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The Personal Touch: Vacation Shellshock

Survive your return to work.

You may have hiked every hill in Central Park…or sat mesmerized by the waves gliding across the plush Caribbean sand. Maybe you just spent the holidays at home, indulging in family, feasting and football. Whatever you did, it was good to get away.

It was your time. You moved at your pace, without barriers or interruption. You smiled and laughed. You ate your favorite meals—and people served you for once. You visited the places you'd imagined with the people who care about you. You were entertained and stimulated. You didn't bear the burden of being you.

Now, it's back to the grindstone. You hated to come back, to the same people, places, routines and baggage. Still, you feel so relaxed and re-charged. Your new life starts from this point forward. You think, "Things are going to be different."

And then you step back into the office…

Office, Sweet Office

It is a whirlwind of calls, meetings and deadlines. There are more contract revisions. The project specs got overhauled. You're heading back to Cincinnati to conduct more training. Oh, and your rainmaker just tendered her resignation.

So much for all that idealism! Your energy is sapped. You're already behind; you wish you'd never left in the first place.

Too often, a vacation is a "pick your poison" proposition. You can stay and burn out—or return to a dizzying frenzy. Whether it’s a summer escape or a holiday breather, it can be tough coming back from vacation. To reduce the stress, consider the following:

• Prepare Ahead of Time. Before you leave, look at your to-do list. Are your processes and deliverables still on track? Are your major accounts content? Look for any loose ends to tether (but don't beat the bushes looking for trouble, either). Alert key clients, dependants and stakeholders personally. Don't forget the proverbial out-of-office voicemail and e-mail too.

In your absence, have a back-up trained to be your point person. Teach her what is important and the protocols for handling various contingencies. Have her review your voicemails and e-mails and to react swiftly to developments. Have her maintain a log and meet with her immediately upon your return to get up to speed.

• Reduce the Clutter. Sometimes, your private life can detract from your job performance. This can certainly happen when you've been away. You have burdens—laundry, lawn and newspapers—that require catch up when you return. And that doesn’t even include your community and children's activities. List everything you need to accomplish when you return. Systematically get them out of the way early. You're going to be spending extra hours at work; keep the home distractions to a minimum.

• Get an Early Start. It always happens: you'll want to hit the ground running, but your peers will want to make small talk. Regaining your focus after a vacation isn't easy. It never fails: the unexpected always hits when you’re away—and you're already stretched thin! It is easy to leave work that first day back with your spirits dampened and attitude soured. That's why you should get a head start. Start by coming in on Sunday morning. Sift through the e-mails, voicemails and paperwork. Come to terms with the bad news before you return. Identify your immediate priorities and craft a plan to get caught up.

Similarly, consider easing back into the week. Clear your schedule for the first day. Take a half day off during that first week back to catch a breather. If you're a true workaholic, budget 30 minutes on one of your vacation days to review what is happening. Send an e-mail or two, if need be. Then, shut the laptop and forward your calls. They can get by without you, if you've done your job right.

• Evaluate. You stepped away and become anonymous. You may have even connected with something larger. When you return, you feel like a different person…and you might be.

Suddenly, you can no longer dismiss your boss' lack of due diligence and follow through. You're easily bored with your pampered peers' humdrum complaints. All those realities you simply accepted—the limitations, the politics, the facades, the compromises—are no longer tolerable. You realize that you're allowing your job to suck the life out of you.

Vacation has a way of putting life into perspective. It reminds us that we still have a chance to turn it all around and redeem ourselves.

If you still don't feel right after you return, it might be time to ask some hard questions: Does my employer nourish my larger aspirations? Are my activities outside work truly enriching me? Look at your vacation: what did you enjoy about it, and how can you inject more of that into your life? Was it that you were more active and mingled with new people and surroundings? Were you stirred intellectually and creatively?

Often, a vacation can often illuminate what your life is missing. It can help you see what you're doing and where you’re going. Those sentiments can direct you to whether you need to tinker with the edges—or get off the rat race and find your true calling altogether.

• Relax. When you return, the pace quickens. It takes time to adjust. It's so easy to get caught up in the moment at first, even lose your cool. That's why you need to take a breath and relax. Walk away for a few minutes. Put it in the larger context. Joke about it. Delegate, if need be. Don't forget to take lunch with a trusted colleague, and talk about anything but work.

• Take Another Vacation. Don't let your change in spirits grind to a halt. Capitalize on the momentum. Budget permitting, slip away for the weekend. Indulge in your new vitality and interests—the "new you." Sometimes, our jobs become our identities. But we’re so much more. Take the time to get away, deepen your relationships, step out of your comfort zones and make the most of your time.

• Never Forget. Leave a memento by putting vacation images into digital frame or screensaver rotation. Remember the sensations and possibilities of your time away, and draw strength from them. Channel them into the here-and-now.

S&MM online columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, IA. His column, "The Personal Touch," is designed to help managers and professionals step back and evaluate how they think, interact and work. His e-mail is jschmittdbq@mchsi.com.