Ping. It’s the sound of your email, Microsoft Teams, or Slack notification interrupting you during what’s supposed to be a relaxing family vacation or a fun-filled, let-it-all-hang-out friends trip. You know you shouldn’t respond (c’mon, you’re out of the office for a reason, right?) and yet you can’t help yourself from peeking (maybe it’s important!). So you answer, and next thing you know you’re spending your time off, well, back on the clock.
Setting firm work-life boundaries has become increasingly difficult in the modern world, where technology makes it all too easy to be in the know with your coworkers—even after hours. Plus the pandemic made WFH a new norm, transforming many people’s personal spaces from safe havens to remote offices. But as simple as it is to skim that message while you’re basking in the sun at the beach, say, or to reply to just one more email from the comfort of your cozy mountainside Airbnb, these seemingly harmless habits can actually sabotage your vacation, Dawna Ballard, PhD, associate professor of communications at the University of Texas at Austin and coauthor of Work Pressures: New Agendas in Communication, tells SELF.
“Taking time off from your job should not be seen as a ‘luxury’ reserved for certain people,” Dr. Ballard says. “This common American belief that rest is something ‘extra,’ as opposed to necessary to our mental and physical health, is a toxic mindset.” If you don’t believe her, take a look at these pretty convincing facts: Recent research suggests that vacation days can prevent stress, fatigue, and burnout, as well as make you more productive in the long run. (An important note: Not everyone in the US has access to paid leave, and, thanks to a severely lacking social safety net, some folks have no choice but to work nonstop—issues that can only be remedied by major structural policy changes.)
For those of us who get PTO, an unhealthy pattern of toxic productivity can be tough to break: You may think you’re multitasking and being extra efficient when using your downtime to get a head start on that presentation. Maybe you’re convinced your team will fall apart without your 24/7 guidance, or you have so much left on your to-do list that you feel obligated to check some tasks off during your trip. No matter how irreplaceable you think you are, though, or how overwhelmed you are by the thought of returning to a mountain of assignments, you deserve to enjoy your free time without feeling worried or guilty.
Turning your brain on vacation mode is often easier said than done, however—we really, truly get it—so we asked experts to offer up some practical unplugging tips for even the most compulsive of email checkers.
Pause your notifications.
It can feel impossible to truly disconnect from work when your phone is buzzing or your laptop is beeping—a constant reminder that, hey, your boss or colleague needs your help right now, regardless of your offline status. That’s why Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, an instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, suggests temporarily halting the ambush of annoying texts and emails until the end of your trip by pausing notifications. “It’s better to delay your alerts so they’re happening all at once upon your return, as opposed to sporadically throughout your time off, because we generally aren’t designed to have our attention divided in that way, and it can cause us to feel exhausted or drained,” Dr. Dattilo explains.
Thankfully, this is pretty easy to do (even if you’re not tech-savvy), and most of your apps probably have a setting to mute push notifications. With Slack, for example, you can go into your profile, select preferences, and manually turn off all alerts until a set date of your choice. If you use Microsoft Teams, click settings to suspend any incoming DMs or calls. Gmail, too, allows you to adjust your status in settings to do not disturb mode for however long you need. “Social media and communication apps are designed to be addictive so that you’re constantly clicking and checking them. That’s why it’s really important to set boundaries to make sure you’re not always being interrupted,” Dr. Ballard adds.
Temporarily delete any work-related apps, including your email.
The great thing about technology? You can access so much of your job on your portable little smartphone. The dark side? You can access so much of your job on your portable little smartphone. It’s basically second nature at this point to mindlessly check for new pings when you’re away from work—even if you don’t intend to. Maybe you’re bored and passing the time with a quick scroll, or perhaps you’re just refreshing again and again, because why not?
If this sounds like you, Dr. Ballard suggests temporarily deleting any work-related apps altogether. That way, you can’t act on the urge to log into the free WiFi and respond to emails while waiting in the hotel lobby, say, or check your Slack notifications during brunch with your parents. And if you need a stronger nudge to disconnect, you can also replace those tempting apps with ones that remind you why you’re on vacation in the first place: to be present and enjoy yourself. “It’s habitual to click on that spot where your email or work app used to be, so I recommend swapping it with Kindle, Headspace, or any other option that redirects you to relax,” Dr. Ballard says.
Leave your work laptop or phone behind when you can.
We know this isn’t possible for everyone, especially if your “company phone” is also your everyday cell. Ideally, the best way to stop thinking about work is to, um, not bring work with you, Dr. Ballard says. Most of us can’t ditch technology altogether, though. (Your loved ones probably want some way of communicating with you while you’re MIA, and going tech-free could pose a personal safety risk, especially if you’re traveling solo.)
However, you might try leaving your phone in your hotel room for the few hours that you’re lounging by the pool with your friends or family, say, or while you’re stretching it out at that restorative yoga class. The main con of this strategy is that you can’t take pictures or videos, but that’s also a pro: It can be rejuvenating to get off your phone and live in the moment, because even an hour or two detached from your device here and there can help you be more mindful and appreciate what’s right in front of you.
Turn on do not disturb mode.
Sure, it would be ideal to ignore any and everything work-related while you’re on vacation, but that’s not necessarily the right move for everyone: Stay-at-home parents, for instance, still need to be reachable in case anything comes up with their kids, and not knowing what’s going on with your job or colleagues—which can be super therapeutic to some—can also worsen anxiety. “Going cold turkey may make you more paranoid and worried. You may start wondering what you’re missing out on, which can make you even more tempted to refresh over and over,” Dr. Dattilo says.
It’s not the end of the world to check in occasionally throughout your vacation. If deleting apps or ditching your device isn’t for you, try putting your phone or laptop on do not disturb mode instead, which Dr. Dattilo says can temporarily silence notifications but still let important calls from loved ones through. Then, designate some time once a day to catch up on everything, but (emphasis on the but) preferably only for 30 minutes, max, she adds. (And seriously consider using a timer if you need the self-control.) A half an hour should be enough to scan your messages and reply to any super-important ones, but not so much that you’ll relapse back into work mode, Dr. Dattilo explains.
Schedule an automatic out-of-office reply.
All of us office workers understand the slight panic that takes over when someone doesn’t immediately respond to an urgent message. And perhaps you’re putting yourself in the sender’s shoes when you’re OOO: What if they think I’m ignoring them? I better send something now so they’re not waiting for me!
Setting an automatic out-of-office response is a great way to provide a heads-up that no, you won’t be replying to anyone trying to reach you. It’s also a polite gesture that prevents the sender from having to guess whether or not you’re ghosting them, Dr. Ballard says. You can customize your email to include the date of your return as well as one or two different colleagues who can respond in your absence instead. Some folks just need an answer from someone—not necessarily you.
Hold yourself accountable.
Even if you follow every step in this article, it’s largely up to you whether you want to spend your days off unwinding or stressing about the very thing you’re supposed to be getting away from. In reality, you can always redownload that work app, for example, or change back any settings that were silencing your alerts.
“The most important step is reflecting on why you’re taking a vacation,” Dr. Ballard says. Did you request a week off because your job was taking away uninterrupted, quality time with your family? Is your tropical trip an opportunity to relax and ease some of your work-related stress? Regardless of the reason, you chose to take a break, and that’s exactly what you should do, as best you can. Enjoy your camping excursion instead of fixating on that upcoming meeting next week. Be spontaneous and partake in a slew of touristy activities without mentally dragging your boss along. After all, it’s called time off for a reason.