8 Tips To Make Your Post-Vacation Return To Work Less Painful

The secret to coasting farther on that vacation glow? Taking a moment to set up for a smooth landing back at work before you take off.

by Jesse Will
Collage of a man at work sitting in an office chair while on a beach

Taking time off from work is essential, because, well… of course it is. You know this. Unwinding with friends and family is invaluable to your mental health and can be as critical for maintaining high performance at work too.

“Downtime in the business world is the equivalent to the off-season or active rest for a professional athlete,” says Dr. Jason Selk, author of Organize Tomorrow Today and a former Director of Mental Training for the St Louis Cardinals. “Without the down, the ups will not be nearly as high.”

So you need to take that vacation. But how do you make it so that in the first few days back, you aren’t absolutely soul-crushed as you stare into a sea of tasks and unreturned emails? Spend some time carefully considering your takeoff and re-entry into work, and your vacation glow will stick with you far longer. Here, in no particular order, are some tips that can help.

1. Order groceries for delivery when you get back

Let’s start with a simple one. If you live in an area where you can order groceries, schedule a delivery for shortly after you’re arriving back home. Yes, it’s annoying to plan your family’s meals and groceries a week or more in advance. But you’ll be incredibly thankful you did. And on Monday morning you won’t have to listen to the kids complain that the Golden Grahams went stale while you were gone.

2. Avoid the late-night return

Before you had kids, you might have gotten used to maximizing your vacation time by scheduling a late return on, say, the Sunday before you start work again on Monday. It’s different with kids. Consider taking the earlier flight, even if it means less time poolside. “You want to avoid getting started on the wrong foot,” says time-management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders. Besides building in a buffer for delays and other snafus, re-entering normal life will be easier if you have a few hours to unpack both physically and mentally.

3. Figure out your three most important tasks

The day before you leave, it’s easy to get distracted by inconsequential tasks, random emails, and sections of assignments that you still have plenty of time to complete. Do your best to avoid this. Instead, Selk suggests figuring out and prioritizing your three most important tasks. “The most successful people never get everything done, but they always get their most important things done,” he says. If you get your most important activities done, “your brain releases positive neurotransmitters like epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. They make you feel better, they cause happiness, they create energy.” That’s the feeling you want as you close shop the Friday before vacation (or any day, really).

4. Practice calendar control

If you can, block out your calendar for at least part of the day you come back. “Depending on how email-heavy your culture is, you'll need a half-day, or potentially a full day to deal with it,” says Saunders. “It's your opportunity to get caught up on the most important replies, get your feet under you, and remember just what your job is and what you're doing.”

5. Keep the 10,000-foot view

You will come back to tens or hundreds of emails, Slack or Teams messages, or other communications. Don’t get bogged down. If you do, you’ll be playing catchup for weeks. Unless one of those messages signals a big shift in one of the major tasks you listed before you left, don’t change course. “It’s called the tyranny of the urgent — noise creates an illusion of importance,” says Selk. “Our brains attend to those things that make the most noise and create the most friction. And the most important activities typically make absolutely no noise. Nobody else is calling you about them. Nobody's texting you. Nobody's knocking on your door to get those things done. It's got to be internally motivated.” Spend your time doing the things you know you really need to do.

6. Sweat some on your first day back

Literally sweat that is. You may not feel like hitting the gym after not doing so for a week or more, and cruising through countless poolside drinks for days. Do it anyway — if not for your body, for your brain. You have a better shot at maintaining your vacation mindset with some exercise-induced endorphins. “The research on cardiovascular exercise is just too powerful to overlook,” says Selk. “The single healthiest thing any human being can do is 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise. Physically, mentally, and emotionally. It just makes everything you do so much easier, including getting back into the swing of things at home.”

7. Start packing the weekend before

Sure, this might not be your style. You might dig the time-limited simplicity of packing the morning you leave for vacation. But by starting to pack the weekend before you leave, you might get a better idea of what you still might need: a charging adapter, beach wedding-ready white Vans that don’t have a stain on them, a tube of toothpaste small enough to get through security, etc. You’re trying to eliminate wasting clutch time running errands all over town.

8. Be specific in your auto-reply

Check off most of the above, and you’ll be in a good spot to leave work at work and return in good spirits. Don’t forget to set up your out-of-office message. If you’re feeling bold, note the dates you’ll be gone and consider adding the line “If this is important, please resend it to me once I get back.” Oh, and this is obvious, but bears repeating: When you’re gone, try not to check your inbox. “Vacation puts life in perspective,” says Saunders. “Often, when you're working, you think everything is so important: I gotta do this, I gotta do that. Then you're gone for a week and you realize that the world keeps turning.”