Work + vacation.

They’re two words that don’t ordinarily go together.

We really should try our best to leave it all behind, because time off is key to our well-being and our ability to do our best work.  And yet, some of us, particularly knowledge workers who are now digitally connected to the office 24/7, are finding we still need  to do some work on vacation — or risk blowing deadlines, missing important communications or dealing with an avalanche of tasks when we return.

But spending time getting ahead on work projects or staying up-to-date with e-mail doesn’t have to be a vacation-killer. Many experts point to creative ways that workers manage to do both by working effectively and strategically, while still making time to rejuvenate and reconnect with themselves, their families and their friends.  What’s more, the lessons they share for integrating work and vacation are also in many cases helpful tips that can inform daily life when the vacation is over.

Here’re six ways to get ahead at work while still making time to relax:

1. Prepare for vacation 

The week before you’re about to go, divide work into two lists: One with things you need to get done before you go, and another with items you can tackle when you return, suggests Jessica DeGroot, president and founder of the Third Path Institute, which provides research and advocacy to help people better integrate work and life. It’s a simple task, she says, “really trying to separate” what must get done now and what can wait. You’ll also want to set aside time before you leave to let people know you’ll be out of office, which helps prevent a barrage of emails while you’re gone.  Make sure you also pencil in a day or two when you return to get caught up “in a calm and clear-headed way,” DeGroot adds.

2. Go into stealth mode

Professor Stewart Friedman, Director of Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, suggests finding a hideaway to get work done while your friends and family go about their vacations. ” You want to try to find a physical space that is separate where you’re invisible—because if you are physically present but psychologically absent you are causing problems in every domain. You’re not going to be able to focus on work, and your family and friends will be resentful of your being physically present but not paying attention to them,” he says. Seek out a quiet office, or a coffee shop nearby to focus exclusively for the time when you’re focusing on your work priorities. “The name of the game is attentiveness and mindfulness to whatever it is you choose to focus on,” Friedman adds. Devoting yourself completely to work during work time, allows you to be truly present with family and friends during vacation time. It’s also a helpful practice that can carry on to life post-vacation as well.

3. Try to get work done early in the day

Many experts recommend (from research and several from their own personal experiences) rising early in the morning during a vacation to check email and complete essential work tasks before others are even awake. Not only do you make your working vacation less conspicuous, but getting ahead before others even get up can give you a sense of calm and achievement, allowing you to actually enjoy some time off. Friedman, who says he was able to effectively use early morning work during family vacations while his children were young, suggests that you “set a time limit” on those early working hours, and then move on to enjoying time together.

4. Explain your boundaries

“Be authentic and honest with your family and friends,” recommends Kenneth Matos, Senior Director of Research at the Families and Work Institute. “Tell them if and when you have to work as early as possible, so they can come up with alternative plans.” You’ll also want to convey different boundaries to colleagues back at work, such as your desire that they call only in emergencies, but otherwise leave phone calls for your return. You could also, Matos suggests, “establish a schedule with your coworkers for when you will work. For example, you could work from 9-noon everyday.” Such a schedule, he notes, “allows coworkers to coordinate their requests and expectations for answers with when you are expecting to do work,” making it easier for you to later relax.

5. Be present wherever you are

Think of your time on vacation like a ratio, suggests Friedman. Perhaps during regular work weeks, you are 70 % work, 20% family time, 10% personal time. During vacation, you might go into 20% work time, and make up the rest with quiet time alone or with family. But however you divide your time, the essential mission —indeed, Friedman suggests, life’s essential challenge —is “to be deliberate and conscious about where you’re investing your most precious asset: your attention.” If your daughter is talking to you but you’re thinking about work, you’re not present in the moment.

“A way to practice that is to be asking, inquiring, and interested in the lives and particular needs of people around you at that time,” Friedman adds.

“If thoughts intrude, as they always do, of the jerk you’re dealing with at work,” he says, “then you try to bring your attention back.”

6. Do everything you can to unplug for at least a few days

Even those experts who acknowledge the reality of the new working vacation add that there is a danger of never getting the chance to unplug.

“There’s a big downside,” Friedman notes, “that you don’t get a chance to restore, rejuvenate and reconnect with family and loved ones in a meaningful way.”

DeGroot recommends that people truly question their impulse to work through an entire vacation, at that they try to at least take three days to get away from work entirely.

The irony, DeGroot notes, is that by taking the time away from the daily grind of modern work life, you can actually get a bigger perspective on your professional lives. These breakthroughs often leads to insights that allow for greater productivity and efficiency upon our return.

“When we take that break we come back with such a clear perspective on the more efficient way to get something done.”

A memo you might want to relay back to the office.

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