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One Mistake to Avoid When You Go Back to Work

It can be hard to return to work after time off. This mistake can make it worse.

Key points

  • Going back to work after a holiday or vacation is hard for lots of us.
  • Setting unrealistic expectations for yourself can make it harder.
  • Pay attention to what you expect from yourself and recalibrate when necessary.
  • Look for something to be proud of.

Lauren* loves her work. But after a surprisingly delightful family holiday with her grown children and grandchildren, she was feeling resistant to going back to her job. “I can’t afford to retire yet,” she said. “And the truth is that I don’t think I’d be happy even if I could. But I’m having trouble getting back in a work mindset.”

Mae* also enjoyed her holiday week off. “My mom took care of the kids, so my husband and I got some alone time for the first time in ages. We actually got a couple of projects done around the house, and we watched some really dumb TV—and had some really great sex,” she said. “And even though she spoils the kids, and lets them have far too much screen time and junk food, I think it’s probably good for them to be away from us and all our rules for a little while, too.” But like Lauren, Mae was having a hard time thinking her way back into her non-vacation life.

Stan* was also having trouble getting back into a work mode. After a week spent playing soccer and hanging out with his friends, he didn’t relish being back in an office. “I wish I could think of something else to do to make money,” he said. “Something I like.”

Going back to work after a holiday or vacation is hard for lots of us. And it’s hard whether you had a great vacation or a lousy one, a good holiday visit with family or more family conflict, or a lonely time, far from home and loved ones.

But there’s one mistake that many people make that makes going back to work even harder: trying to get everything done before you go back.

For some of us, the “everything” includes all the tasks we were going to accomplish during our time off, and never got around to doing. For others, it can mean catching up on all the work tasks we left unfinished. Even trying to at least start to catch up on the emails that you know will be waiting for you when you get to your office can be a mistake.

Why? Why wouldn’t it be better to get back to work with a clean slate at home and a clean slate at the office?

123RF stock image# 181824510 photog: wavebreakmediamicro
123RF stock image# 181824510 photog: wavebreakmediamicro

Well, theoretically it might be a good thing. But for most of us, it’s simply not realistic. These tasks that we feel we must do are like the old saying about housework: never done. Empty your email inbox tonight, and in all likelihood, it will fill up by tomorrow afternoon. Get all the sheets from the holiday guests washed and folded and put away, and still, you’ll need to do laundry again, right?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do your laundry or check your emails. But I’m suggesting that you set realistic goals for yourself before you get started.

So here’s how you can avoid the mistake of trying to get too much done before you go back to work:

1. Set realistic goals. This goal itself is harder than it sounds. Many of us make great plans for what we’ll do over the holidays or a vacation. And because we set the bar way too high, we’re inevitably disappointed, even if we accomplish some of the things that we had planned to do.

Ironically, the solution isn’t to set the bar too low, though, since that, too, will lead to disappointment and self-criticism.

Mae* told me that she realized that she had expected herself and her husband to do all of the tasks around the house that they had been unable to get to over the course of the past year. “That ranged from cleaning the garage to going through the kids’ toys and clothes to pull out things that they’ve outgrown, to give away. We got some of the stuff done, but not all of it. But there was no way we could do it all and have some time to relax and enjoy being together.”

Of course, at the end of a holiday, as you’re planning to go back to work, there are going to be things you left undone even if you set completely reasonable goals for yourself. So, before going back to work, try this:

2. Think about three things you did during the holiday that you’re proud of. I actually have to give credit for this idea to Suleika Jaouad, a young writer whose blog, The Isolation Journals, has consistently inspired me over the past few years.

Mae’s face lit up when she told me that she was proud of herself for doing a couple of the tasks she’d put off, but that she was also proud of the work she and her husband had done to strengthen their relationship. “It’s hard to maintain a loving relationship when you have two little ones and two jobs,” she said. “And I’m really glad that we both felt that it was worthwhile to devote some time to strengthen our connection.”

Lauren said that she was pleased with herself for having simply enjoyed her family. “Those grandchildren aren’t going to stay little for long,” she said. “And when my own children were young, I kept focusing on what I needed to do to make them into good people. With my grandchildren, I just enjoyed them. I wish I had done that more with my own. But I’m proud of my children for bringing up such neat children themselves; and I’m proud of myself for letting my children know how pleased I am with them.”

Lauren and Mae both said that thinking about these moments of satisfaction also made it easier to think about going back to work without having accomplished all the tasks they had set for themselves. As Lauren put it, “I think I’ll work on paying attention to what I’m proud of during my work days, too.”

Which brings us to the third point:

3. Set realistic goals for going back to work. You will inevitably have some uninspiring tasks to do when you get back to work. You may be overwhelmed by everything you have to catch up on, or you may be frustrated by all the tasks you hate to do.

Think about what you can realistically do on your first day back. And keep in mind that sometimes one of the most important tasks of re-entry is to reconnect with colleagues.

Stan told me that he was going to use the next couple of months to really think about what else he could do for a job. “I don’t like this one at all,” he said, “but I’m not sure what I want to—or can—do." He decided to set as his priority talking to the people he liked most at work and finding out what they enjoyed about their jobs. Then, he would start to network with people outside of work, to see if some of his friends, mentors, and even his parents’ friends might have some suggestions for him.

“It’s a small goal,” he said. “I’m not looking to change jobs in a month. But I think that’ll be my long-term goal—maybe by next New Year, I’ll have a job I like."

*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy


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