Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Take a break! To disconnect or not to disconnect on vacation

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

As he headed off on vacation to Martha's Vineyard with his family last week, President Obama was criticized by political opponents and pundits for taking time off with the economy in such precarious shape and so many people on the unemployment line.

While we may want our leaders - we may even want ourselves - to power through and resolve pressing problems as soon as possible, leaders at all levels need a chance to take time away, recharge and come back with fresh energy and perhaps a fresh perspective.

It may be even more important to take a break during the most difficult and stressful times. You can look to scholarly publications to find the latest research on the effects of fatigue on decision-making. In practice, you only really need to consider whether you've made your best choices when exhausted.

I'm preparing for my own break shortly - paternity leave. Because caring for a screaming infant may sound more like torture than a break, I've been looking for strategies on how to disconnect as much as possible from work. I've organized those lessons into a few key questions leaders should answer to make the most of their breaks, whether it's for a couple of days or a few weeks.

  • Is it better to unplug completely or remain tethered? There's no right answer to this question since we're all different, and the circumstances often dictate the response. Some people need to check out of work completely to relax. Others prefer to triage their email every day so that they don't have any unwanted surprises awaiting them on return to work. When I go on vacation, I like to leave everything behind. I've usually had time to plan and prep my colleagues for the departure. The birth of a new baby, on the other hand, gives our new, unborn little one complete control of those plans. After he's born, I will look at my email every day when the family is asleep.
  • What will you do to get your mind off of work? Even if you remain connected to work, you'll need some distance in order to return refreshed. Some folks may enjoy spending time on a hobby, while others may prefer taking time to learn something new. For my part, I enjoy catching up on reading books and spending more time with my kids. Seeing the world through a child's eyes will certainly give you a fresh perspective.
  • What will you do when you think of work? Do you want to completely avoid thoughts of work, or will more relaxed, unstructured time give you the flexibility needed to develop new, innovative ideas to problems you've been unable to solve? Here's my advice. If thoughts of work are interfering with the time you have with family and friends, you need to knock it off. However, I've found that I often have my best ideas when taking a road trip back to Ohio to visit family. That time on the road while others are reading, playing games or watching movies allows my mind to wander back into work when it won't affect my quality time with others.
  • How will you handle your return? It's worth planning your return in advance. Block out time on your calendar to handle emails, voicemails and other issues that have piled up. Otherwise, your stress and fatigue will return quickly as the mountain of messages piles up even higher once folks know you've returned to the office.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Aug 22, 2011 at 4:02 PM

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