Adjusting to end of vacation is difficult

Experts offer tips on jump-starting your brain on your first days back at work


Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 1:17 a.m.

When Alyssa Garnick was tromping through Thailand on a recent vacation, her job felt worlds away. She spent her days riding elephants, visiting Buddhist temples and drinking Mai Tais.

But when she got home to New York weeks later - facing office realities such as 1,300 unanswered e-mails - her vacation attitude followed her home. "I was absolutely spacey," says Garnick, 30, who lost her cell phone the first day back. "I'd be sitting in the conference room, but in my mind, I was skinny dipping in the gulf of Thailand."

She has plenty of company when it comes to post-vacation stupor, as many Americans trudge back to work after a vacation-filled two weeks. While numerous studies show that taking time off can do everything from boosting productivity to reducing heart-attack risks, vacations have side effects: They can turn you into you an inefficient space cadet - at least for a couple of days. It takes the average employee a day and half to resume normal productivity at work after a break, according to surveys by OfficeTeam, a staffing company that does workplace research.

How can you hit the ground running? From tackling the e-mail pile, to strategies for saying post-vacation hellos, we surveyed time-management gurus, psychologists and career coaches on the best ways to jump-start your brain and avoid common blunders that can sabotage the first days back.

The first mistake is simply letting the world know you're back, says Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who teaches time-management workshops. ``You have to lie,'' he says. He builds in a one-day cushion by setting the return date in his e-mail ``out of office'' reply message a day ahead of his actual return, and telling people he's coming back a day later than he actually does. ``You want time to process things before the live fire comes through the door,'' he says.

Don't fritter away your first day regaling co-workers with vacation tales, says Allison Hemming of the free-lance talent agency The Hired Guns. In her early 20s, Hemming says, she was a vacation gabber. ``I could go on for days about how blue the water was.'' Her first boss offered a hint: "Take one really great story about your break, and stick to it." Now, she offers a quick highlight - like catamaraning through caves in Nepal - then gets back to work.

But pick one that telegraphs a message. "If you're in the 40-plus age group, communicate that you're an active person. It wouldn't hurt to say you had a good time going skiing, or mountain-climbing, or snow-shoeing," says Don Sutaria of CareerQuest, a New Jersey-based employment coaching firm. ``Don't talk about falling off a bar stool and breaking your arm,'' he adds.

It's also a good time to tell office pests to take a hike. To keep control of your time, brush off those ``got a second?'' questions from podmates, says Mark Ellwood, a productivity consultant in Toronto. "Say, `Yeah, sure, in half an hour,' " he says. If you don't have an office door to close, put a chair strategically in front of your cube entrance.

And it's a good idea to extend the same courtesy to your boss. After holidays, everyone is behind, so wait a day before making important calls or bombarding management. ``The managers are zoned out, too,'' says Debbie Williams, an organizing strategist in Houston, Texas.

One successful tactic to avoid wasting time is to start treating yourself like an important colleague. ``You schedule business meetings with everyone else - why not schedule time with yourself to work on specific projects?'' says Jeffrey Mayer of SucceedingInBusiness.com. ``Keep the appointment, turn off the phone, don't check the e-mail every 45 seconds.'' If you work better at certain times of day, schedule the most demanding tasks for those periods.

Sticky notes

As you plow through your mail, keep an arsenal of sticky notes close by. When you open something that requires follow up, ``slap a Post-it on it saying what's the next thing that needs to be done with the paper and how long it will take,'' says Julie Morgenstern, an author of time-management books. Example: ``Fill out form and return to HR. 5 Min.'' Then keep a stack of these in your in-box, so the next time you're stuck on hold you can deal with one or two instead of staring into space.

After your initial e-mail sweep, don't let your in-box run your day. ``Your in-box is not your to-do list," Pausch says. You're better off setting aside a block of time per hour for e-mail - then give yourself long uninterrupted stretches to get regular work done.

If your boss starts dumping work on you, make it clear you're busy. ``Say, `I've got these four other things to do, can you help me prioritize?' " suggests Sean Covey of Franklin Covey, a productivity consulting firm in Salt Lake City, Utah. Better yet, volunteer a colleague who's less busy, for instance using language like ``let's pull Martha in on this one,'' Covey says.

Of course, the best strategy for a smooth office re-entry is good planning before you take off. In the weeks before you leave, train someone exactly how to do your job.

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