Maybe you know this person (or are this person) at work: When asked how things are going, the answer is not “good” or “bad” but “busy!” In fact, the signaling power of busyness and focus on productivity has become so strong for many, that workcations, or vacations where employees remain tethered to work, are on the rise and an entire generation has become associated with burnout.
Technology is a big culprit here. While technology has revolutionized work in many beneficial ways, it also allows us to ping, email, tweet, text, DM, just about anything we want from our coworkers at any time. And often, no amount of do-not-disturb settings or healthy, mindful practices seems to ease the pressure of an always-on work culture. Time famine — the feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it — is another major contributor to stress, with roughly 4 in 10 Americans reporting they don’t have enough time in the day to complete necessary tasks.
While conventional wisdom might say that the work martyrs who suffer through all-nighters will triumph to climb the ladder in the end, research actually shows that those who take advantage of their time off are more likely to receive promotions.
As counterintuitive as it may seem when work feels overwhelming and time feels scarce, the best thing to do is often to simply log off and get away.
1. Log off and unplug. According to a 2017 report by Project Time Off that studied U.S. workers, on average, only “1 in 4 (27%) employees actually unplug on vacation and nearly 8 in 10 (78%) say they are more comfortable taking time off if they know they can access work.” This number plummets when it comes to senior leadership, with only 7% of executives completely unplugging on vacation and the majority checking in with work at least once a day. These kinds of practices can quickly erode company culture as they send the message to other employees and direct reports that their time off is not, in fact, time off.
If you are a manager or in a position of leadership, it’s important that you help define what unplugging means at your organization and support the policy through actions, so that employees feel empowered to truly disconnect when they need to. Best practices can take many forms. As Adam Waytz writes in his article “Leisure Is Our Killer App,” one way is to reharness technology for good by providing standardized practices for vacation time email and messaging:
“To encourage employees to take real time off, the German automaker Daimler allows them to select an email setting that automatically deletes messages sent to them during vacation, lets senders know that the recipient will never see the messages, and encourages senders to email again after a specified date or to contact someone else. Programs like this one typically intend to reverse or prevent the negative effects of an always-on work culture. The 24-7 workplace simply keeps us plugged into our work, whereas the push toward sociability and variability makes that work more demanding. Leisure can mitigate the depleting effects from both sources.”
2. Get away. You don’t need to go to a tropical island to reap the benefits of a vacation (in fact, some research shows far-flung travel can actually add to stress). One way that vacations, whether in your backyard or halfway across the world, can help directly combat time famine is the opportunity they provide to experience awe.
Why is awe so important? Research shows that experiencing awe — or a feeling of great vastness and wonder — can actually shift our mental models and allow us to feel like more time is available. These experiences can also help us to make better decisions and volunteer our time more freely with others, leading to greater satisfaction and happiness. And you don’t need to summit Machu Picchu or visit the Grand Canyon (though both are great options) just to experience awe — these types of experiences are everywhere, from stargazing on a camping trip to getting lost in an inspiring film or book.
Rather than looking at leisure activities as wasted time, it’s important to recognize the benefits leisure offers us. As Waytz points to in his article, “By encouraging our minds to wander, leisure activities pull us out of our present reality, which in turn can improve our ability to generate novel ideas or ways of thinking.”
3. Prevent burnout from creeping back in. Finally, upon returning to work, it’s important to not allow the feelings of burnout and time famine to creep back in and deter you from success. If workload and resourcing are a problem, it may be time to reassess priorities and responsibilities with your team or manager. But often it’s not our jobs themselves that contribute to time scarcity, but the inability to overcome distraction and home in on the most important work at hand.
As Carsten Lund Pedersen cites in his article “Managing the Distraction-Focus Paradox,” a key to thriving in today’s distractible technology-driven landscape is the ability to command a deep focus in one’s work:
“As the digital sirens continue to sing, maintaining energized, deep focus matters even more. Some of the proponents of this line of thought, including Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, have argued that the ability to focus on a demanding task is the way to differentiate yourself in a distracted world. This kind of focus entails winnowing the demands and ‘productive distractions’ vying for your attention and time. It also requires the ability to shift between perspectives: seeing the details and the broader context. If you can focus in this way, you can prioritize what to think about (you can better plan), and you can know how to think about it (you can better process). But being focused does not mean behaving like a robot. Focus is the deliberate deployment of your attention. You lock in, rather than zone out.”
If focus is less your issue, it may be more important to become proactive in planning time away and creating healthy boundaries at work around time off. Additionally, studies have shown that the simple act of planning a vacation can boost happiness and benefit mental health. So, it may be worth taking the time to plan the details of your next trip, even if it’s months out, to give yourself the gift of imagining what’s to come.