Coming back to work after vacation without chaos and stress

Returning to work after a vacation or long weekend rarely goes smoothly. If you’re oblivious to the chaos because you’re still in a vacation haze on your first day back, the mayhem will settle in on day two or three. Your to-do list is more extensive than usual, the backlog of email seems overwhelming, and your reaction time to even the smallest of problems is as if you are immersed in a bowl of thick maple syrup.

The easiest way to avoid this stress and disorder is to prepare for it before you leave:

  • Notify the people you regularly interact with that you will be out of the office. When people know you’ll be gone, they often don’t try to contact you for the small things. This helps significantly to reduce voice mails and emails for things that are resolved before you return.
  • Clear your schedule so you don’t have any meetings or appointments the first day (or two) you’re back at the office.
  • Clear the inbox on your desk and your email inbox so it will be obvious what new items you must attend to when you return.
  • Try to wrap up all action items so you have nothing old to finish up when you return. This may be impossible with the type of job you have, but if you can do it, I highly recommend it.
  • Do as much preparation work for your first day back as you can. Any automated tasks or work you can do in advance, try to do it. You want your load to be as light as possible when you return.

After you return, these strategies can help you to regain order and your sanity:

  • Arrive an hour early to work so you can find your footing before everyone else arrives in the office.
  • Scan the contents of your physical inbox, your email inbox, your calendar, and anything else that has appeared on your desk. Get an idea of all of the new items that you’ll have to do and what old items are still on your task list.
  • Gracefully bow out of as many obligations as possible that would take you away from your desk for the day (or next few days).
  • Schedule deadlines for all of your new action items on your calendar — and keep these deadlines realistic. It will take awhile to get back into the rhythm of your work, so be sure to pad in more time than usual for tasks.
  • As you’re working, alternate between old action items and new action items and between mindful and mindless tasks. Take a break at least once an hour, and don’t forget to eat (your brain and body need the fuel).
  • Mind other people’s expectations of when to receive work from you. Now is the time to under promise and over deliver.

8 Comments for “Coming back to work after vacation without chaos and stress”

  1. posted by bytheway on

    I work in a very small office (3 FT employees) and when one of us is vacationing, it affects the others’ workloads immensely. We all know that person who comes back to work and is still in vacation glow for a day, two, or even a week. Not good for company morale, as others are *still* covering even though that one is back at work! Having an organized plan for resuming workload doesn’t just help you, it helps your co-workers, too.

  2. posted by James Lamb on

    Here’s some tips I’ve found to help me:

    (1) Don’t return on a Monday. Then you’ve just been away like everyone else.

    (2) If you manage a team, have a “First Things First” meeting early on your first day back. They can tell you what truly is the most important.

    (3) If you anticipate a lot of email, make your first day back a “work-from-home” day to read through your email. And read through it before making any replies – chances are there will be additional information – or with a great team, it’ll already be handled.

  3. posted by Dean on

    I wish it were that easy…

    Did just about all of the above before my vacation. Here I am just over a month from being back, and I’m still working on a backlog of over 160 emails.

    Work like heck to for a month to get caught up before taking vacation, work like heck for more than a month to catch up after vacation!

    But I guess my 250% loading percentage probably factors into that somewhat.

  4. posted by Maciej, PL on

    I’d like to add one point: set an e-mail autoresponder before leaving, stating that you are on the vacation and who is your deputy. Then when you’re back delete all the e-mail that came in during your absence without any reading.

  5. posted by Anita on

    I second Maciej’s suggestion of setting an out-of-office message on both your email and your voicemail, stating the period of your absence, when you are back, and an alternate contact.

    However, I would still go through all the messages on my return; if you have reliable coworkers, you’ll likely see that everything was dealt with in your absence and you can just delete or file messages away accordingly. If not, you can make a list and ask them what was done and what wasn’t, and deal with the rest yourself.

  6. posted by lhamo on

    I agree with Anita’s comment above with one addition — on your first day back put up a message saying something like “I’m back and working my way through my email backlog. If there is anything urgent that you are waiting for a response from me on, please email me with a reminder. I will deal with such matters as soon as possible, and with other matters as I can get to them.”

    That way the important stuff pops in again at the top of your box so you see it. You can also sort by message title, so that you have all the related messages under the new message to file after you have dealt with it.

    This approach allowed me to deal effectively with prioritization of tasks and over 500 messages that were waiting for me after a recent three-week break — got through everything, including some new tasks, in about 2-3 days.

  7. posted by Srinivas on

    Always take one day extra leave and use that extra day to clear the backlog of work before re-joining work.

  8. posted by Adam Wygle on

    I always set my email responder to the day after I return. That way I have a day of grace to cull my inbox.

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