How to Truly Unplug During Your Vacation and Leave Work Behind

Retrain yourself to stop thinking about work during downtime.

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Every year around this time, American workplaces empty out as workers head off to vacations, family gatherings or just some days spent at home to unwind. But increasingly, workers have trouble truly unplugging when they're supposed to be on vacation – instead they're continuing to take work calls, answer emails and otherwise work during this "time off."

While there are some jobs where this genuinely can't be avoided, more often than not some advance planning and a steely resolve can help you truly stop thinking about work while you're away. Here are seven keys that will help you take a real vacation this holiday season.

1. Start planning for your vacation well in advance. If you know that you're going to spend half your vacation stressing out over the pile of work that will await you when you get back, then get through as much of that pile as you can before you leave. For instance, if you're a writer with due dates looming in January, pre-write some of your pieces before you go, so that you're not facing immediate deadlines when you return.

2. Give people plenty of advance notice before you leave. Depending on the type of work you do, it might help to warn people far ahead of time that you'll be out – through an office-wide email a week before you go, checking in with individual people directly before you leave, or adding a line to your email signature all month letting people know that you won't be checking email the last week of the year.

3. Give your contact information only to one person, and have that person act as a gatekeeper. When multiple people are able to reach you, some of them aren't going to be as discriminating about what's worth bothering you as others are. Figure out who has good judgment about when you truly do need to be contacted and get aligned with that person on what constitutes an emergency. Then, let other people know who your gatekeeper will be while you're away. (This is obviously easiest if you have an assistant, but often your manager or a peer can act in the same role for you, especially if you're willing to return the favor when they're away.)

4. Set up an informative out-of-office message and outgoing voicemail message. If you don't set these up at all, people won't know that you're on vacation. They may try to call your cell phone or otherwise track you down. So make sure that your out-of-office messages specify that you're on vacation, what date you'll be back, and whom to contact in your absence.

5. Take your email off your phone. If your phone is set up to receive your work emails, disable that function while you're away. Otherwise, it's too hard to avoid reading work-related emails that come in while you shouldn't be thinking about work at all – and once you start thinking about work, even if just for a few minutes, it can be hard to disconnect again.

6. Resist any temptation to check in to make sure you're not needed. Trust that your office will contact you if it's truly an emergency. But in all but the rarest cases, your office will be able to survive without you for a week or two.

7. If you really can't unplug completely, limit the ways in which you're checking in. Don't offer your office constant availability; you shouldn't take work calls when you're relaxing on the beach or enjoying your dinner. Instead, if you can't unplug altogether, let co-workers or your boss know that you'll check voicemail or email once a day (or once every two days) and will only respond to messages marked "urgent."

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.