Beat the back to work blues: How to stay productive and motivated after the holidays

Coming back to work from even a few days off can be a slog. And when it’s a long holiday like we just had, things are even worse.

You’ve worked hard to fully disconnect from “work” mode, and switching gears the second that morning alarm goes off and becoming instantly productive is pretty much impossible.

And that’s ok! We’re human beings, not machines. It’s completely natural to feel a bit sluggish.  So why waste all that mental goodwill from some well-deserved downtime on post-holiday stress?

To help you come back to work on the right foot, we’ve gathered some of the best advice on how to stay motivated, keep yourself sane and happy, and get more (or at least something) done, even on your first day back.

How to stay motivated when you come back to work after a holiday:

  1. Start with the smallest task possible
  2. Keep your out-of-office message on as you deal with your most important messages
  3. Block distractions for the first hour while you get up to speed and reassess priorities
  4. Build momentum by prioritizing tasks and getting an early win
  5. Get over the stress of re-engaging by talking to coworkers
  6. Take advantage of the break in routine to build better work habits
  7. Give yourself a break (if you need it)

1. Start with the smallest task possible

If you’re anything like me, you’re likely to be gripped by a sense of panic or even guilt when you come back to work from the holidays. You’ve been “slacking off” for days and the obvious answer is to make up for lost time, right?

Yet while it’s tempting to dive right into massive projects, just like a car on a cold winter day, you need to give your brain a chance to warm up before hitting the gas.

We’ve written before about the power of tracking your progress. Our brains react positively to seeing progress on tasks no matter the size. Psychologists call this the completion bias, where your brain gets a hit of dopamine whenever you cross off items from your to-do list.

While this bias isn’t always a good thing (it can just as easily put too much emphasis on small tasks instead of focusing on larger goals), it can be a blessing when you’re in a motivational rut.

As researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer wrote in Harvard Business Review:

“…ordinary, incremental progress can increase people’s engagement in the work and their happiness during the workday.”

So how can you use this to stay motivated when coming back to work?

Let’s say your goal for your first day back is to write a blog post. Instead of setting “Finish Monday’s blog post” as your goal, break the task down into the smallest step that will show some progress. For example:

  1. Set up Google doc
  2. Move outline from Trello card to doc
  3. Write intro
  4. And so on…

It may seem silly to celebrate opening a document, but the goal here is to just get you started. Productivity and motivation in this sense are a lot like physics. And, as best-selling author, James Clear, explains, we can’t forget Newton’s first law:

“Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Find a way to get started in less than two minutes.”

2. Keep your out-of-office message on as you deal with your most important messages

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 want to do is spend the next day (or two) chasing inbox zero.

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.”

Forget dealing with emails in chronological order and instead scan your inbox and deal with the most important ones first. You’re more concerned with what happened while you were away, not necessarily when it happened.

RescueTime CEO, Robby Macdonell, has a technique for doing this he calls his “processing” list:

“The inbox in Gmail can be configured to show a block of messages with a certain label above the normal flow of incoming messages. The best part is, you can collapse the incoming messages section so you won’t be distracted by it.”

Here’s how to set this up for yourself:

  • Go to Gear Icon > Settings > Inbox and set Inbox Type to ‘Priority Inbox’
  • In the ‘Inbox Sections’ area, set the sections like the screenshot below.
  • Under Section 1 ‘All @processing’: Choose ‘more options’, then ‘Show all from label: @processing’ (substitute a different label if you like
  • Save Changes and return to your inbox
  • Minimize the ‘Everything else’ section (Gmail should remember this and keep it minimized in the future)
Want more strategies and tips for wrangling your inbox? Check out our free Guide to Mastering your Gmail Inbox.

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

You’re not the only one who feels the need to dive right back in after a holiday. And unfortunately, that means lots (and lots) of requests for meetings, updates, and “catch ups.” While these are pretty much inevitable, nothing kills your motivation like losing a whole day to them.

One technique you can try is to block out your first hour (or day) back to get grounded, make a plan, and reassess your priorities.

“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 business speaker and author Michael Kerr.

If blocking off a full day is out of the question start with an hour or 90 minutes. At a minimum, you should block digital distractions so you can stay focused and feel good about making some progress.

At the start of your first day back to work, take a minute to change (or turn off) your notification settings in your email and IM tool. You can even use the Do-Not-Disturb function on all your devices to make sure you’re not being interrupted.

Finally, try a website blocker like RescueTime’s FocusTime feature to block distracting websites for the first hour of the day to get you started on track.

4. Build 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 still feel overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done.

You’ll have a lot to catch up on. However, most productivity experts suggest taking a few moments to triage and prioritize your back to work task list.

Here’s one of the easiest ways to do this:

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 and help you stay to make sense of it all.

Next, choose one thing you can get done quickly. As we said before, getting a quick, early win builds confidence and motivation.

Finally, make a plan for the rest of the day. Create a short to-do list of 3-4 main tasks pulled from your master list (broken down into baby steps). If you’re feeling up to it, write a plan for tomorrow as well.

Shifting from saying “I have so much to do!” to “I’ve got a plan!” is a powerful way to stay motivated when you’re coming back to work.

5. Get over the stress of re-engaging by talking to coworkers

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.

If you’re a manager, your team will need your input on what work needs to be done and want to see that you’re motivated and excited to get back into it.

For RescueTime COO, Mark Wolgemuth, this is the first thing he does when coming back to work 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.

As an added bonus, schedule these chats in the afternoon as this gives everyone the morning to get organized and prepared.

6. 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 cognitive psychologist Amanda Crowell.

“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.”

When you first come back to work, resist the urge to fall back into your old routine. We all build some bad work habits over time, and holidays give us 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 time on digital devices and alert you when you’re getting distracted.

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

7. Give yourself a break (if you need it)

Lastly, remember that it’s OK to feel a bit down on your first day back to work. Being productive at work is a marathon, not a sprint. And a slow start is better than a pulled muscle in the first mile.

We’re big advocates for working with your body’s natural energy highs and lows and taking meaningful breaks when needed. If you’re feeling wiped, take a step back and walk away.

Even a short 5-10 minute break to walk around the office can be enough to boost your motivation, spur new ideas, or refuel your depleted energy stores.

And remember to be easy on yourself as well. As Dr. Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told the New York Times:

“Self-criticism can take a toll on our minds and bodies. It can lead to ruminative thoughts that interfere with our productivity, and it can impact our bodies by stimulating inflammatory mechanisms that lead to chronic illness and accelerate aging.”


At RescueTime, 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, these tips should help you 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 on Twitter

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Jory MacKay

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