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Friday Five

How to Take a Vacation

Getting Away So You Can Get Back to Good

By Jamie Spannhake

I recently took a two-week vacation: 11 days in Hawaii. It was amazing. It was the perfect balance of activity, relaxation and adventure.

What struck me most, though, was when I returned home. On the night before returning to work and clients, I thought: “I am so excited to go to work tomorrow, to meet with clients!”

It made me realize that it had been a really long time since I felt excited about going to work the next day. Maybe you feel the same: When was the last time you felt excited to go to work? Would some time off and being unplugged help you rejuvenate and make life better?

The answer is almost always yes. Getting away allows us to return to our everyday life — including work — motivated and happier.

Taking a Vacation: Why We Need to Get Away

Studies show that taking time away from work has physical and mental health benefits. Relaxing vacations can lower stress, improve our outlook on life, and increase motivation. Time away can provide clarity and reinstate our creativity.

When we have downtime not focused on any particular task, the part of our brain called the default mode network (DMN) activates, allowing us to relax and daydream. When the DMN is activated, our brains are not constrained by deadlines and other stressors so it is able to process information more fluidly. Giving our mind time to utilize the DMN is crucial to creatively solving problems. The DMN leads to those epiphanies that seem to come “out of nowhere,” but in fact are the result of unconscious mental activity enabled by downtime. This is the problem-solving we sometimes experience right before falling asleep or while in the shower, for example.

We may know the benefits of time off, but we can’t experience these benefits if we don’t actually take time off. Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Travel Association, many of us are not taking time off. In 2020 American workers left an average of 33%, or 5.6 days, of paid vacation on the table. It may be worse than that, though: Some studies suggest that up to 42% of American workers don’t take vacation at all!

I suspect that the reason many lawyers — and other workers — don’t take vacation is that it requires a lot of time and effort to:

  • Plan the time away.
  • Get things organized at work so things can move forward even in our absence.
  • Catch up when we return.

I get it. It can feel like it’s not worth it to get away. But there are ways to overcome these hurdles.

Here Are Five Ways to Prepare to Get Away so You Can Get Back to Good

1. Do not apologize. Because your vacation will improve your physical and mental health, and will improve your efficiency and productivity upon your return, you do not need to apologize to anyone for your time away. You are not a slacker. You are not less dedicated to your clients. In fact, taking a vacation will make you a better lawyer. Do not apologize for taking care of yourself and giving yourself time to rejuvenate.

2. Prepare yourself and others early. There is a lot of unpredictability in law practice. Still, to the extent possible, start preparing early – for example, a month in advance – for your time away. Plan to complete upcoming tasks prior to departure. For example, if you have a motion due to court before your vacation, make a timeline for completion. Determine if someone else can assist with the work so that, in the event something is needed while you are gone, someone else is “up to speed.” Also let colleagues, clients, judges, assistants and everyone else know well in advance the dates you will be away. There is no need to say exactly what you are doing; just say you will be out of town or unavailable. Once you have planned your vacation, calendar it and don’t change it. Truth is: there may never be a “good” time to get away. Rather than rescheduling, plan around your time away and have your colleagues and clients do the same.

3. Delegate and ensure colleagues are up to speed on matters. It is inevitable that things will come up that need to be handled while you are away. This is why it is so important to have a colleague designated to handle the day-to-day things that come up. For the issues you anticipate arising while you are away, make sure your co-workers are up to date with all the relevant information. Then, prior to leaving, give detailed instructions for how to handle any things you anticipate, and trust your colleagues to handle them.

If things arise that can’t be handled without your input, have someone handle the initial response and follow up with you. If the issue can wait until your return, then wait. Sometimes people only need to know when to expect a response and are willing to wait until that time. When issues cannot wait, give instructions to your colleagues and let them handle it. In the worst-case scenario, where only you can handle the issue, do so in your pre-planned check-in times as discussed below.

4. Check in at pre-planned times. Many of us cannot get away from work completely, and some us may not want to, because we would have so many issues to deal with when we return. In order to get away as much as possible and have some control over your downtime, create an auto-response on your email and a voicemail greeting letting people know you are away. In this auto-response and greeting, tell people you will be checking your messages at a specified time each day. Then check in at that time. When everyone knows you will check in at a specified time, everyone – especially you – can relax during the other times without feeling like you should be checking email or voicemail or otherwise handling work tasks.

5. Add a secret day to your vacation. Don’t tell anyone at work, but take an extra day at the end of your vacation to reorganize and get ready for your return to the office. During my most recent vacation to Hawaii, we returned on Wednesday midday. But I told everyone we would be back Thursday and I’d be back in the office on Friday. (Shhh, it’s a secret just between you and me!) Use this extra day to go through your email or phone messages and get everything in order for your return to work. This will help avoid the overwhelm that can descend on us when we return after a vacation.

Take your time for downtime away from the office. It will benefit everyone, especially you!

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Jamie Spannhake

Jamie Jackson Spannhake is a writer, coach for lawyers, and speaker. She helps busy lawyers create lives they truly want, lives with time and space to do all the things she was told she couldn’t do as a successful lawyer. Her work with clients is based upon the principles in her book, “The Lawyer, the Lion, & the Laundry.” She spent nearly 20 years practicing law in New York and Connecticut, in BigLaw, as a solo, and as a partner in a small firm. Learn more about her at JamieSpannhake.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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