Come back from the holidays feeling fresh
There is a cure for the holiday hangover—no matter how you handle your vacation time
We are told winter holidays are supposed to be a magical time of deep connection with loved ones, good meals, warm fires, and gift-giving. And yet, many of us don’t know how to strike the right balance between rest and productivity. While it can be tough to find that balance, there are some ways you can get what you need this holiday season. It’s not too late.
The last week of the year offers a special opportunity to rest, reflect on the past year, and prepare for the year ahead. To understand how to recapture this opportunity and make our holidays both restful and productive, it’s important to first understand our tendencies. Among working professionals, we have found that there are three types of “holiday time misusers”.
Default holiday mode
Couch potato: After couch potatoes send their last work email before the holidays, they flip the off switch and sink into complete disengagement. Their only goal for the holidays—and it’s less of a goal and more of an involuntary compulsion—is to see how many full seasons of TV shows they can binge watch. While they expect to come to the end of their holidays refreshed by this extreme inactivity, they instead often feel frustrated and unprepared. They typically ask themselves: “What did I do that whole time?” and find it difficult to answer.
Why is it that a couch potato holiday feels so unsatisfying when it appears to be so relaxing? The reason is that while you do need some time to disengage from productive activities, you also have a host of other needs that you have been neglecting for the last several months that aren’t replenished by “vegging out”. You need meaningful social interaction, physical activity, and active contemplation, among other things.
Holiday humbug: These are people who keep working straight through the holiday. Even if they’re technically taking time off, they cram work in around their holiday meals and other personal commitments. The problems here are obvious. Research shows that we all need regular lulls and breaks in our calendars. If we continue to ignore this need, it will lead us to burnout. Certainly, sometimes it’s beyond our control: our boss or business simply demands it. However, for the chronically overwhelmed and over-tasked professional, there is often a more subversive reason.
The holidays present an opportunity that is too difficult to pass up: the opportunity to catch up. Time without back-to-back-to-back meetings, a steady stream of incoming emails, and an ever-increasing number of requests are almost non-existent for the working professional, particularly those in management. In fact, Bain & Company partner Eric Garton’s research shows that most managers only have seven hours a week of time to themselves to work, and even this time is typically broken up into 20-minute chunks. For people like this, the allure of days upon days of meeting—and email-free time is almost irresistibly appealing.
However, although using your holidays to work might reduce your short-term stress, it also means you miss an opportunity to reduce your long-term stress. Think about it: when else can you take a week off and return to work having missed nothing, and with no new work to catch up on?
Workaholidayic: The workaholidayic takes their workaholic tendencies and simply applies them to a different context. Rather than rushing from one work meeting to next, they rush from one holiday party to the next. They travel miles and hours to meet every family member who will accept their offer, leaving themselves no time to stop, rest, or be alone. When they finally do get time to themselves, they are too tired to do anything.
In some cases, this may be because of a lack of self-protective boundaries. (“I just feel too guilty to tell aunt Sandra that we can’t see them this year.”) In other cases, it’s because the habits they have developed at work just continue to drive them forward. (These are the people who can’t visit Paris without seeing every single item in the Louvre.) The result is that these folks get swept along in a tide of holiday parties, cookie exchanges, gift swaps, and tree lighting events, until they find themselves in the New Year feeling frazzled and even more burnt out.
Choose a balanced way
Once you’ve recognized your tendencies, the challenge is to figure out a strategy for charting a healthier course.
Set sustainability goals for your holiday: Most high-performing professionals are driven at work, focused on getting tasks done and achieving goals. To make the holidays restful, we can channel that drive to benefit us. Set goals around how much you want to sleep, how much you want to exercise, how much you’ll allow yourself to do “work work,” among other categories of importance to you.
Prioritize processing time: If you’re as busy as most are, there’s a good chance that you haven’t taken the time to sufficiently process your past year. Not processing your experiences is like leaving the email inbox of your mind overflowing: it taxes your cognitive load and reduces your ability to calmly and effectively address new experiences. Whether processing looks like finding a quiet place with a journal or having deep conversations with friends or family, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you take the time to clear your mental inbox.
Set goals for the next year: And spend more time planning how to achieve your goals than you do setting your goals. Many take advantage of the winter holidays to set New Year’s resolutions, but the data shows many of these will go unfulfilled. This creates angst and anxiety. A way to increase our chances of achieving our goals and give ourselves peace during the holidays is to spend sufficient time planning upfront. You’re less likely to set unrealistic goals if you also come up with an execution plan. “I will work out three times a week for 20 minutes before going to work” may not sound impressive, but you’ll be more likely to lose the weight you want with this plan than ending your holiday with only this goal, “I will lose 20kgs by March.”
Create and uphold holiday traditions: Traditions are a form of habits, and habit development and modification is the key to meeting our goals and becoming more productive without driving ourselves crazy. It is no different for the holidays. Developing meaningful, productive, and restful traditions around the holidays will guarantee that we do the things that actually ensure we have the holidays we want. Productive and restful holiday traditions also help shield us against the demands of the many other people in our lives who have their own ideas for how we should spend our holidays. People generally aren’t too quick to push back against established holiday traditions.
For many working professionals, the holidays hold great promise of a time to really rest and rejuvenate. Grab that chance before the New Year is here.
This article was first published on hbrascend.org. HBR Ascend is a digital learning platform for graduating students and millennials.
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