The Vacation Myth for Small Business Owners

Ask any small business owner whether they were able to recharge their batteries during their last vacation, and you are likely to see a complex facial expression. They will smile because they did likely have an amazing time away from work. But it might be a bit of a rueful or ironic smile because of the pre-, post-, and even during-vacation work that needed to be done in order to take that vacation.

Until a business achieves a large enough infrastructure for an owner to have a “Number One” who can oversee everything and make decisions in her absence (and yes, that was a deliberate Star Trek reference), taking vacation is, in some aspects, a lot of work.

This topic is on my mind because I was recently out of the office for almost three weeks — one week of business travel and a week and a half of vacation with my husband. We drove up the Northern California coast from San Francisco to Olympia, Washington, to spend some time with my best friend. I saw some scenery that was so breathtaking that words can’t describe it, but I’m sure there was also some that I missed due to being head down in e-mail.

Because it began as a work trip I started out working a lot, and being online crept into my vacation days a lot more easily. And because our vacation was part road trip it was all too easy to sit in the passenger seat with my laptop on my lap and my phone balanced next to me on the center console and take care of business. As we drove I was always glad when we lost cell signal and it gave me “permission” to put technology away.

Taming the E-mail Beast

I typically stay up late several days in a row before I leave in order to wrap up client work and proposals that I need to get out and to clear my in-box of anything that can’t wait until I return, which renders me tired when I finally head off.

As someone who owns two businesses and is the president of a national organization, I receive at least 100 legitimate e-mails that need responses per day. I try to get online for an hour or two most days while away in order to quickly delete or delegate what I can, as well as respond to the things I can respond to in less than a minute apiece.

I do understand that spending a couple of hours per day on e-mail is counter to the idea of taking a vacation, but I do this because the idea of thousands of unread e-mails awaiting me when I return — combined with the somewhat neurotic (but still possible!) idea that one may be a huge bombshell — is so daunting that I can’t achieve utter relaxation. Then, too, is the harsh reality that without a Number One in place, ignoring e-mail sometimes means I am holding up my staff from being as productive as they should be.

Is Totally Unplugged Reasonable?

I have taken some totally unplugged vacations over the years — up to as long as a month, in fact — and nothing has fallen apart in my absence. In fact, my staff does an amazing job of keeping the wheels turning while I’m away. I strongly recommend unplugged vacations for every business owner as a way to reset and recharge.

But I’ve found that for me the amount of time it takes me to catch up after a totally unplugged vacation, and how far behind I fall in the weeks after my return while trying to do so, makes me prefer spending a bit of time each day staying on top of the e-mail beast.

So my own personal definition of vacation now entails not doing any client work while away. I often cram client work into the days before I leave and on the plane ride to my destination. And I am almost always diving back into client work on the plane ride home. But my goal is to only have to deal with e-mail that can’t wait until I return while away.

Sneaking in Work

Even that sort of compromise with one’s self requires a very understanding spouse. In deference to the fact that we’re supposed to be on vacation together, I try as hard as possible to “hide” my work from my husband. He knows that I’m getting up early or staying up late to get online, but when it’s taking place while he’s sleeping or lost in his own Facebook feed before bed it’s far less controversial.

My husband was extremely patient — to a point. I did promise four days of unplugged time at the end, and delivered them. And I shut down as we drove through the Avenue of the Giants scenic byway to see the majestic redwoods in this video. But that was only possible because I’d been keeping up with e-mail over the prior weeks.

Do Vacations Actually Cause More Stress?

Time off is often a mixed bag for small business owners. I have come to terms with my compromise of limiting work to e-mail while on vacation, along with trying to plan a few completely unplugged days somewhere during the trip. It makes for an overall less stressful experience for me when taking into account that most of my work just piles up and waits for my return when I am away. As long as I can also plan a completely unplugged vacation somewhere overseas every so often, I am happy with the compromise. It works for me.

If you’re a small business owner, I’d love to hear how you deal with vacations. It’s easier for some industries than others, for some size businesses than others. For me, the most relaxing time of the year regardless of when and where I vacation is actually the last weeks of the year between Christmas and New Year’s, when the whole world shuts down. It’s the only time I get to truly relax and go days without looking at e-mail and not worry that it’s piling up — because almost everyone else is doing the exact same thing.

Hopefully, that never changes.

Lara Kisielewska, Founder