According to CNBC, unused vacation days are at an all-time high in the U.S., with 23 percent of accrued vacation days going unused. While many small business owners see this as a positive as they are essentially getting free days of work from their employees, when you dig down into the research and common knowledge, you realize the disservice this does to your business and to your employees. There is a reason paid time off was instituted: people need to recharge and get away from work to be more productive and well rested, long-term. Taking a week to go to the beach, spend time with family, go camping, go skiing, or just do nothing is critical to maintaining productivity.
In today’s world not only is it a challenge to take time off, but it is difficult to be “on vacation” even when you are on vacation. With email, texts, cell phones, tablets, and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, it is tough to totally unplug from it all. I tried to take time off over the past two weeks to recharge my batteries. I’d been working non-stop for months, traveling to projects two to three hours away each day, awake until midnight or later working on proposals, programming, billing, and everything else that goes along with running a business. I was exhausted and rundown. My health was beginning to suffer, and I was so short tempered that I was alienating those close to me.
So I decided to take off my birthday week and maybe a few days the following week. I set my voicemail and email out-of-office notifications, informing clients that I would only be available for urgent matters. I had high hopes that I would get to unwind and pull back from the business for a few days. It seemed, however, that when clients emailed and got my out of office, many still would call and text to try to reach me, even for trivial matters like one speaker in a room not working or “my network seems slower than normal” type of calls. These were things that could wait a few days, nothing urgent like “my network is completely down” or “I can’t use any of the TVs in my home.” I’m not sure if it is just my obsessive personality, but I felt compelled to respond to the people who were trying to reach me every which way. It made me anxious so I would re-engage, responding to emails, taking phone calls, and getting pulled back in. I would then spend time during my “down-time” to respond to these clients or try to talk them through a solution or go online and trouble shoot the system remotely. I just couldn’t stop myself.
I was venting to my partner Mark Feinberg, owner of Home Theater Advisors. Having come from the corporate world, he had some great advice, as he had been taking paid vacations most of his professional career and knew how to ensure his sanity. In fact, he took off three days last week, and it went great for him. He let clients know he would be away with out-of-office messages—same as I did—but he indicated in his message that he would have limited email and voicemail access (he was in the Berkshire mountains, and it really was true). He did respond to some messages here or there—either easy-to-troubleshoot-via-email items or leads for new work, but he let people know that he was on vacation and wasn’t able to do more than a few quick sentences in an email. His clients were completely understanding, and he was able to mostly unplug and relax, spending time with his family and friends. He told me this morning he feels totally refreshed and ready to attack the world. That’s what a vacation is supposed to do for you!
So here are the 5 lessons I learned from my experience and talking to Mark
1. Set Expectations Early.
Be as specific as possible with your out-of-office message. Mark said he wasn’t likely to respond until Monday August 3, so clients were prepared to not hear back from him. I set the expectation that we would respond to urgent matters within 24 hours. The problem is that what seems urgent to one person, isn’t necessarily urgent and in need a of 24-hour turnaround.
2. Don’t Check Your Messages.
Leave your phone in the hotel room when you go to the beach or the pool. Or turn off all notifications for texts and emails and move the apps to a secondary or tertiary page so they aren’t staring you in the face every time you look at your phone to play a game (which is all you should be doing with it on vacation!).
3. Triage Messages
Like a good ER, you need to triage (prioritize what is important and have everyone else wait.) The important ones get a response in a timely manner, which brings me to lesson #4.
4. Set Aside a Specific, Short Period of Time to Respond to Critical Messages
Mark spent 30 minutes each evening, while his wife was showering and getting ready to go out, to quickly scan his messages and respond to those that needed it. Sometimes it was a simple, “Thank you for your message, I will get back to you on Monday. Have a great weekend!” for possible new clients and sometimes it was a couple of lines on what to try to troubleshoot an issue, with a message at the end that if that didn’t work it would have to wait until Monday. The key is he responded to messages on his terms, at his leisure, which made him feel more in control, instead of death by a thousand cuts by checking his messages all day long
5. Have Someone That Can Cover for You.
Sometimes things can’t wait until next week for someone to get to the client’s home. You need to empower someone within in the business to take the lead on these. For one critical issue, Mark forwarded the email to his lead tech and had him follow-up and schedule a time to get to the client’s home to solve a network issue. The tech reported back to Mark when everything was OK. If you don’t have employees, how about teaming up with another integrator you trust and you can help each other out. I discussed this in a blog in December of 2014 in an interview with Mark when he had knee surgery
Remember why you are taking time off. The whole purpose is to recharge and reinvigorate. If you don’t take this critical downtime, you are doing yourself, your family, your business, and your clients a disservice. We are not curing cancer here. We are enabling people to watch TV, listen to music, and surf the web. When you really think about it, nothing we do is so important that it can’t wait a few days. No one’s life is on the line. Take the time you need for some much deserved R&R.