said.

“Mentally when you’re going on holiday, you have to take yourself away from your work. You have to make the decision that you are going to enjoy this time and relax and destress,” Buck argued.
“It’s taking the time out to switch your emails and phone off, put your phone on divert and actually take the time for you. Preparation before is key and making sure you are prepared for your return.”

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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