It happens every year. My family members fly and drive from hundreds of miles apart to get together for a vacation, and someone has their nose in their work email. Or someone has a video conference they can’t skip. And someone else steps out to take a call to avert a catastrophe at their small business. I once bowed out of family vacation time for an hour for a job interview. 

Our job schedules aren’t always compatible with the time off we need. Maybe you’ve had an obligation-vacation, like a travel wedding, at a supremely inconvenient time in your work life. So you went to the wedding but spent a few hours each day scrambling to keep up with your job. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable.

These problems aren’t new either. Even long before the sharp increase in remote work since 2020, many of us had access to business email and other work apps on our personal phones or laptops. Work-life boundaries were blurry long before COVID-19. And sometimes you really do have to lend a hand or troubleshoot a problem even when you’re supposedly taking time off, especially if you own the business! For times when it can’t be helped, here are the best ways to work on your time off without losing your mind or ruining anyone else’s fun.

1. Plan to Not Work

Sure, stuff comes up. Emergencies happen. But as much as you can, plan to not work during your time off.

What work can you do in advance? What can you delegate to other colleagues? Delegating important tasks to a junior member of your team is not only good for you, but can also help them develop new career skills and gain experience.

2. Tell Key People to Call You, and for Emergencies Only

If you’re an employee, you shouldn’t need to scour your emails and Slack messages every day you’re away from work “just in case.” Instead, give key people your phone number and tell them that if something urgent requires your participation, they have to call you. That way, you won’t worry about what’s happening in your messages and can truly turn them off for a few days.

3. Don’t Quietly Duck Out—Communicate

Listen, I get that something important is happening at work that requires you and only you. Your family does, too. So, tell them when and for how long you need to take care of business so they have appropriate expectations. “I have to work for about two hours today. Is 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. a good time for that?” 

Being clear and upfront is so much better than trying to duck out for a few minutes that turns into two hours. Plus, if your family has a fun event planned and wants you to be there for it, you can figure out how to make sure everyone’s needs are met.

4. Make Time and Space for Your Work

For some years, I worked exclusively as a freelancer. During vacations, I’d remind my family members, “If I don’t work, I don’t get paid.” I’d plan to take off a couple of full days, but usually, if I could work for about three hours per day, that was enough to maintain my livelihood. So, I’d set my alarm clock to wake up a little earlier than everyone else and focus on my job then.

If you’re not a morning person, you can still carve out a few hours to do whatever needs to get done, but make sure you have the right space for it. You could go to a coffee shop for a few hours, though I’m also a fan of the local library. Libraries are one of my favorite places to work when I travel because there are fewer distractions than in a coffee shop, and the Wi-Fi is usually decent.

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Again, tell everyone who’s on vacation with you in advance that you need to work, for how long, and where you’re going. Maybe they’ll want to meet you at the library in town when you’re planning to wrap up the day’s work for a family trip to get ice cream.

5. Check Your Work Attitude at the Vacation House Door 

People understand the need to work. If you communicate with them and quickly do what you need to do, they will be forgiving of your time away. But they won’t look kindly on it if you spoil the vacation vibe by talking about work once you’re done with it.

So when you stop working, decompress if you need to and leave behind your business attitude. If anyone asks whether everything is OK at work, it’s not an invitation to hash out your business dealings; it’s a check-in on your well-being. The question really means, “Are you ready to rejoin us now on our lovely vacation?” So unless something is very seriously wrong, keep your answer short and sweet.

For more advice about remote work and other personal or professional technology needs, be sure to check out my weekly column.

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