How to disconnect from work over the holidays — when you still need to check your email

More than half of employees don’t fully disconnect from work when they are out of office during the holidays. Here are some strategies that may help.
Man using smart watch
The holidays can be draining in their own way, so remind yourself as often as needed to slow down, breathe deep and take pleasure in turning your brain off.Kerkez / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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By Nicole Spector

With the holidays in full swing, business is not as usual. Companies are wrapping up the year with office parties, airports are abuzz with homeward bound travelers and most 9 to 5’ers have at least two days off this week. What better time to slap an “away” auto-reply on your email, close your laptop and unplug completely for a few days?

Disconnecting entirely from work is a great idea (and one that is founded on solid clinical research), but it’s a tough one to actualize, even during the mighty Yuletide. New data from LinkedIn found that 53 percent of employees don’t fully disconnect from work when they are out of office during the holidays, and that 30 percent of workers check in while out of the office.

Ever since becoming my own boss, I’ve struggled to take an entire day (let alone a whole weekend) off without checking email or fretting about all the mountain of work awaiting me when the holidays are over. I admit that I am something of a workaholic, but I also like it this way. I actually don’t want to totally disconnect because, truth be told: I feel more anxious when I do.

I talked to a number of professionals who are in similar positions of wanting to take a break without feeling that it’s always possible to unplug completely for days at a time. These are their holiday life hacks for how to sorta-kinda-almost disconnect, along with insights from mental health clinicians on how to protect your off time and quell any work-related anxieties.

Be strategic and specific with your out-of-office autoresponder

Even a partial disconnect from work requires an out of office auto-response on your work email. The more specifics you include about your time off, the less you’ll have to worry about. I find it’s best to state that you won’t have email access while OOO — even if you will, and even if you will be checking here and there.

“If you don’t plan on responding to emails until you return from the holidays, give your co-workers and customers a timeframe on when they can expect to see a response from you,” says Courtney Hendricks, HR Manager at Cousins Subs. “Be sure to also give them an alternate point of contact if something is urgent.”

Announce your break to clients and on social media

“It can also be helpful to announce your time off to your email list and social media platforms to set the expectation that you will be enjoying the holidays and will be back on a certain date,” says Gwen Montoya, CMO, The MOB Nation. “As a small business owner, you can be serious or silly with the announcement depending on your brand.”

Banish your laptop and stick to just one device (ideally a smartwatch)

“It is near impossible to completely disconnect over the holidays and not check email when you have a demanding job,” says Lynell Ross, nutritionist, health and wellness coach and the founder and managing editor of Zivadream. “At the very least, you still need to monitor email traffic and have the ability to jump in if there is a fire drill. But checking email on your laptop and phone can be dangerous, as the ability to respond is right at your fingertips. So for those like me that feel the urge to respond then and there and just can't help themselves, use a smartwatch. Checking email on your smartwatch gives you the ability to monitor email traffic and keep an eye on things while also limiting your ability to ‘quickly’ answer that email or take that ‘brief’ call. It also makes you appear more engaged with the family, as your face isn't buried in your phone or laptop.”

Schedule non-work activities into your work calendar app

“As crazy as it might seem, I really rely on my calendar app to set the timeline of my day and this includes scheduling relaxation time,” says Caroline Kalentzos, the owner and CEO of Posh Pr. “This also helps me hold myself accountable to providing myself with that scheduled time offline. Don’t be afraid to tell co-workers or clients that you have a hard stop time so you can effectively disconnect."

Hendricks adds that you’ll also want to turn off email notifications from work on your device.

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Create ‘Do Not Disturb’ windows

Kalentzos recommends setting increments of time throughout the day where your phone is set to the ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode.

“In my role I receive emails and texts all day — even on the holidays — but not all of them need to be answered immediately,” Kalentzos says. “When you do check in, focus on any fires that need to be put out and leave the rest for after the holidays.”

Mathias Mikkelsen, the CEO and founder of Memory, notes that "discipline is key," adding: "Let your coworkers know about your restricted availability to avoid stress seeping into your time off."

Schedule check-in time

“Decide ahead of time the minimum amount of check-in time you need to keep your sanity,” says Hendricks. “None of us like returning from a blissful vacation to a slew of madness, so even 1-2 quick checks (and I mean quick) to mark anything that needs priority attention can help ease you back into the work routine.

Set non-negotiable time limits

“Give yourself a hard and fast time limit for responding to emails and handling other work,” says Ross. “Set aside a block of time in the morning or at night and set an alarm on your phone for a specified time frame, maybe 45 or 60 minutes. Without limitations, your work will consume your morning or evening and disrupt your holiday time with family. Set the alarm and stick to it. Whatever you can get done in that time frame, great; everything else can wait until your next dedicated work block that evening or the next morning.”

No, but really: Can this wait?

I’m a bit tempted to get “Can it wait?” tattooed on the back of my hand; that’s how often I have to ask myself the question when it comes to responding to work matters.

“Take a deep breath and decide what absolutely can't wait 24-48 hours,” says Montoya. “In most cases, things can wait. But if something comes up and it can't wait, determine how much time you really need to respond and stick to that.”

Tune in with your immediate surroundings

Even if you don’t feel like you can luxuriate on a long weekend, you do have a bit of time off. If you’re having trouble practicing the tried and true “be in the moment” wisdom, try to tune into the specifics in your environment (it could be a tree, a lake, a roaring fire in the fireplace), cultivating a sense of awe at them.

“Stay in the moment by savoring what you see, what you hear, what you feel and what's going on around you,” says Kathy Nickerson, licensed clinical psychologist. “Create a very rich mental snapshot of the moment and reflect on how lucky you are to have such a moment. Savoring great experiences, while basting your brain in frequent thoughts about how grateful you are, is a powerful way to recharge.”

Embrace the Norwegian concept of “friluftsliv”

“An essential part of Norwegian lifestyle is friluftsliv, which literally translates to ‘free-air-living’, and describes the concept of spending time in nature for mental and spiritual well being.” says Mikkelsen, who hails from Norway. “Personally, I believe there is no better cure to work-related stress and anxiety than the great outdoors. And you don’t even need access to a Norwegian mountain top or frozen lake to make it work; even a brisk walk through a park will do wonders to calm your brain and put work into perspective.”

Other foreign lifestyle concepts that NBC News BETTER has covered to consider weaving into the holidays include niksen, hygge, còsagach and päntsdrunk.

Your brain needs a break in order to function at its best

The holidays can be draining in their own way, so remind yourself as often as needed to slow down, breathe deep and take pleasure in turning your brain off.

“If you're feeling guilty about taking some time off tell yourself that even machines need some down time to function properly,” says Nickerson. “Your brain is a powerful machine, and it is also delicate. It requires rest to function properly and your best creative ideas will only come when you've had some time off. Everyone deserves some time to rest, and your friends and family certainly deserve a rested, happier, more peaceful you.”

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