Dan Kim

I went on vacation and a funny thing happened — I didn’t do any work

Many vacations are broken, filled with the stress of work. Help me bring back the work-free vacation.

My family and I just returned from a 12 day vacation to the San Diego area, where my brother, mom, and dad all live.

We had a wonderful time. We did all the typical vacation stuff — Legoland, beaches, pizza, beer, excessive ice cream eating — and my kids got to spend a bunch of time with their grandparents and uncle.

What made this vacation truly wonderful wasn’t just the fun activities and family, but that I got to enjoy every second of it without a single bit of stress from work. Work was the furthest thing from my mind. I was focused solely on relaxing, recharging, and spending time with my family.

The sad state of today’s “vacations”

You might be thinking — what’s so special about that? After all, vacation is a time when people unplug from work, relieve stress, and let go of all their worries, right?

Sadly — no, not really.

Search Google for “people working on vacation” and a disturbing amount of negative results come up — a worrying trend of unused vacation days, people who constantly work on vacation, and even life hacks on how to do work while on vacation. ☹️

The American “vacation” in today’s work environment is in pretty bad shape. How bad?

U.S. respondents receive less paid vacation time than any of the countries surveyed — 18 days in the U.S., compared to the average of 24. — TripAdvisor

They found that among employees with access to paid time off, nearly five days went unused in 2013, and 1.6 of those days did not carry over to the next year. That totals to 169 million days of lost vacation time for Americans. Time

Fears of keeping your job, being passed over for promotions or lead projects, coming back to a staggering pile of work, or feeling like you’re the only one who can do your job all push Americans to stay at the office… Money

This trend was strongest among millennials: 35 percent said they worked each day while on vacation, and 21 percent said they returned to work less productive. — Money

Not that this is always voluntary. … 24% say they were contacted by a colleague on a work issue, 20% by a boss. And while 20% gave up part of their time off because they were in pursuit of a promotion, nearly the same number (17%) stayed connected because they feared for their jobs. Money

So, to recap:

  • We get fewer days off than many other countries
  • Even though we get fewer days off, we still don’t use them all
  • When we do use them, we’re so worried about the remote possibility of getting fired or missing out on a promotion, that we just keep on working anyway
  • And even if we get past all that, the jerks at our office contact us about work while we’re on vacation

Wow, American vacations sound fucking horrible!

Take control of your vacation

While these statistics are damning, we’re all adults here. Much of this is under your control, so it’s up to you to take action.

First and foremost, use your vacation days — all of them. Sounds obvious, but this should not be difficult. I don’t care how much your love your job. Find a way to use them. You’ve earned them and they’re part of your overall compensation, and you’re flushing money down the toilet if you don’t.

And when you do take those hard-earned vacation days, you need to turn on your internal “work can wait” mode for the entirety of your vacation by…

  • Recognizing that dedicated time away from work is actually what makes you more productive. Working on vacation (including compulsively checking your email and other work apps) might feel productive, but you’re only sapping your long-term strength.
  • Letting go of the idea that you have to know everything that’s going on. If you’re at a moderately sized company, there’s always going to be a lot going on — far more than you can keep a pulse on. Relieve yourself of the idea that missing out is a bad thing and not only will your vacation be more pleasant, you’ll be more focused when you return to work.
  • Being realistic about your status. Think about it — your huge promotion isn’t going to magically disappear while you’re on vacation. I guarantee if you’re in the running for a promotion before your vacation, you’ll still be in the running when you return. And if it’s not, you’re working for a ridiculously bad company.
  • Stop thinking that you’re a special snowflake — that you’re the only one who can do a certain job, and that the company will come crashing down without you. It’s just not true, and once you realize this, you’ll feel liberated and everything will be just fine while you’re gone.
  • Planning. Don’t leave your coworkers and your company in the lurch. A tiny bit of setup not only makes everyone around you comfortable, you’ll be able to mentally check out knowing you’ve done your due diligence.

Sadly, there’s one thing that is kind out of your control. And of all the stats I read through, this one bothers me the most:

24% say they were contacted by a colleague on a work issue, 20% by a boss.  Money

Holy shit! Who are these sadists that contact coworkers when they know full well they’re on vacation?!

Look, I’m sure there are very rare cases where someone’s life is literally on the line and you need to be contacted. And if you’re the brainiac who left a bunch of half finished work right before a deadline, you deserve to be bothered during vacation.

But more likely this is a sign of blatant disrespect by the person making the call. So let’s just be crystal clear: if your coworker is on vacation, leave them alone. Deal with it.

Building companies that respect vacations

Beyond what each individual can do to make their vacations work-free, it’s important for business owners and CEOs to encourage that behavior and weave it into the company’s culture.

Why should work-free vacations be a priority for businesses? Speaking from experience, when I come back from a work-free vacation, I’m…

  • Refreshed and mentally sharp. Vacations have a way of clearing big piles of junk out of my brain. When I come back to work, I just feel sharper and think more clearly. Everything that seemed like a hard problem before vacation looks way easier when I return. (Good sleep has a similar effect, though on a much smaller scale).
  • Motivated and excited. I’m absolutely raring to go when I come back to work. Not programming or building for a couple weeks really ignites a fire in me and I apply that to my work. And I really look forward to catching up with my friends and colleagues.
  • Appreciative and grateful. When my time away from work is respected, it makes me appreciate the company that I work for. I’m grateful for all my coworkers that covered my work while I was gone. That appreciation ultimately turns into me putting my best effort into all of my work.
  • Happy. Sounds obvious and maybe a little corny, but of course I’m happy coming off a vacation. I’ve built memories with my family and enjoyed something new and special away from work. Happiness means good vibes in my work!

As a business owner, imagine multiplying those feelings across all your employees throughout the year. I bet you’ll have one hell of a productive workforce. 📈

We can’t fix the entire vacation epidemic across the country, but we can try to fix what’s within our sphere of influence. Both as individuals and as companies, let’s do our part by insisting our vacations be work-free.

We spend literally thousands of hours at work each year — let’s make those few hundred hours away from work really count!