Weekly Reads: How to make coming back to work after a holiday less traumatic

There’s no denying we all do better with a bit of time off. Vacations and downtime have been shown to relieve stress, make us happier, and even boost our productivity and focus. But there’s one major downside to them: Coming back to work.

Like the moment your alarm goes off on Monday morning, coming back from even a few days off can be a slog. You’ve worked hard to get out of “work” mode, and switching gears and being instantly productive is pretty much impossible.

But why waste all that mental goodwill on post-holiday stress? To help, we’ve gathered some of the best advice on how to keep yourself sane and happy even on your first day back.

Protect yourself from inbox overload by keeping the out-of-office message on

Back from holiday - email overload

One of the most stressful aspects of coming back to work is facing the onslaught of piled up communication.

Whether you’ve deleted email and Slack from your phone while you were away or slowly watched the number of unread messages tick up, the last thing you probably want to do is spend the next day or two getting caught up.

Diving right back into the thick of it isn’t the best answer. Instead, time management expert, Laura Vanderkamp, suggests keeping your out-of-office reply on for an extra day to calm the influx of messages.

“Sure, the people sitting next to you know you’re there, but there’s no need for the world to figure that out. An extra day gives you space to get things sorted out without new expectations piling on.”

During the first day back, Vanderkamp says you should be strategic in the way you tackle your inbox. This means you shouldn’t necessarily go through your emails in chronological order.

You’re more concerned with what happened while you were away, not necessarily when it happened. Try filtering by sender, keyword, or subject to get into the most important work first.

“It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of responding to every email without considering whether it’s the best use of your time on the first day back,”explains business speaker and author Michael Kerr.

“Don’t confuse email activity with productive work, so be strategic and only respond to emails that are time sensitive.”

Block distractions for the first hour while you get up to speed and re-assess priorities

You might be tempted to pile on meetings and project updates as soon as you come back to make up for lost time. But a better approach is to stagger your return to the craziness of the workday and protect the space you created while you were away.

“Ideally, try and keep your first day back schedule-free from any meetings or appointments—keep it as open as possible so that you have the entire day free to catch up and not feel overwhelmed,” says Kerr.

Along with blocking out your schedule, you’ll want to protect yourself from digital interruptions as well.

When you first come back, take a minute to change your notification settings in your IM tool to make sure you can get up to speed without being pulled into some long-winded conversation.

You can also use RescueTime’s FocusTime feature to block distractions so that you have a few hours when you’re first back to focus in on work that matters and think big picture.

Regain momentum by prioritizing tasks and getting an early win

Back from holiday - easy win

Even if you give yourself an hour or two to reorient yourself in the workspace, it’s common to feel overwhelmed by everything that’s going on.

You’ll have a lot to catch up on. But rather than dive right back in, most productivity experts suggest taking a few moments to triage and prioritize your task list.

Start by creating a master list of everything that needs to be done. This means tasks, emails, meetings, catch-ups, 1-on-1s, reports. Seriously, everything. Getting all those thoughts out of your head and onto paper will be a huge relief.

Next, choose one thing you can get done quickly. Research has shown that getting a quick, early win builds our confidence, which translates to more motivation, confidence, and happiness.

Motivation especially can be short supply when you’re first back. But getting that quick win and seeing progress can keep you moving. As consultant and author John Brubaker says,

“The one primary motivation that leads us to persevere is baby steps.”

With your quick win decided, create a short to-do list. Keep this short. Usually 3 main tasks will be enough to fill up your first few days back.

Get over the stress of re-engaging by spending time talking to coworkers

Even if you block out your first day back for getting up-to-speed, you’re still bound to feel the tug between being heads down and catching up with the people you work with.

And while too many conversations (i.e. “How was your holiday???”) can derail productivity, it’s important to schedule some face-to-face time with your team when you first get back. Especially when you’re in a position of leadership, you need to show your team that you’re available and want to hear what important work they’ve been doing.

For RescueTime COO, Mark Wolgemuth, this is the first thing he does when coming back from a long holiday:

“My approach to coming back to work breaks down like this: Catch up on 1:1 and group collaboration conversations logged in our Slack channel to see what’s been going on, what the open questions top of mind are, and to also hop in and say hi and re-engage with people.”

“For me this combines the very important ‘right away’ task of personal attention to people’s concerns with the desire to feel up to date.”

Use these conversations not only as an opportunity to get caught up, but also to see if priorities have shifted while you were away. Ask what’s most important for them right now and how you can best help now that you’re back.

Take advantage of the break in routine to build better work habits

Back from holiday - habit change

One of the most undervalued benefits of taking time off is that it allows you to see your workday with fresh eyes.

“[A good vacation] pulls you back a little bit, from the day-to-day grind,” says Amanda Crowell, a cognitive psychologist and coach.

“It allows you to say: ‘Am I balancing my time the way my values dictate that I should? Am I spending enough time with my kids? Am I getting enough sleep?’ It allows you the space to make plans to do something differently.”

Resist the urge to fall back into your old routine. We all build some bad work habits over time, and the space that time off creates is a fantastic opportunity to improve them.

While you’re getting back into the swing of things, be conscious of your “usual” actions. Use a simple piece of paper to track what you’re doing, when, and why (i.e. what triggered you). Or, use RescueTime to track your actions and alert you when you’re spending too much time on them.

RescueTime helps you build better habits by showing you exactly how you’re spending your time. Sign up for your free account here.

We’re big believers in the power of downtime. But there’s nothing worse than having a nice, relaxing holiday ruined by the anxiety of coming back to work. Instead, find ways to transition back into the workday in a way that works for you.

How do you alleviate the stress of coming back to work after a holiday? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.