If your vacation is near and life is a frenzy, perhaps that's because you don't treat vacations like a project, and apply the proper organizational skills. Toronto-area productivity consultant Ann Gomez went through far too many pre-vacation scrambles before realizing that she needed to develop a stress-busting checklist.
"One of life's greatest ironies is that in our quest to squeeze in some balance (like a vacation), we send ourselves over the edge. We endure sleepless nights to squeeze everything in beforehand and start running flat-out again when we get back," she writes on the Clear Concept blog.
The scramble, she said in an interview, comes from a combination of being overcommitted and procrastinating. We have too much going on in our lives, are spread too thinly, and so can't easily handle a week off. Before leaving, we're trying to carry out activities that need to be done even if we're away. As well, we know long beforehand that the vacation is coming but put off preparation until the last minute. Whammo! Overcommitment and procrastination combine to overwhelm us just as we are preparing for a period of calm.
Overcoming that begins when you book your vacation. And, by the way, if you just returned from vacation, that means now: You need to set time aside for your vacations well in advance, and steer your workload around that relief period, rather than putting off choosing vacation time until you are sure of your workload for a potential period. "There is never a perfect time for a vacation. Get it in your calendar and the rest of your life will work around it," she said.
She's a great believer in deadlines and to-do lists. But you'll fail if you leave all the vacation planning to just before your departure date. Instead, think through everything that is required, set realistic deadlines, and sprinkle the tasks into your to-do list at appropriate intervals.
You will have many other tasks to handle, from work duties to wallpapering the spare room. Just make sure you leave sufficient time to plan the major vacation elements. And that will mean, at times, not just having these items on your to-do list but atop it, since as she puts it: "The definition of a professional is having too much to do. We have to make sure the most important priorities are at the top of the list."
Professionals, she adds, create things, often new things, and so it is always difficult to tell how long such activities will take. Her own guideline is to imagine tasks will take twice as long as you expect, since they routinely do. Often professionals don't have firm deadlines, taking on tasks that they promise to complete as soon as possible. When a vacation nears, the departure date becomes the deadline for a litany of tasks.
"Don't say 'I'll have it done before my vacation,' which just leads to 18 items that have to be completed before you leave," she said. Instead, set hard deadlines spaced out over time for your work activities and vacation planning. If need be, set aside a Sunday well ahead of your holiday to deal with vacation-related items that have been lingering untouched on your to-do list.
She suggests that two weeks before your vacation, you do the following:
Arrange for someone to cover for you. Have someone prepped to handle your major responsibilities while away. "You might be hesitant to ask your already-swamped colleagues. But think of this as their opportunity to pay-it-forward. After all, they will need someone to cover them over their upcoming vacation as well!" she writes.
Let others know: Communicate that you will be unavailable that week. Encourage colleagues to book you now or wait until you're back, while resisting the temptation to overbook yourself.
Pack. She concedes this may seem overly keen, but maybe not if you consider how frantic last-minute packing normally is. At least start setting things out, which allows you sufficient opportunity to fill in any holes in your wardrobe or toiletries.
Early the week before:
Set up your out-of-office notice. You can actually do this a week in advance and set the dates to turn on or off automatically.
Deal with newspaper and mail. Arrange for daily deliveries to be stopped or picked up by a neighbour.
Stop accepting any new meeting requests. Tell people that you'll be available when you return from vacation.
Two days before:
Focus on clearing up loose ends. With sufficient planning, you have managed to keep most of this day relatively clear of meetings so you can handle loose ends. It may require staying late at the office but since you're ahead on personal vacation planning, that's less of an issue. Don't overestimate how much you'll be able to get done tomorrow; get as much completed today as possible.
Now you just need to wrap up – and arrange to shut down your laptop. Ms. Gomez used to take her computer with her on vacation, trying to handle some e-mail and work requests to reduce the burden on her return. But a vacation should be about rest. Keep yourself free of meetings the first day back, and handle everything then.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter