Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How To: Unplug on Vacation

I am incredibly grateful for this internet age. This blog wouldn't exist without it, or if it did, it would be in a completely different form - I'm imagining a sort of journal-scrapbook hybrid. I love being able to play a game on my iPhone any time I'm made to wait (e.g. bank queues, Chipotle ordering queues, post office queues, basically all queues), it's great to be able to order clothes from the comfort of my bed with just a few clicks, and Google can provide the answers to 90% of my questions.

These days, this advanced technology also means that our work follows us wherever we go. If you've got a somewhat conventional office-y job like me, then you've most likely got an email account for your work that pings all day long, even at nights and even on weekends. Actually, this is probably true for most people who have unconventional non-office-y jobs too.

When I first entered the full-time job force about five years ago, my company handed me a flip phone to use for work and only the VIPs had company-issued Blackberries. That was then. Now everyone is always connected. In our office, basically everyone has an iPhone (dedicated to work) and we could all email each other at 3:00 in the morning, if we were so inclined. Obviously, smart phones are a great business tool and the list of pros is a mile long but there is one huge, ugly, glaring con: the emails and phone calls keep coming, even when you're on vacation.

Whether you're high or low on the totem pole, for some reason, it seems as though there's always someone who urgently needs something from you while you're away.
So, I've compiled some of my tips for what you can do to make your vacation more of a vacation. Keep in mind that this advice is definitely more suited for people who have my sort of lifestyle - working in an office-type setting where people love to phone you and email you regularly - but can be adapted to some other work situations too.

Two weeks before you go on vacation: Nudge everyone you work with - both supervisors and underlings - to remind them that you're going away. This way, you can make sure that any of the projects you're working on can be wrapped up before you leave. And if they can't be wrapped up prior to your departure date, you should brief whoever will be taking over for you in your absence.
"Hi all. Just a friendly reminder that I'm going on vacation in a couple weeks from 5/8 to 5/14. Bob - let's finish up that ABC project ASAP. Jane - can you take over the DEF project while I'm gone? Thanks."

One week before you go on vacation: Start to tie up all loose ends to reduce the potential for emails and phone calls. Finish up what needs to be finished up, catch up on all of your emails to make sure you're responded to everyone who needs a response, and do as much work as you can so that you're not thinking about what you didn't finish up at work while you're trying to relax on your holiday. If someone asks you to start something new or get involved in an important task, let them know that you're willing to help (be a team player!) but let them know that you're going on break soon so that they're aware of your pending absence.
The day before you go on vacation: Clean up your office and get it organized. Label all of your files clearly and organize them in such a way that anyone walking into your office can find what he or she is looking for immediately. I like to use bright post-it notes and red sharpie to label the folder and I'll stick it right on the front to reduce confusion even further. If you anticipate that someone is going to need a file from your office, give him/her a little "tour" so there will be no need to contact you about where your files are.

Set up an 'out of office' automated message before you leave. The message should tell your correspondence the dates you'll be absent and who they can contact in lieu of you.
"Hello. I will be out of the office from 5/8 to 5/14 with limited access to phone and email. If you require immediate assistance, please contact steve @ mycompany. Thank you."

Regardless of whether or not I'm going somewhere local or international, I throw in that 'limited access' bit because I don't want to feel like I'm glued to my email while I'm on vacation and that bit will give me a little leeway if I can't (re: don't want to) respond immediately.

Once you're on vacation: I recommend you "turn off" your work email by changing the settings to 'push to refresh' so that you're not getting buzzed every two seconds. I actually enjoy checking my personal email so I leave that be but if your personal email is going to hinder your enjoyment, shut that off as well.
Designate a time to check your email to play catch up and put out any fires, if necessary. I like to check my email once a day. If you followed my advice above, you shouldn't encounter too much in your inbox anyway. If you're okay with not checking your email at all, I mean not once during the whole time you're away, then go for it. Personally, I think it's nice to stay in maintenance mode so that I don't get overwhelmed with an inbox full of messages as my 'welcome home' present at the end of my trip. It stresses me out more to think about the email pile up than it does to just check it once a day.

Re-remind people that you're on vacation: Most of the time when I'm away, I get emails where I'm merely cc-ed to keep me in the loop because I've prepared my coworkers for my absence. Hopefully that's all you'll see as well. However, should you receive an email that requires a response, answer, politely remind the person that you are on holiday, and then let them know when you will be checking your email again.
"Hey Bob, Jane is taking care of the DEF account. Since I'm on vacation, I can only check my email while I'm on wifi. I will check my inbox again tomorrow evening. Thanks."

Even if you don't necessarily need wifi to check your email, this little white lie allows you to politely give someone a reason why you're not going to be glued to your email.
Don't get caught up in posting everything you're doing: Okay, so far all I've mentioned is work-related unplugging because that's what really bogs me down when I'm on break but keeping up on social media can also bog down a vacation. Even though I have a Twitter account, an Instagram, and Facebook and I enjoy checking them, I'm not addicted to social media by any means. And though my social media presence is already on the smaller side, when I'm on vacation, my presence is even smaller. If I want to share something on Instagram, I'll usually do it when I'm settled into my hotel room for the night. I know Instagram has the word "insta" in it but I'd rather enjoy the moment than fuss over my phone and try to get something to upload. Same goes with FB and Twitter; I'll post in my downtime, not while I'm out and about. I'm more eager to enjoy my experience for real than to "show off" to others that I'm enjoying an experience, if you catch my drift.

So, those are my tips. I'm heading down to DC in just a few hours so I'm kind of excited to take my own advice and give myself a much-needed break from work for the next few days. If you have any other tips to share, feel free to leave it in the comments below.

As always, thanks for reading.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Giving Back

Though I am far from being a millionaire, like light-years (which is a distance, not a time duration but you get the gist) from it, I am quite lucky and fortunate to be living a full life surrounded by a family that I cherish, friends that I adore, and a pup that I obsess over. My lifelong dream as a kid was to become an artist but I also had a v. practical side which made me a math and science lover. My parents encouraged the latter. I ended up at college in the architecture school; a subject that I had assumed would be a harmonious combination of both of left brain and right brain strengths. When it turned out that architecture was not quite what I thought it would be I transferred to the engineering school where I found myself to be quite comfortable, despite the unpleasant smell wafting off of several unshowered students.

Changing majors was probably one of the best decisions of my life because I secured a job right out of school and I work for a successful engineering company that does work across the U.S. and internationally. I suppose that in my ideal world, I would be living in Paris just cooking and creating art and hanging out eating baguettes all day long. But I must admit, having a steady paycheck is awesome. It allows me the luxury of indulging in frivolous shopping, multiple holiday getaways every year, and a subscription to Netflix.

But, life is more than just a career and money, right? For a while, I had been looking for a way to give a bit of my time back to my community but I could never drag my butt off of the couch long enough to make any commitments. Luckily, the stars aligned themselves perfectly and I somehow managed to get my way onto the Mount Pleasant Animal Shelter list-serve. There are several ways for volunteers to offer their time but I've chosen to socialize cats and dogs. So, once or twice a week, I head to the shelter and just spend some time with cuddly and furry cuties who just want a little of my affection.
As much as they enjoy a break from their kennels/crates, I think I get much more out of spending time with these guys than they do spending time with lil' ol' me. Animals don't lie, they don't cheat, they don't backstab; they just appreciate your company and are looking for a little love.

I've only been volunteering for a couple months at this point, but it's been so much fun and incredibly rewarding. I know it sounds cliche but it's made me really happy. It's great to hang out with the pups and kitties and watch them find great homes. It makes my heart feel so full.
I write this post not as a way to pressure anyone into charity/volunteer work (though, if you feel compelled to, then that's great). I just want to document the way I'm feeling at this moment - after all, what's a blog if not a sort of public diary? - and I find that when I declare something "publicly" I have more motivation and encouragement to keep myself going. But, I must give MPAS a little plug. If you feel like giving a little (or a lot) please do.

Thanks for reading.


Monday, April 07, 2014

Bark for Life 2014

This past Saturday, I was at the Bark For Life event in a town nearby and it was so much fun. Bark For Life is organized by Relay For Life and fundraises money for the American Cancer Society. Lots of people participate and there are so many fun dog-related events. At ours, we had competitions for the best trick, dog and owner lookalike contest, longest sit, musical sit (like musical chairs but the dogs have to sit when the music stops), best bark, and a bunch more activities like that. There was also a police K-9 demonstration and an obstacle course so that some of the trained dogs could show off.
It was a lot of fun. I was there with Mt. Pleasant Animal Shelter, where I've been volunteering for the past few months. The event was able to raise about $10K, which is awesome, and I got to meet so many great dogs.

Here are a few fun shots from my day:
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