Many of us start the first few moments of the day on our phones. First we hit the snooze button on the alarm. Then we check the messages we received while we were asleep. Our phones are powerful tools, integrated into our lives both at home and work. But the line between work and home life is blurring. Many of us fail to unplug fully. And we fail to be fully present in the moment, doing whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing.

Perhaps you’ve called a colleague while on vacation to review a report. Chances are good that you’ve sent or answered emails after business hours. Urgent matters sometimes do come up that need our immediate attention. But experts say that not entirely unplugging can derail the benefits of a vacation and impair your workplace productivity.

The importance of unplugging

“Studies consistently illustrate the inefficiencies of multitasking,” psychologist Dr. Marie-Hélène Pelletier says. “You likely can’t fully relax or fully focus on work if you’re trying to do both.”

German researchers studied the benefits of mentally disengaging from work or “unplugging.” They found that employees who unplug or disconnect most from work during off-hours “are more satisfied with their lives.” They reported fewer symptoms of psychological strain. And despite spending more time unplugged, they were just as engaged while at work as those who disconnected less.

The time-honoured way to relax and get away from work-related stress is to take a vacation. But in the digital age, vacations aren’t what they used to be. Despite the proven benefits of unplugging, it can be a challenge to stay away from your inbox. But by planning carefully and being intentional about unplugging, taking time off can give you new energy. The next time you go away, try these tips to better manage unplugging when you’re off the clock:

Make a plan to unplug from work

Identify what your boundaries are and create a plan. Will you be checking your email while you’re away? Then let your colleagues know how frequently you will be checking in. What happens if you tell them you’ll only be checking your inbox once in the morning? They’ll have different expectations from you than if you say you’ll be on-call all day.

Set an out-of-office reply

When you go on vacation, make sure your auto-reply message notes whom to contact for urgent matters. And if you like, mention how frequently you will be checking your email. “One employee set their out-of-office email to say that any incoming email would automatically go to trash,” Pelletier says. “The note also invited people to send a follow-up email when they returned from vacation if it was urgent." This plan may not work for everyone or may sound extreme, Pelletier says. But it shows the importance of letting colleagues know your availability in advance.

Talk to your boss about vacation protocol

Often we hesitate to unplug fully or even to take a vacation at all. We may feel guilty about taking time off and leaving our colleagues to take up the slack. Or we’re concerned about dealing with a backlog of work when we get back. We might even be nervous about how our boss will react to our vacation request.

Deal with this issue head-on. Talk to your manager about what the expectation is when it comes to vacations. Have a transparent conversation with your boss. Say something like, “I’d like to get your read of how we handle vacations on our team,” Pelletier says. This lets you learn what your manager’s expectations are and lets you voice any concerns you may have. Ideally, your manager will encourage you to take your entire vacation (although perhaps not exactly when you want it). More organizations are promoting health and wellness, Pelletier says. Strongly supporting employees to take their vacations is part of that promotion.

Once you’ve spoken with your boss, talk to your travel partners and/or family. Let them know you may have to do some work while you’re away. “Let them know if you may need to check emails regularly or over a few specific days,” Pelletier says. “But also let them know that you will unplug. That way, you are committing to your plan even further.”

Will your vacation take you out of the country or even just out of the province? You can also reduce a possible source of stress by protecting yourself with travel insurance.

Practise self-care when you’re travelling or on vacation

When you’re on vacation, make sure to take the time to get exercise and practise self-care. Sometimes trips can be filled with loads of activities. But it’s essential to step back – even if you have to schedule those breaks so they happen.

“On vacation, make sure you weave in a moment now and then to do something like yoga. Or go for a walk,” Pelletier says. “And apply the same best practices to your weekends.”

3 tips to make taking time off work less stressful

  1. Last-minute demands will very likely pop up. So deliberately begin working ahead on any projects you have due two to three weeks before of your trip. “Don’t wait until the week before your vacation,” says Pelletier.
  2. If you go out of town, try to give yourself an extra day before returning to work. That way, you can decompress, do laundry and whatever else you have to do to get ready for work.
  3. Continue the self-care you practised on vacation. That way you can re-engage with your work with a clear mind. “Sometimes we think of vacation as a bubble,” Pelletier says. “But how we plan for vacation applies to life outside of vacation time, too.”

Life can be demanding. So make the most of your off hours by setting boundaries, unplugging and taking care of yourself.