small business owner vacation

How to Unplug and Take a Real Vacation as a Small Business Owner

Felicia Sullivan

With travel opening up, the option to plan a vacation is becoming more and more appealing – even if you’re just booking an Airbnb in the next state over or mapping out a short road trip. You might even be planning a staycation. As a small business owner it can be hard to step away from your work. We’ve all been there: You’re on a beach and instead of relaxing you’re furiously tapping, typing, and scrolling.

There’s a crisis at work—there’s always a crisis at work—demanding your attention, and it doesn’t matter that you’re hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from work. Work has found you and you find yourself straitjacketed by time zones and geography. It would be so much easier to deal with the problem if you were at work. Only you’re on vacation, and you’re supposed to be unplugging or unwinding—your phone isn’t an appendage, and yet it is, and your obsession with work is making it impossible to enjoy your holiday.

Skipping Vacation? You’re Taking a Risk

As a small business owner, it’s natural to feel attached and accountable to every action in your business, but what happens when your business takes over your waking hours? What happens when you’re not able to enjoy a few days away with the ones you love?

Most Americans make a point of checking in with work while they’re on vacation. An ADT survey of small business owners revealed that 55% of SBOs never travel without their phone so they can keep tabs on their business even while on holiday.

Compared to other countries, Americans take far fewer vacations. One report found that 55% of Americans didn’t use all their days off from work in 2020. So, why are we leaving paid time on the table? Our cult of overwork values face time over quality time—the more we’re seen working, the more we give the appearance that we take our jobs, and businesses, seriously. Which then begs the question: At what cost? Project: Time Off estimates that those unused vacation days have a financial effect both on the U.S. economy and on the individual: “By forfeiting vacation days, American workers gave up $66.4 billion in 2016 benefits alone.” However, the impact goes deeper.

While you may appear to be fully dedicated to your business, you’ll likely suffer from stress and burnout. In the landmark, oft-cited Framingham Heart Study, which serves as the gold standard of long-term health studies for observing 20+ years of data as it relates to heart disease, it was revealed that men who didn’t take a holiday for several years were 30% more likely to have a heart attack than those who took at least one week’s vacation a year. The results for women were even more dramatic—women who took a vacation only once every six years or less were almost eight times more likely to suffer from heart disease or have a heart attack than women who went on a holiday at least twice a year.

Do your health a favor and go on vacation!

Now that you know that it’s critical to unwind, it’s time to establish some healthy holiday boundaries.

Establish a Vacation Pre-Game Plan

Once you’ve scheduled your getaway, alert your team and key contacts for coverage in your absence. Map out any key events, deliverables, or planning that may occur while you’re on holiday and try to clear as much off your plate as possible before you take off. This is an excellent time to sit down with your staff and go through the key tasks they’ll need to manage in your absence. Delegate tasks and create back-up plans, should things go haywire.

It’s important to be clear about your communication boundaries. If your employees know that you’re accessible 24/7 to manage problems, they won’t step up and assume responsibility. Be clear about your availability and the kinds of scenarios to which you’ll respond. I used to tell my teams that unless the building or a team member is on fire, don’t contact me. Empowering your staff to take ownership of your business in your absence sets the stage for how you’ll be able to manage and scale your business. You can use free online tools like Trello or Asana to schedule or delegate projects and tasks.

Toe the Line While You’re Away

You may want to establish a daily, timed check-in routine so that you’re keeping on top of what’s going on in your business without immersing yourself too deeply. Once you establish the check-in times, stick to them. Deviating off course and getting sucked into the vortex that is your inbox will signal to your staff that you’re on call and they can take a breather. Not only do you have to establish boundaries but also you have to stick to them.

If you find that your phone is an appendage, you can reclaim your holiday time with apps like Freedom, (OFFTIME), and ClearLock—all of which serve to shut down internet and email distractions. We’ve also talked about the power of accountability partners. Before your vacation, check in with your partner and lay out your plan, boundaries, and five-alarm scenarios and how you’ll manage in your absence. Feel free to invite your partner to send your daily reminders to turn off, tune out, and breathe it out for the few days you’re on vacation.

Only Respond to Real Fires

It’s easy to get drawn into the minutiae of your day-to-day work. However, with few exceptions, your team will be able to solve most problems. Know that there’s a difference between keeping tabs with what’s going on versus jumping into the fray.

Not every situation demands your response. Take notes on what’s working and not working for the plan you’ve established, to revisit with your team upon your return. Also, log a to-do list of tasks that will require your immediate attention and follow-up later.

Only engage when it’s absolutely necessary, and keep the involved parties small—your key team leaders.

Gear Up for Your Return

The final stretch of your holiday is much like a Sunday—you’re technically “off,” but you have to prep for the maelstrom that is Monday morning. Instead of walking into an unmanageable inbox and list of to-dos, organize and prioritize for your first day back.

First, scan your inbox and live by the three D’s: delete, delegate, and deal. Note which tasks require your immediate attention and prioritize those at the top of the list. Delete everything your team is managing, and delete—if you haven’t done so already—your non-priority tasks.

Check in with your key staff leads. Get the low down of what happened while you were away, and ask your team to alert you of the “hot” items. In short, you want to deal with only the essentials your first day back, while you slowly ease back into your business. In this way, you won’t feel overwhelmed. Instead, you’ll have your work and tasks prioritized to be the things that matter most for your business.

Taking a vacation might seem impossible for the average small business owner. You fear that you’ll end up hunched over your phone and laptop while your family’s splashing away poolside. While it may be unrealistic to ditch the tech completely, you can establish healthy boundaries when it comes to managing your business. Creating defined check-in points and sticking to them, while also delegating tasks to your trusted staff, will help make the transition back a seamless one.

Remember, the time you spend away from your business will likely fuel you with ideas, energy, and focus for when you return. Now, go book that trip!

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9 Responses to "How to Unplug and Take a Real Vacation as a Small Business Owner"
    • Evelyn Vega | June 30, 2022 at 12:42 pm

      Great article! I too use the phrase – “If the office is on fire or an employee is on fire” that’s an emergency – everything else can wait. I like the advice about only talking about “hot” items when you return back to the office – that saves me 2 days worth of catch up meetings about minutia items and it also empowers them to take care of those minutia times rather than having me deal with it when I get back. One more thing… we aren’t a big “policy” company but there is one that we all must follow – do not check email while on vacation and that goes for myself too. I’m sure my employees still check email while on vacation and I know for a fact that I still do that myself, but I don’t respond or forward things to employees because I need to set an example. Thanks for the article!

      • Small Biz Ahead | June 30, 2022 at 3:35 pm

        You’re welcome! Thanks for the comment!

    • Deward Stout | June 29, 2022 at 8:47 pm

      In showing respect to my partners and managers for their scheduled time off. I would tell others that they were going to be back a day later than they actually were going to be back. For example, if they were going to be back on a Wednesday, I would tell everyone they were going to be back on Thursday. This gave them time to get caught up on the things that had transpired while they were gone. I have always done this, and it has helped out in our organization. Even though they were expecting them back a day later. It helped with the effectiveness and efficiencies of our organization.

    • Igor Rabin | June 29, 2022 at 4:13 pm

      Just what I needed to hear. Great article!

      • Small Biz Ahead | June 30, 2022 at 3:04 pm

        Thank you!

    • Victoria Barnhart | June 28, 2022 at 8:15 pm

      Great advice, I am looking forward to spending family time this year. I have not been able to take a full week from the company (healthcare) in the past two years.

      • Small Biz Ahead | June 29, 2022 at 8:41 am

        That’s great to hear, Victoria. Taking time off is so important. Enjoy it!

    • JohnO | July 20, 2021 at 1:51 pm

      Great info. I used to be unable to be off for vacations, but have learned that it’s important for my physical and mental health, and my relationships, to take a break.

      One thing I read several years ago which was a game changer is that we have to give ourselves permission to be off. With permission I’m finding that I don’t think about work.

      Turn off the laptop, set aside the phone and go have fun.

      • Small Biz Ahead | July 20, 2021 at 2:51 pm

        This is great advice, John. Thank you for sharing it!

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