Working on not working

My January column was all about how to work. This month, I’ve been thinking a lot about how not to work (well, at scheduled intervals throughout the year). I’m taking my first official vacation as an associate this month, and I imagine many other first years have some winter holiday time booked, too. I took a few days off at Christmas, but was in town and worked as necessary. This time I’m headed out of the country for some fun in the sun. This column is all about how I’m learning to take vacation and make it count.
Articling is like a short-distance sprint. During the late nights, I remember thinking to myself, “I can do just about anything for 10 months.” That “anything” often included foregoing normal sleep and exercise, seeing family and friends regularly, and generally having a balanced life. As an associate, though, something has to shift. As you may have picked up from last month’s column, I love this job. I want to be in this gig, in some form, for the rest of my working days. The 10-month sprint has become a 40-year marathon. So I’d better make it sustainable.

Last year I was terrible at vacations. I took a beach holiday in January. I left the office at 1 a.m. the night before my holiday, packed my bags, and ventured through the snow to the airport at 4 a.m. to catch my early flight to Miami. For the first half of my holiday, I could not disengage from work. I checked my BlackBerry constantly, and worried about my files and what was happening at the office while I was gone. To be clear: I was not that important. Nobody cared or noticed that I was gone. But I just could not let go of work, and the result was that I returned tanned but not particularly rested or recharged.

I am all about using time effectively at work. Now I need to make sure I’m doing the same with my downtime. If it’s not enough that taking holidays will contribute to one’s overall happiness, research has shown (and we intuitively know) that it also results in better focus and work engagement. My bosses, my significant other, my family, and friends all want me to take vacation. So I’m doing it.

The first step, for me, is to figure out what I need. Sometimes it’s a vacation to get my life in order (like moving, a series of routine medical appointments, etc.) while other times it’s to reconnect with the important people in my life. The key is to decide what will leave me feeling recharged and refreshed. If for you that’s sleeping in every day and watching movies in your pyjamas, more power to you.

I booked this trip about six weeks ago and have “protected the time” ever since by telling clients and other lawyers that I’m unavailable that week. It’s easier for me to do since the trip is paid for and I’m out of the country, but it’s equally important to protect time when you’re just hanging out in the city. One colleague told me I should always consider vacation time sacrosanct, and I agree.

Next, I’m working on making sure my practice runs smoothly while I’m away. My colleagues have suggested a number of strategies for this. [Side note: One of my bosses has pointed out the silliness of my basically working at not working on my vacation. Sue me.]

I’ve made sure to tell the partners for whom I work the most that I’m going to be away, and have offered to complete any important work before I go. For example, I’m going to be in a discovery the week after I return. I’ve co-ordinated with the partners on the file to help them prep before I leave. I’ve also told my clients and opposing counsel as necessary about my holiday, so they’re not surprised when they receive the out-of-office message. I’ve also asked a colleague to cover me on a file where I know the client may need urgent advice while I’m away.

I’ll use the usual out-of-office settings on my voicemail and e-mail. I’ve also created a system with my assistant. She has access to my e-mail account, and will be checking my e-mails and voicemail while I’m away. If there is anything that is urgent or that needs to be responded to before I return, she will send a note to my personal e-mail account asking me to check in. Note: she is not going to forward any confidential e-mails or disclose any confidential information since my personal e-mail account is not secure. Hopefully, this will create a barrier between e-mails I don’t need to see (lunch e-mails, interesting new cases, general file traffic, etc.) and those that I do. Otherwise, I’m going to check my BlackBerry only a few times (I hope) while I’m away.

I’ve been told several times to always have your next vacation booked before your last one ends. I think that advice is a bit bleak, as if you’re only working for your next vacation, but probably right in the end. It’s always motivating to have the next break to look forward to. Lucky for me, I have a mother-daughter trip planned this spring.

I’m hopeful that these strategies will help me to actually unwind and enjoy my upcoming holiday. Yet another learning experience, this trip is my first opportunity to properly slow the sprint to a casual, leisurely jog. On the beach. Wish me luck.

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