How to Use All Your Vacation — And Really Unplug
When was the last time you really took a sustained break from work? No emails. No calls. No taking care of that one little thing. For most of us — particularly in the United States — it’s been too long. As we head into the end-of-year holidays, we asked University of Texas psychology professor Art Markman and Cornell University associate professor Kaitlin Wooley to explain why it’s so important to take real vacations (or even staycations) and how individuals, bosses, and organizations can do a better job of making them happen.
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
Think of your last vacation. It doesn’t have to be an amazing trip. Just the last time you took some time off from work. Did you really take the time off, or did you check email, take a few calls, work on the train, or by the pool? I remember one pre-pandemic holiday. When I spent an entire higher day on my laptop editing an article, occasionally looking up to see my family having an amazing time on the beach. Mary Dooe, my colleague and friend and the producer of this podcast, was recently working on it from the Galapagos Islands.
Yes, she was on her computer instead of looking at turtles. We’re not alone. A recent survey indicated that 82% of Americans work on vacation, and 90% check work messages. Then there are a whole bunch of people who don’t even take their allotted time off. Research indicates that only about 50% of people in the U.S. do. This situation might be better in other countries, but there’s no question that technology is interfering with our ability to truly disconnect from our jobs. As end of your holidays approach, we wanted to talk to some experts about time off, why it’s important, why we’re often bad at using it, and how to actually unplug.
Art Markman is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas Austin, and author of the book Bring Your Brain to Work. Kaitlin Woolley is an associate professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, and co-author of the hbr.org article Don’t Work on Vacation. Seriously. Kaitlin, let’s start with you. What is wrong with us? Why aren’t we able to take time off and put work away?
Kaitlin, let’s start with you. What is wrong with us? Why aren’t we able to take time off and put work away when we do?
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with the feeling of urgency, right? If I don’t finish this task right now, if I don’t complete that work, it’s not going to get done. And we don’t think about maybe doing it after the break. I think we feel this sense that we need to do it as quick as possible. Do it on time. There are people that we maybe owe the work to, and we don’t want to be late for them. I think that’s part of what’s driving this always-on culture, especially just because it’s so easy, right? It’s so easy to check your phone, and then get pulled into that work email or request from somebody, and it’s really difficult for people to unplug and to disconnect and to put up those boundaries, I think.
ALISON BEARD: Art, do you think that this is a particularly American phenomenon, or do you see it in other parts of the world too? I know there are countries where people get lots more paid time off several months, but do these people also use it more and more effectively?
ART MARKMAN: Well, as with every tough question, the answer is yes and no. I mean, I think that certain industries, particularly tech and the financial world, it is hard for people to unplug anywhere, but I do think that there are other countries that do a better job of taking vacation and also are actually not working on weekends. I think that Northern Europe, for example, seems to be much better than the United States at actually taking weekends off, not to mention going on vacation. A lot of Europe does a nice job of shutting a lot of industry down for a whole month and over the summer. I think that that helps too.
ALISON BEARD: My favorite is the out-of-office emails you get from people in Italy like, “It is July 31st, and I will return on September 1st. Please, email me back then.”
ART MARKMAN: It’s so good. It’s absolutely right. I think we don’t have a designated month off. I think that that really hurts.
ALISON BEARD: Has the pandemic… It’s obviously prevented many of us from traveling, and some of that is just starting to pick back up, but how has it affected how people think about and use their time off? Kaitlin, why don’t you take that one?
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: What I’ve heard just from conversations is that people were requesting meetings more during off time. So because you’re working from home, people think you’re just always around, and so meetings were getting moved to early morning, late evening, even on the weekends when maybe before, there is a bit more of that work-life balance just because physically, we weren’t… People wouldn’t request meetings on the weekends, because they knew you were out of office. But with the turn of the pandemic, I think those boundaries disappeared, and we saw more of this bleeding in, where people felt like it was more okay perhaps to ask for that.
Then people maybe felt less confident pushing back and saying, “This is my time with my family, or this is my time off,” and accepting or feeling obligated to accept some of those meetings.
ALISON BEARD: Is that because the pandemic pushed us all into crisis mode, or because everyone was stuck at home, and so no one was technically on vacation? Art, you’re a psychologist. How has it changed the mindset around taking time?
ART MARKMAN: I mean, I think there’s two different things going on. I mean, the first is, of course, at the start of the pandemic, I think everybody was in crisis mode, and so it was all hands on deck all the time. I think part of the problem is we didn’t quite get off of that mode, and so people were starting work a little bit earlier because they weren’t commuting. They were sometimes working a little bit later because they weren’t commuting home, and those hours stuck with a lot of people without really thinking about how we might do things differently.
Then I think the other piece is because we aren’t going anywhere, because vacations now were staycations for a while, it felt like, “Well, if I just carve an hour out here or there from the time I was going to take off, that wouldn’t be so bad,” but you’re not getting that mental downtime even though you’re not physically going anywhere. That’s a real problem.
ALISON BEARD: Let’s rapid fire go through some of the important reasons to take a proper vacation, which means unplugging, not checking email, not checking calls, et cetera. Kaitlin, you go first. What’s the top reason we need to do it?
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: There’s a lot of work on just wellbeing concerns and how it affects your health and your happiness. Even some of the work that I’ve been doing investigating is looking at your attitudes and relationship towards the work, so even independent of happiness and just general wellbeing, what I’m finding in my research is that not taking that time away from work actually undermines your interest in working in general.
ALISON BEARD: Art, what would you add?
ART MARKMAN: It makes you way less creative in the solutions you develop, because when you are constantly immersed in work, you’re stuck in the weeds, which means that you describe every problem you’re solving in terms of the specifics of that problem. Actually, getting away from work for a little while gives you a different perspective on it. It actually makes you think about the problems a little more abstractly, and that often leads to more creative solutions to problems.
ALISON BEARD: You mentioned staycations, Art, versus going away. Why doesn’t that work as well? Why do people need to get out of their normal environment?
ART MARKMAN: I mean, one of the big things about a staycation is particularly in a work-from-home environment is that everything around you is reminding you of the work that you need to do because we’ve now blended our home environment, our work environment, and in the case of staycation, the vacation environment. One of the nice things about getting away is that it doesn’t remind you of your day-to-day life. It actually allows you to form memories of something independent of your usual context.
And if you go away to a place that you know is a relaxing place, it may actually remind you to be relaxed. That change in context actually changes your complete mindset because it influences what you’re being reminded of.
ALISON BEARD: This is an important question for me because often, I will travel to a relaxing place, but then the flight back is really stressful, and so it, for me, negates everything that happened when I was away. A lot of times, people travel to see family, and that’s not particularly stress free either. How do you make sure that you’re actually capturing the benefits of holiday?
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: It’s a hard problem, and you often see even coming back from a vacation, maybe people feel rejuvenated that first day, and it might disappear, or it might not even be the case. If you’ve had a stressful break, if it’s with family or that plane ride back where you’re thinking about all the upcoming tasks, I think you can still get some benefits in terms of you’ve had that disconnect during that time. Art mentioned, but just having more creative thoughts, having more creative solutions, I think that benefit would still come through.
I think a big part of it too is the ability to disconnect, and so having that break, having those boundaries in place, and then coming back into it, I think you can still reap some of those benefits of vacation even if transitioning back in, you’re thrown into the midst of things, and you’re feeling that stress.
ART MARKMAN: I mean, temporary stress while you’re on the flight back is not negating the whole vacation. I do think that there’s… While you’re on vacation, particularly if you get away from work, one of the things it does is to remind you that there are other things you do in your life besides work. That’s valuable, and sometimes even reminds you that actually, while it’s nice to get away from work, it’s actually nice to get back to it too. I think that just because you might experience a little bit of stress in the transition back to work, that doesn’t mean that the whole vacation wasn’t worthwhile.
ALISON BEARD: Art, how much time should people take off? Two weeks tends to be standard in the U.S. For most employers in Europe, you might see four to six weeks. What’s the right amount?
ART MARKMAN: Well, I think one of the ways to think about vacations is that there are a few different kinds of time away from work that are worth taking, and so it’s not that there’s a one size fits all answer. Certainly, once a year, at least you got to get away for a full week, and just allow yourself not to think about the key work problems, not to think about any interpersonal issues you have at work. Give yourself that time and perspective, but I also think that you should consider taking some half days.
Leave work early, and go for a run, or take care of some things that you need to do for your home at a time when the stores aren’t all jammed full of people. Some half days are good and even taking some long weekends, leaving on a Thursday evening to go somewhere for three or four days, particularly if you need to reconnect with a romantic partner, or go visit some family. I think actually considering a range of options, rather than saying that there’s only one way of getting away that’s going to be a benefit, helps a lot.
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: I was going to say, I think, it’s probably a personal decision. It’s where you’re coming from, exactly what Art is saying. If you’re only taking a week, you’re not maxing out your full-time off. Starting baby steps is probably a good solution. I was actually going to go in the opposite direction and think about there’s a way in which we have breaks at work, and we might not even be taking those very effectively. If you have a lunch break, are you completing work emails during that time?
There’s research on how you think about even micro breaks or breaks in the middle of the work day, and how to make those more effective for use that you can actually feel a sense of a refreshness or rejuvenation even during the day itself, but in terms of the actual amount of time, even, I, I think, I’m not great about taking off probably more than two weeks. I think it’s probably a personal decision at that point.
ALISON BEARD: Let me ask about that problem first, this idea that regardless of how much vacation your employer is giving you, you’re not taking all of it. Most people say you absolutely should for your wellbeing, creativity, et cetera. People feel pressure not to maybe, because they want to get their work done, and be a dedicated high-performing employee. How do we get over that hurdle? How do we get people to actually use the vacation they’re given?
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: I think the challenge is that when you’re pitting work against leisure, work is always going to seem to be the important thing. But if you can think about the leisure time as helping you be better at your job, helping you be more creative, helping you build your even interpersonal skills at work because you’ve had time off, and you can come back and reapproach the problems from a different perspective, or even helping you to maintain your interest in your love for your job.
I think if people think about it that way, then it gives them more reason to take the time off. It’s not seeming like they’re a bad employee or that they don’t like their work, but they’re actually using that time to get away so that they come back even better. I’ve seen some people who are really good about that, and they can actually put that into practice. I think that gives you some help, some reason to take the break.
ART MARKMAN: You’ve got to practice this, right? I think there’s… I have colleagues who study exposure therapies for phobias. One of the things you have to do is to experience the situation that really frightens you, and then recognize that nothing calamitous happened, and-
ALISON BEARD: It’s so funny to think I’m afraid of taking vacations.
ART MARKMAN: Well, that’s exact… Right. That’s exactly it is we think, “Oh, if I take this vacation, and I don’t check in every day, something calamitous could go wrong.” Start by just parking all of your technology for a full weekend, and recognizing that if you leave work at 5:00 on Friday, that at 8:00 or 9:00 on Monday morning, if you haven’t checked your email on Saturday or Sunday, nothing calamitous happened. It was okay. Learn that, “Okay, I can actually go away for a day, or two, or three, or four, or five, and come back. Yeah, there’s going to be some work built up for me that I have to take care of, but the world didn’t end.”
ALISON BEARD: I think you’re getting at the solution to the second big problem, which is our inability to unplug and thinking that, “It’s okay if I just check email in the morning, and then go to the beach, or while the baby’s napping, I finish up that thing that I left hanging at work.” How do we really break ourselves of those habits?
ART MARKMAN: Don’t bring your laptop on your vacation.
ALISON BEARD: It’s so impossible. I can’t imagine. Can you guys imagine it?
ART MARKMAN: Well, those are two different things.
ALISON BEARD: Right. I mean, so do you two travel without any technology?
ART MARKMAN: I bring my phone, and I bring an iPad that I don’t bring to work.
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: Over the Thanksgiving break, I traveled, and I always fail to take my own advice, and so I was working, but what I’ve been trying to do is have scheduled like categorizing the time. It’s like, I’m on it for two hours, and then I’m not on it. I’m not thinking about it the rest of the time. I think some of the work I’ve been doing thinking about, “How do you use categorization cues? How can you help to create those boundaries?” I think that’s the big thing, right?
You check your email, and then you fall into this, and there’s no cue to stop, and so setting up those boundaries. Then if you can turn it off, that’s good. I haven’t taken a vacation yet where I haven’t brought any devices.
ALISON BEARD: You definitely don’t take your own advice.
Let’s talk about planning and preparation. How do you make sure that the office, your team, your direct reports that everything can continue to function seamlessly without you there?
ART MARKMAN: Well, for one thing, we’re all bad at delegating, because we treat delegation primarily as something you do in the moment when you’re planning to be away. I think one of the things that we really have to do is to remember that learning to delegate means constantly teaching other people around you to do your job so that when the time comes where you need someone to do a segment of your job, that they can do it. That actually gives you a lot more confidence in giving people the opportunity to take care of things, because you’ve already walked them through it. I think that’s one really critical piece of being able to walk away from work effectively.
I also think it’s really important when you go away to… If you’re in a position, in a supervisory position of some kind, it’s really important to have somebody who you can authorize to contact you if there’s a legitimate emergency. The reason it’s nice to set things up like that is that this way, if you don’t hear from anybody, you don’t need to check on your… Part of what happens is people think, “Well, how would I know if the place is on fire?” The answer is if you’ve got somebody who’s going to call you when there’s a significant problem or text you, then you’ll know, and you don’t have to check all the other stuff.
I’ve done that before. I mean, I’m in administration now at the university, and I have people who will contact me if there’s a significant problem and I’m on vacation. They’ve done it.
ALISON BEARD: We’ve published some great articles on effective out-of-office messages too, either making it clear how you’re spending your time. I’ll be with my three children on the beach. Please email again at the end of this week. I just had a colleague who was out for surgery, and she said, “I’m out getting a robot knee,” and so it was just very clear, “Please, don’t bother me.” To your point, Art, you can also set up those. If you need information about this, please contact this colleague. If you need information about this, please contact this one.
Let’s talk about teams, bosses, organizations. How can people in charge do a better job of encouraging people to, a, take the time that they deserve, and also really unplug when they go away?
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: I think a lot of it comes down to modeling the behavior that you want to see. So if you have a boss who’s never away themselves or never taking the time, I think that sends a communication culture throughout the organization about what they value and what’s important. I think that setting those expectations, setting the culture has to come from the top-down. I would want to see people in higher positions allowing that behavior, and showing it, demonstrating it themselves.
ART MARKMAN: I agree. That’s really important. Even down to the level of… I encourage people if they work very late at night, and work crazy out hours, that they set up a filter on their emails so that the emails don’t send until 8:00 in the morning so that even if they’re checking email at midnight, that it doesn’t send out till 8:00 AM, so that if nothing else, nobody sees what hours you’re working, because I think it’s important for people to be able to make their own minds up about what hours are most effective for them. Part of taking vacation is starting with just taking the night off.
ALISON BEARD: One group that we really haven’t addressed at all is blue collar laborers, et cetera. Are there things that employers should be doing for the blue collar workforce in terms of vacation to make sure that it’s not just the upper income brackets that are getting the benefits of this? Don’t those frontline laborers need it the most?
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: I think, some of the same practices come into play, where a lot of it might still be having to license yourself, having to put the time in, and then I think the organizational structure, having it be the place where you… There are resources. There are people who are going to come in to fill your shifts, fill your roles. It’s important. I think too, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get away from work. You can, I think, have a staycation, and just as we were mentioning before, have a situation where you can keep yourself busy, and active, and engaged, and really to have that break, and so you can still, I would say, get a lot of benefits without having to travel the world or spend a lot of money on the vacation or on the break.
ART MARKMAN: I think large employers should also try to work some good discounts with some of the local fun things to do. If your city has an amusement park in it, then get discounted tickets for the people who are working for you, or even free ones. Work it out so that people can do some things on the budget that they have that still allow them to get away and actually feel like the organization was looking out for them.
ALISON BEARD: So we talked a bit about the guilt of feeling like there’s so much to do. How does one get over that, particularly if you’re working in an office that’s understaffed? It’s just there really is no time and not enough people to get all the work done, and yet you do still need that break. How do you manage that?
ART MARKMAN: You have to do it. I mean, the hard part is, again, it’s practice, but the fact is that the organization is not going to fall apart if you go away. Frankly, if the organization does fall apart because you went away, there’s a bigger problem than you in that situation. I think you have to just go and do it.
ALISON BEARD: It makes the case hiring more people to get-
ART MARKMAN: That’s right.
ALISON BEARD: … more of the work done.
ART MARKMAN: That’s right. You’re right. If you’re telling me this whole place falls apart because I was taking my contractually obligated vacation, then we got a problem.
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: I think that too is where organizational norms and culture can come into play, because if you have a colleague or boss who’s supportive of that, who’s understanding even if we have a lot going on, I recognize that you need to have the time off, and is helping to encourage that, I think that takes some of the burden and some of the guilt off of you as well. If it’s important to you, how can you build that with your colleagues, with your coworkers to make that become more of a priority? I really don’t think it should be on the individual necessarily. I think it should be something that is supported by the organization. They recognize that you need time off, that you need to… You’re your best self after you’ve had a break.
ALISON BEARD: What about policies regarding vacation? There are people… There are employers who give two weeks. In Europe, you might see four to six weeks. There are now companies that are offering unlimited vacation. What works best?
ART MARKMAN: The unlimited vacation thing doesn’t seem to be working in the U.S. very well. People are not taking the time. I think part of it is almost a classic anchor and adjustment effect. If you tell people that they have two or three weeks, then they might say, “Well, three weeks, I’m not going to take three weeks, but maybe I’ll take two.” But if you say unlimited, “Well, now I don’t really have a number there, so now, I’m starting at zero, and anchoring at zero.” Then maybe I take a couple of days off here or there, but you don’t-
ALISON BEARD: See, I would say I’m starting at 52.
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: I was going to say exactly. It reminds me of mental accounting type things, because it’s been allocated, because it’s been earmarked as time off, and there’s a record of it. People are tracking it. When you have two weeks or three weeks, people can see it in their schedule and their calendar. It rolls over often times each year, and so they can physically or plan to take that time off. When you have unlimited time off, I think the people who are attracted to some of those jobs that probably are giving those benefits might have struggles themselves to take time off in the first place.
ALISON BEARD: It’s interesting. I would love to see every employer in the professional settings move to just sort of, “We trust you to take the time you need,” which is an unlimited policy. I think what I’m getting at is just the accounting of vacation has always been very perplexing to me, like going into the system, having to enter your days, explain your reason for being away, et cetera when it’s a group of presumably high-performing adults. Are there ways to get at that idea of unlimited vacation just by being more flexible? Could employers do that?
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: There’s two things. I was talking about the numeric. You’re counting the number of days, and that might encourage people to actually take more time off, but I completely agree with you that you don’t want to feel you have to explain your vacation, because then having to file a report, having to allocate that time, and write that in, it takes away from some of it, and you might feel then compelled to justify it. That can also contribute to some of the guilt that you’re talking about. But at the same time, I was on… I agreed with Art that I think unlimited vacation where you can just take it… I don’t know if you just take it when you want it. It makes it harder to actually take it, and so maybe there’s a world in which you still have a set number, but you don’t have to give, or you don’t have to put the time in, or you don’t have to give justification for it.
ART MARKMAN: I’m wondering whether companies should move to creating some incentives to take vacation like, “I’m going to pay you $100,000 a year if you work 50 weeks a year. But if you work 51, I’m knocking 5% off your salary. And if you work 52, I’m knocking 10% off.”
ALISON BEARD: I love that. That’s such a great idea. Have any companies done that?
ART MARKMAN: No, I just thought of it now.
ALISON BEARD: Well, I hope that we have helped our listeners take better vacations, take more vacations, and particularly as the winter holidays approach, everyone gets the rest and relaxation they need. Art, Kaitlin, thank you so much for being on the show.
ART MARKMAN: Thanks, Alison.
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: Thank you so much, Alison.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of the book Bring Your Brain to Work, and Kaitlin Woolley, an associate professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.
If you like this episode, you can also check out episode 790, a conversation with Ethan Kross, a psychologist and neuroscientist about how to stop overthinking things.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.