8 Ways to Keep Work From Spilling Into Your Season of Joy

How to keep your email and other distractions from hijacking your holiday.

Picture this: It’s three days before Christmas and you’ve still got to bake your cookies, do your 11th-hour shopping, scrub the house, pick up relatives from the airport and -- oh yes -- finish up that year-end report and field a couple work calls. You know the holidays aren’t going to be Norman Rockwell perfect. You’ve accepted that. Still, it sure would be great if you could at least leave work behind this year and just enjoy your family.

Actually, you don’t have to show up late to your child’s holiday play because you’re tying up a work project, or run off to check your email while the turkey gets cold. You just need to muster up some discipline and think about time in a different way.

Successful people work with great focus and intention, and they play the same way. When they’re working they’re really working, and when they take time off, they make the absolute most of that time. Rest and rejuvenation are the other side of the success coin.

You must be purposeful about how you spend the time leading up to the holiday breaks. The reason most people end up working during their holiday time off isn’t that they just have so much to do that they can never take a break. It’s that they aren’t working with intention when they have the opportunity.

Here are eight essential things you can do right now to make sure your days off are free of work worries:

  1. Picture the perfect holiday. Pigging out on grandma’s apple pie. Singing carols with your kids. Cheering on your favorite football team. These are the makings of a great holiday season, and they should serve as the vision that will drive you through the hard work you’ll have to get done before the office shuts down for the holidays. It is your personal vision that creates an emotional connection to the daily actions that need to take place at the office. Once you understand the link between your vision and your work, you can define exactly what you need to do to make the most of your time off.
  2. Create a pre-holiday season plan. There are benefits to planning how you use your time via 12-week execution cycles. It reduces mistakes, saves time and provides focus. Of course, the holidays are right around the corner, but the same principles apply. In the first week of your plan, you might set up a meeting with your boss, colleagues and/or customers to inform them of how much time you’ll be taking off for the holidays and let them know what projects you’re going to prioritize. On the home front, you might also get together with spouse or other family members to work out who will be handling what holiday responsibilities.
  3. Resign yourself to being uncomfortable now so you can be comfortable later. The uncomfortable tasks you avoided prior to your holiday break are precisely the ones that will blow up, get out of control, or just keep you worrying while you’re trying to enjoy some time off. Take care of any tasks you’ve been avoiding now so that they can’t ruin your time off and so that they aren’t on your mind when you’re trying to have a good time.
  4. Know what to do when you’re not doing the things you know you need to do. There will be times when your level of execution is less than exceptional, and it’s very likely you won’t be able to ignore the nagging, guilty feeling that drop in execution brings on. But you can use that productive tension to get yourself back on track. Productive tension is the uncomfortable feeling you get when you’re not doing the things you know you need to do. It might mean resolving that you simply can’t get everything done before your time off.
  5. Make the most of performance time and down time. As you work toward your time off, it will be very important that you not respond to the demands of the day reactively. You can keep control of your day through time-blocking. Divide your day into three kinds of blocks -- strategic blocks, buffer blocks and breakout blocks. A strategic block is uninterrupted time that is scheduled into each week. During this block, you accept no phone calls, no faxes, no emails and no visitors. Buffer blocks are designed to deal with all of the unplanned and low-value activities -- like most email and voicemail, while breakout blocks provide free time to rest and rejuvenate.
  6. Don’t go it alone. It’s likely that out of your network of colleagues and friends you aren’t the only one who is hoping to have a work-free holiday break and working frantically to make that goal possible. And if that’s the case, team up with them. The peer support you receive will be invaluable in your pursuit of the perfect holiday season. Your chances of success are seven times greater if you employ peer support.
  7. Isolate yourself from modern day distractions. In our modern world, technology can be a major distraction. When you’re focused on executing your pre-holiday season plan, don’t let smartphones, social media and the Internet distract you from your higher-value activities. Learn to isolate yourself from distractions when there is important work to be done.
  8. Make a keystone commitment for your holiday break. Many people set a goal in a certain area, say, getting fit. Then they build a plan around it with a handful of tactics like “do 20 minutes of cardio three times a week.” But rather than building a tactical plan, the other option is to identify a keystone or core action and commit to completing it every day for the next 12 weeks. This can help you make the most of your holiday time off. Your keystone commitment might be making breakfast for your family every morning or doing a different holiday activity with your family each day. Setting a keystone commitment helps you avoid wasting your time on meaningless activities. 

Your time off is precious, especially this time of year. Don’t ruin it by giving your smartphone all the attention. You need that time to rest and rejuvenate so that when you do go back to work you’re ready and committed to making great things happen. Set your vision. Make a plan. Stay the course. You’ll be so glad you did.

Brian P. Moran, founder and CEO of The Execution Co., is co-author of The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks Than Others Do in 12 Months. (Wiley,2013).