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How to Unplug From Work, Even When It Feels Like You Can’t

Topics: Work Culture
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As Anne Lamott once said, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” It’s important to take time away from work regularly so that you can rest and restore your energy.

But you might have a hard time convincing U.S. workers of the wisdom of taking time away from the office. Employees in the United States don’t take a lot of time off. They lag behind many other developed countries both in terms of how much vacation time they’re given by their employer and how many days they actually take.

Americans typically receive about 15 paid vacation days a year, but take only 12, according to one study from Expedia. That means that American workers let about 375 million paid vacation days go unused every year. This costs workers, not just financially, but in terms of their productivity and quality of life.

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The results of the State of American Vacation 2018 survey found that more than half of Americans (52 percent) who have vacation time don’t take it. They estimate the impact of America’s unused time-off to be about $62.2 billion in lost benefits. That means that, on average, employees donate $561 in work time to their employer each year.

But, of course, finances aren’t the only reason you should take your vacation time. There’s much more to it than that. Understanding why it’s important to unplug helps to make it a priority. So, here are a few reasons why it’s beneficial to take time off regularly:

  • It restores creativity. Taking time away helps you to be more creative and therefore more innovative. Your brain needs downtime in order to focus so that you can do your best work. You’ll have a refreshed perspective that will help you find new solutions to old problems and unique approaches to your work.
  • It will make you happy. Don’t underestimate the value and importance of your happiness. You’re better at your job (and in your personal life, too) when you feel good. Downtime helps to combat the effects of stress, which can be major if left unchecked. Plus, you’ll enjoy your job more on a day-to-day basis if you take time away regularly. That will help to support you in your career both immediately and over the long-term.
  • You’ll be more productive. Being happy and rested leads to higher profits and increased performance overall. Researchers have even found that people who take 11 or more vacation days are 30 percent more likely to receive a raise. But, you don’t have to take a long vacation to reap some rewards. One study found a marked correlation between employee engagement and lunch breaks. The bottom line is that time away helps you to be more productive at work. You’ll get more done in less time, and that could do wonders for your career.
  • You’ll set a good example. Taking your vacation time encourages those around you to do the same, especially if you’re in a leadership position. When you schedule time away and don’t apologize for it, you help to edge your company’s culture in the right direction when it comes to time off.
  • Plus, you earned it. Vacation time is a part of your compensation. You get more and more as you advance in your career. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the average number of vacation days you’re given increases pretty significantly as you progress professionally and gain experience. So, the number of vacations days you use should increase over time, just like other aspects of your compensation. Be sure to use this benefit, or you’re leaving money (money that you’ve earned) on the table.

Be sure to keep in mind that taking time away from work doesn’t have to mean going on vacation twice a year. There’s also a lot to be said for simply unplugging more completely during evenings and weekends. Here are some tips for doing just that, even when you’re especially busy and putting work aside feels like a really difficult thing to do:

Have rules about checking in electronically

phone in bed
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Unplugging from work takes practice. If it’s something you only do once a year during your holiday vacation, you’ll likely find it pretty difficult to step away. It’s better to take breaks more regularly, not just from going to work, but from thinking about it and engaging mentally with your job, too. The weekends and evenings are a great place to start. But, if you use these times to check email or get back to clients over the phone, or even just worry about work, you’re not really stepping away.

Set some rules about checking in electronically during your off hours. Perhaps you can set a time each day where you’ll stop opening you inbox or responding to texts. And, be sure to unplug when you’re on vacation too. Researchers have found that even when workers do take vacation, 56 percent say they still check in with work (as of 2018). That’s up significantly from the 41 percent who said they did so in 2016.

The ability to connect with work remotely can be a great thing, but it can also make it really hard to unplug at the end of the day. Set some guidelines for yourself (and be sure they’re realistic goals that you can actually meet) to help you find some balance.

Try working in 90-minute sprints

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Unplugging from work shouldn’t just happen afterhours. There’s a lot to be said for taking breaks during the workday, too. Working smarter, not harder, can save you time and energy. So, embrace the habit of taking mini-breaks throughout the day. Enjoying these opportunities to rest your mind during the workday is restorative, and it will give you practice and help you better understand how to let work go at the end of the day, too.

There’s some compelling research that suggests that working in 90-minute intervals maximizes productivity. That’s because working this way aligns your schedule with the natural basic-rest-activity-cycle (BRAC) that we follow in our sleep. Having periods of rest in between spurts of productive work helps to restore your energy and clear your thinking. You’ll be more efficient, and effective, and you’ll probably be happier, too.

Remember that unplugging from work is something that you need to do routinely and regularly. (And, keep in mind that doing so won’t hurt you professionally.) If you try to flip the switch at the end of the work week after going non-stop for a few days, it’ll be pretty tough. So, find ways to take a break every day, too.

Get better at saying “no”

Saying no at work isn’t always easy, but it is possible. And, being able to turn down requests is an essential skill if you ever hope to be able to unplug from work once in a while.

Be sure to keep in mind that saying no sometimes doesn’t make you a bad employee. In fact, limiting the scope of your engagements helps you to complete projects to the best of your ability. Saying yes to everything will undoubtedly leave you spread too thin.

There are lots of different ways to say no at work, even if you’re talking to your boss. If you’re swamped, say you’re swamped, but do so calmly and professionally (i.e., before you’re at the end of your patience). Also, taking time to explain what you’ll be focusing on instead is often a good idea.

It’s might also help to find small ways to say yes when possible. Can you agree to get a project started or help find a better fit? Sometimes it’s possible to sort of meet a request halfway while still saying no so that you don’t get too bogged down.

prioritize time away

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One of the biggest mistakes workers make when it comes to unplugging from work is that they prioritize it way down toward the bottom of the to-do list. But, telling yourself that you’ll take time for yourself once everything is done is a faulty strategy. That day might never come.

Instead, make time away a priority. Schedule it ahead of time and them honor that commitment as you would any other appointment that’s important to you. Don’t write your vacations, or even your evenings off, in pencil. Ink them in. It’s probably not realistic to think that you’ll find the time to relax. You’ll likely have to create it.

Thoroughly enjoy your hobbies

Unplugging from work is a lot easier if you have something else in your life that really holds your interest. Spending time with family and friends is wonderful, but it having a hobby that you love is something different. For one thing, you can engage in your hobby independently and without depending on anyone else or their schedule.

It can be so easy, as an adult, to lose touch with the things that you love to do that fall outside of the bounds of your day to day routine. But, these interests can go a long way to help you rest, restore, and unplug from work. So, if you love to fish, make the time for it. If you’re a reader, honor that interest. Thoroughly enjoying your hobbies will help to occupy your mind with something other than work during your off hours. And that’s what unplugging from work is all about.

Appreciate the value of Unplugging


Finally, always keep in mind the immense value of taking time to unplug from work. Doing so will help you stay on the ball with the priority and make it happen. Time away helps you to be happier, more creative and productive, and it allows you to have a richer and more fulfilling life both inside and outside of the workplace.

Even if you really love your job, taking time away will improve your abilities and restore your energies and help you to be at your best. No matter what your circumstances, there is a lot of value in taking time to unplug from work. If you keep that in mind, it will help.

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