Just because your work doesn’t always look like work, doesn’t mean you don’t get to take a real vacation.
You already deserve this vacation; it’s not a reward for achieving summer goals. In fact, not only do you deserve a vacation, you need a vacation.
Why you need a holiday.
You work hard. Fatigue impairs cognitive function. Being tired at the end of the academic year is a feature, not a bug. Rest of all kinds helps you recharge so that you are able to do the work you do. Taking a vacation is an important part of that.
I like the advice my dad gave me: take at least 2 weeks as one block. It’s going to take you the better part of the first week to unwind and get into that rested and relaxed mode, completely disconnected from your work. You will probably spend the last couple of days of your vacation (however long it is) beginning to think about going back to work, as well as any necessary travel time. That means that a 1-week vacation doesn’t actually include any time being rested and relaxed. The same applies to taking your vacation time as a series of long weekends. I know this is scary. But it will be much more effective at achieving the goal of recharging.
What recharges you? What tires you? Do more of the former.
How to overcome inevitable difficulties.
Academic culture makes it difficult to do this. You have heavy workload demands, high personal standards, and considerable autonomy. Your employer exploits your high personal standards and the autonomy you want over your time. You are entitled to annual leave, statutory holidays, and a reasonable working week. It is incredibly difficult to actually *take* the decisions that enable that. I acknowledge how difficult this is, but I will not concede that it is impossible. For more on this, see Flexibility, Autonomy, Boundaries.
If you struggle to take any vacation, forget about the 2 week ideal and focus on stretching yourself just a tiny bit out of your comfort zone…
When you learn to juggle, you start by tossing 1 beanbag from one hand to the other. Your goal is form and consistency. (example here)
Once you have that, you can add more beanbags, change from beanbags to something else, and do something that looks much more like juggling. You can’t juggle flaming torches without spending some time tossing one beanbag from one hand to the other. Even when you’ve juggled flaming torches in the past, if you start dropping them you have to go back to tossing one beanbag.
If a 2-week vacation is the equivalent of juggling flaming torches, you need to figure out what 1 beanbag looks like and then what your options are for working up to flaming torches.
Some practical options…
Depending where you are on the learning-to-rest journey and what the structural constraints and expectations are (e.g. in the US, 2 weeks a year is a common annual leave allowance whereas in Europe 5 weeks is pretty normal), I encourage you to figure out where you are on the list below and whether you could stretch yourself to the next level.
Keep in mind that ‘rest’ specifically refers to time when you are *not* working. Not just any time being away from home, campus or the office (e.g. for conferences or a writing retreat) while still checking emails at a poolside. This does not count, as you are still mentally engaged with work despite the change of scenery.
- Regularly taking a sabbath (i.e. 1 day in 7; holiness optional).
- Regularly taking a 2 day weekend. (exceptions only at “crunch” times)
- Taking at least 1 extra day as a holiday when you travel somewhere for research, a conference, or other work activity.
- Scheduling several long weekends (3 or 4 days), whether in conjunction with recognised holidays or as a vacation strategy.
- Taking a 1-week vacation.
- Taking a 1-week vacation PLUS a couple of long weekends.
- Taking more than one 1-week vacation.
- Taking a 2-week vacation.
- Taking a 2-week vacation + several long weekends.
Once you’ve passed the first stage and scheduled the time, your head gremlins will inevitably start worrying about the work you won’t do. They might also worry that, in addition to “losing” that 2 weeks, you won’t be able to get back into your writing and thus never achieve your writing goals. They exaggerate. It’s their job.
- First, your ability to concentrate, string words into sentences, and other key cognitive skills required for writing will be much better after you’ve recharged.
- Second, it is frequently the case that stepping away from a writing project gives you fresh perspective that enables a big leap in progress.
- Third, you can prepare for this. The strategies I suggest for taking the weekend off can also be used for taking a longer vacation. To aid in the winding down process you can do things such as tidy your desk, set your out of office message, and reflect on the positives about this project.
Do not let your gremlins convince you that you have to do the work anyway, but just jam it into fewer days. Make tough decisions about what *isn’t* going to get done, or what is going to be done to a lower standard given the number of workdays you have.
Setting yourself up for your holiday.
You also need transition zones in your plans.
- For a weekend, that could be the last hour of your workday on Friday, and the first hour on Monday.
- For a 2 week holiday, you probably need to treat the last week before your holiday and the first week back as transition zones.
In these transition zones, some of what you are doing is setting yourself up so that you can really relax and forget about work while you are not working. The post I’ve written on taking the weekend off has some more useful tips for this.
I take holidays, too. I write the newsletter (and a few others) before I leave and schedule it. I decide what my priority is on my return and start to-do lists and plans for the period after I come back. I schedule coaching clients around the holiday. I have assistants to host A Meeting With Your Writing in the Academic Writing Studio. I check in with my marketing assistant, who will be scheduling tweets even while I’m away. I give myself permission not to do some things I normally do. I put an out of office message on my email and on the forms people use to register for services.
Let’s pause to think about the things above that are involved in me having my vacation, as a way of thinking about what would help *YOU* to have and enjoy your vacation.
For you, this could look like…
- Finishing your part of a writing project and handing it off to a coauthor, editor, critical friend with explicit instructions not to return it until after your holiday.
- Making plans & to-do lists for after the holiday. Setting priorities and being reasonable.
- Delegating essential tasks to someone else. Who will respond to urgent queries re your various service roles? Who will water your garden? Feed your cats?
- Doing some tasks early and using technology to schedule them.
- Deciding not to do some things or do less of some things for this period.
- Communicating clearly that you will not be available so other people can plan around your vacation. Who needs advance notice?
Remember, these tasks might be home things rather than work things too.
Yes, the grass will grow while you are away. But do YOU have to mow it before you leave or can you pay someone to come and mow while you are gone? Or swap with a neighbour and do theirs when they are away?
A sample out of office message:
For anyone struggling to compose an out of office message, here are some tips…
Your out of office message should not reinforce the assumption that holidays are impossible or indulgent. There are no educational emergencies. Even doctors take holidays and delegate emergencies to others. Many of the things people email you about they will solve themselves if you don’t reply. Not all emails require a response. Email is not urgent.
“I am on vacation/holiday/annual leave from [date] to [date] and will not be checking email. For queries about [things related to your service role] please contact [alternate contact]. I will reply to other email, if appropriate, in the week following my return.”
You may want to turn your message on at 4 p.m. on the penultimate day of work and give yourself an extra day on your return to deal with the backlog before you set it to turn off again. Adjust the dates in the email accordingly. You are not required to respond immediately to people who email on the afternoon of your last day of work.
If you’ve followed all these steps, well done. You can now close the door and go on vacation.
Rethinking leave — to stop or not to stop this holiday season by Sarah Wayland
This text has been substantially edited and reformatted, combining an older post and some newer thoughts on taking a vacation.