Return to Work Way Ahead of the Game

My current situation:

About to embark on a weeklong international trip, where I’ll have little or no Web or cell access.

My dilemma:

My to-do list is shorter than it was yesterday, but there’s one thing I’ve yet to cross off: finishing this article. Oh, the irony.

I’ve always envied the organizational habits of friends who can leave for a vacation without spending as many hours preparing for their absence as they plan to spend being absent. Determined to master their secrets, I sought the counsel of some organizational pros, the sort of folks who always have perfectly sharpened pencils on their desks and impeccably labeled files in their cabinets.

Get Organized -- For Good

Peggy Duncan, a personal productivity expert based in Atlanta says the key to enjoying a holiday without leaving mayhem behind is to be organized all year round. “For people who work stressed out every day and then go on vacation for a week, the break will not do them any good.”

Even for those who are able to put work out of mind before a trip, Duncan is not hopeful about what they will encounter on their return: “They’ll have to deal with the week of chaos that built up because of how disorganized they are.”

Stay in Touch

John Trosko, a professional organizer based in Los Angeles, offered some (metaphorical) adhesive bandages. He says he urges people to maintain at least some contact with the office while they’re away. “How really unplugged from work do you need to be?” he asks. “When I was a production coordinator for Walt Disney Animation Studios, I had a coronary every time I went on vacation. Now, with our smartphones and laptops, it just feels a little easier.”

Give Access, Get Automated

Even for those who prefer to be “off-grid” while they’re gone, Trosko offers these bits of advice:

  1. Delegate to a good team.

    If within your control, have a good team in place to fulfill time-sensitive responsibilities while you’re away. And make sure outsiders know who to call for assistance with urgent queries.
  1. Share important documents

    with those who’ll need to access them via tools such as Google Docs or SharePoint.
  1. Allow an assistant to access your email

    while you’re gone so spam and non-important messages can be deleted before you return.
  1. Set up an auto response

    using keywords so that any emails pertaining to ongoing but mundane situations can be handled automatically.
  1. If your office is a mess, clean it.

    Typically operate using the excavating-though-a-large-desk-pile system? Ask yourself whether it’ll be as “logical” for others who might need to pitch in while you’re gone. Don’t count on your colleagues to be able to find everything they need all on their own. Before leaving, put all important items in one area -- ideally in a binder -- for easy access.
Hit the Return Key

And what about maintaining your sanity (and relaxation) post-vacation? Duncan has these pointers:

  1. Spend one day in the office the weekend before you’re due back at work.

    It’s worth giving up a day on your weekend so you can come back more calm. Just treat yourself to something special when you finish getting caught up.
  1. Schedule no meetings

    the first two days after your return.
  1. Arrive extra early

    -- before most of your associates arrive in the office -- on your first day back to work.

“I’ve systemized my business,” explains Duncan, who is also the author of The Time Management Memory Jogger. “Because I work smart all the time, I don’t ever feel like I have to take a break.”

I don’t know whether I’ll ever achieve Duncan’s level of Zen, but the good news -- at least for now -- is, I’ve still got a few hours to get to the airport, and this story is done. Even better, I now know how to make my next vacation a stress-free one before, during and after.

by Thomas P. Farley