Drawing the Line - Vacations (and Work)

I couldn’t make this up.  

A young investment banker client, a guy who had significant work/life balance issues, wanted to ask me a personal question. He knew well that he had lost his perspective about how much is too much when it came to his work ethic. All he knew was working insane hours was bringing him a terrific income and a relatively secure career path – but was having serious ramifications in his personal life. (The fact that he didn’t like his work much was not yet the issue it became later.)  

He was about to go on his honeymoon in Hawaii. I knew exactly what was coming next. He asked if I thought it would be terrible if he worked on his smartphone during the honeymoon. He said it would only be a “couple of hours,” sometimes more, each day.  

He was completely serious. Talk about boundaries! And it wasn’t the only time I had heard about this kind of work issue. It’s quite common in certain professions.  

I asked him if what he was currently working on was high priority, and whether it was expected that he be on call during his honeymoon. Of course everything, in his mind, was urgent, which was a whole other problem. He did realize that management at his company did not expect him to be available during this particular time, but they did expect him to be somewhat accessible during regular vacations.  

My advice to him was that if I were his wife and saw him working, I would throw the phone into that beautiful Hawaiian ocean. He agreed that would be a reasonable reaction. Our compromise was that he would dedicate a maximum of one half hour a day to answering and reading emails, and he would do it completely out of sight of his wife. Hotel bathroom, honeymoon suite, whatever. Just away from his new wife.  

When he came back, he told me it had worked – and he had been happy with his new-found freedom from the device, and from work. He admitted that the company hadn’t fallen apart due to his not being constantly available.  

Easy for me to say, right? I can just hear some of my clients asking that.  

Try a quota system

Ok. I’ll admit I’ve been a serious offender myself. Due to the nature of my business, I tell clients that I am available for emergencies, meaning a lost job or a negotiation, during vacations. Plus it’s tough not to check email for the possibility of new business.  

On one vacation, I checked email a couple of times a day, and by the end of the vacation, I realized I hadn’t had such a great time. It’s tough to relax when you’re constantly going to work, even for short periods. I had been thinking too much about work issues and had spent far too much time on business email. I resolved that the next big vacation was going to involve some kind of quota system.  

The first time I tried a quota system, it was limiting business email to one half-hour run-through a day, and voicemail once a week. Still too much. Still thinking about work on vacation too much.  

Last summer, I think I finally got it down right. Three days a week, quick scan of emails, maybe 20 minutes max, and the one phone check per week. It did work. I limited most of my computer time to reading the online newspapers and used the iPad for books. Period.  

I strongly urge my clients to withdraw from their devices as much as feasible when on vacation, because it’s good for mental health. That’s the point of vacations. And, if absolutely necessary, limit communications to a set time each weekday or maybe even two-three times a week. Sometimes I’ll encourage clients to think that vacation is part of total compensation (it is). If you don’t utilize your vacation, then you’re leaving money on the table. I’ve never been able to figure out clients who don’t take their full allotment of vacation time – and brag about it! That’s like those Wall Street professionals I work with both in my private practice and at Columbia Business School, who will boast about how many hours a week they work. A very New York City thing.  

Many professionals have realized they can fully withdraw from their devices because of the nature of their businesses, and how things are covered back home when they’re away. That helps create a true vacation experience.  

Limits do work.  


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