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Notes From The Road: Operator, How Do I Disconnect?

I once heard someone say that Self Care is critical to creativity, productivity, and being a good communicator at work. For me, the only moments when self-care inspiration strikes are amidst a long shower, jumping in and out of a pool, an aimless walk listening to great music, or a fun podcast – things that I do more of when I go on vacation. The trouble is, I don’t “vacation” very well. 

This isn’t new. I don’t think I have ever excelled at vacation as it is traditionally envisioned. As an elementary schooler, I spent every break at sports or learning camps or participating in  academic extracurriculars. In college, I did all the internships– then went directly into banking. I joined a profession that rewards toxic workaholism (among other addictions that also end in ism). Weekends, let alone vacations, were a sign of weakness. I once took a long weekend on the partner at my firm’s order and turned my phone off. When I turned my phone back on as I drove home, I had more than 50 missed calls and text messages demanding to know where I had been and why I hadn’t replied to his other messages. This was my breaking point, and I resigned from the job – and the industry – weeks later. By that point, my mental model for vacation had been built. I needed to be doing something active to reignite my creativity.  

Over the last decade, as a business owner, I have struggled with what it means to disconnect and go on vacation. How do I take time off when I bear responsibility for everything? Don’t get me wrong; I trust my team! They are amazing. But there are processes and workflows where I remain critical. When I sign on to handle one of those, the spigots open, and there are other items to complete. 

Photo Courtesy Conor Gaughan

I tested a new solution this summer. I’m sure it sounds far from ideal, but I accepted that I would work a few hours each day as needed. As part of this test, I would travel for a longer period to try to tap into that deep place of creativity and inspiration.  I don’t think it worked as well as I would have liked. It makes me wonder: what does disconnecting look like – specifically for me? And what does that mean for my colleagues who may have different needs and perspectives on how to best recharge to be their best selves at work? 

First, the answer is not the same for all of us. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. We live connected to our iPhones. We use them for maps to get around in a new city, and so inevitably, we can’t hide from email or slack notifications. I recognize that I prefer keeping the count in the red circles on my iPhone smaller throughout a trip by doing some work here and there instead of facing a screen infected with notification pox as I log back in after a holiday. And that is okay. 

Rather than focus on strict guidelines, I am trying to experiment with what works best for me. Is it keeping the phone and laptop at home and letting colleagues manage during the holiday (with adequate preparation and transition)? Is it a regularly scheduled check-in with teammates and material? Is it a few hours a day but for double the time? 

Photo Courtesy Conor Gaughan

Second, it is critical to recognize what your team needs from you to succeed during your time away. Is a daily check-in going to equip and empower everyone to succeed? Can you draft the transition memo and check it out? Or do you need to be on call for urgent matters? 

Most importantly, these plans need to be transparently communicated and executed. I have a friend whose manager goes radio silent on scheduled PTO but occasionally resurfaces to wreak havoc, volunteering to handle urgent items and then disappearing again.  Don’t be that colleague. 

With an increasing percentage of companies testing hybrid schedules and employees spending periods working digitally as nomads, these considerations are more important than ever. And we are more empowered now than ever to design and live the lives that bring us more fulfillment while earning a living. But, doing so successfully requires reflection and deliberate work. As for me, I’m back on another plane as I type, slacking colleagues before heading off to tour a foreign city, where I hope to get some creative ideas as I wander.

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