How do you take a break and still keep up? 

Yvonne Adele, thought leader and social media expert.

Is switching off too hard to do? Smartphones are an umbilical cord to the business for many of us, so how can you balance taking a break and keeping yourself in the know?

In an era when executives are busier than ever, you may be tempted to skip taking holidays or stay connected to the office during a break using smartphones or iPads. If so, you are not alone.

A recent survey of more than 250 executives by recruitment firm Korn Ferry found that just 3 per cent of respondents were able to completely disconnect from the office during a vacation. Eighty-four per cent had cancelled a vacation at some point in their career because of the demands of the job.

However, business people who fail to take time out run the real risk of burnout – and an inability to switch off can send the message to fellow workers that they are not to be trusted while others are on leave. What is the right way to manage the holiday conundrum? We canvass the views of three experts.

Yvonne Adele

Thought leader, Social Media expert

When Yvonne Adele recently gave herself six months’ long-service leave, the biggest wrench was disconnecting from technology.

“For the first few days I found it quite comical the number of times I was reaching for my device – when I was sitting in a waiting room, or at the checkout, or standing outside school waiting for my kids to come out,” she says.

“I didn't realise until I had the break that I had lost my 'ivities' – my creativity, my productivity, my inclination to do anything spontaneous.” – Yvonne Adele

In fact, on day one of her leave she reached for her smartphone more than 90 times.

“It was ridiculous,” she says. Fortunately, it took just a few more days until she was able to use the stripped-back phone – removing almost all apps – as a simple device to make and receive calls only.

Now a professional speaker and corporate consultant, Adele is a technology expert who created a media profile as Ms Megabyte in the 1990s. She is proof that even the self-employed and technology-dependent can take time out without jeopardising what they have worked so hard to build.

She went “off the grid” during her break about a year ago (flagging the action with her networks on social media) to address a mental slump after 17 years of running her own business.

“People thought I would hyperventilate being off the grid because I am so connected to technology in so many ways,” she says.

“But actually I didn’t realise until I had the break that I had lost a lot of my ‘ivities’ – my creativity, my productivity, my inclination to do anything spontaneous.”

Adele says the break also allowed her to become more connected to the daily lives of her three children, “and notice things like flowers blooming”. She recommends only using devices on a break that “amplify your vacation time”, such as a laptop to watch TV shows, and using a virtual assistant to handle enquiries. She allowed herself just some fitness apps on her smartphone as well as Evernote, which she used as a personal journal to capture what she experienced while on leave.

To enable her break to happen, Adele did not broadcast the sabbatical to all the clients and speaking agencies that book her, instead just advising those who called or emailed.

She also eased herself back into work at the end of her break (changing her status to “off the grid-ish”) and has implemented some new approaches to work. These include thinking hard before saying yes to projects and consulting engagements; committing to work for just 20-minute blocks as a way to avoid procrastination; being more mindful with the use of technology; and working on just a handful of things at any time.

“And the other is really thinking ahead to schedule in breaks, rather than having one forced upon you because you’re crazily burned out.”

Yvonne Adele is a social media expert, professional speaker and corporate consultant. She is the author of Conquer Your Computer and also wrote the Australian edition of PCs for Dummies

John Roa, Entrepreneur, AKTA.

John Roa, Entrepreneur, AKTA.

John Roa


John Roa has mastered the art of combining work with relaxation.The digital user-experience guru and serial entrepreneur estimates he travels about 190 days a year either for business or pleasure, but his mind is always on the job. He uses the time to clear his head, get fresh perspectives and generate ideas that would not have materialised if stuck in an office all day.

One such trip to Iceland inspired him to set up Digital Hope, a not-for-profit charitable organisation that uses crowdfunding via social media to support underfunded international NGOs.

On another occasion, during a trip to Israel, he heard how the Israel Defense Forces set up a Red Team – effectively, a devil’s advocate group that challenged assumptions about intelligence activities and prevented group-think. It convinced Roa to set up a similar program at his Chicago-based business, ÄKTA.

“If we ever all unequivocally agree on a core decision, someone is tasked to try and convince the group that we should not do it, or vice versa, regardless of their personal opinion,” he explains. “Now, when we do end up doing [or not doing] something, we can rest assured we’ve evaluated both sides of the argument fully.”

"Stepping away from the daily grind is one thing, but travelling also allows you to think in ways that you normally don’t or couldn’t have." – John Roa, ÄKTA  

Roa has no doubt that breaks and travel make him a better business leader – and his executive team sees the benefits, too.

“[If] I am getting a little lethargic and uninspired – not firing on all cylinders – I take off for a trip and come back with tons of energy, new ideas and new points of view on key challenges.”

For Roa, travel is a chance to break away from his usual routine and day-to-day environment, but also to see the world through the many lenses that new experiences and places afford him.

“Stepping away from the daily grind is one thing, but travelling also allows you to think in ways that you normally don’t or couldn’t have. I always come back wanting to take on new challenges.”

He says for growing companies, in particular, it is important to push back against limitations.

“Most of those limitations are only in your mind. Travelling allows you to leave your comfort zone and teaches you that the distance you actually cover is only as far as you attempted to go.

Intrepreneurship is extremely taxing – more so than most folks could imagine who haven’t done it. Travelling is one of the few things that reverses some of that.”

While Roa sees stress as part of being a true entrepreneur, there are extremes for everyone and “you must have the processes in place to reset, or it can be very dangerous”.

Switching off his digital devices is not an option for him: as long as there is a signal, he is connected to his team and networks. That helps ensure ÄKTA runs smoothly in his absence, but even more critical, according to Roa, is having a talented and trustworthy executive team back at the head office. “I’ve been lucky to build one of the best in the world.”

Roa’s definitive piece of advice for fellow entrepreneurs or business leaders wanting to improve their business is clear.

“Travel more!”

John Roa is the founder of ÄKTA digital consultancy and a respected angel investor in the Chicago start-up community. He has been on Crain’s 40 Under 40 list, which identifies Chicago’s next generation of business leaders.

Penny De Valk, HR specialist, talent manager, Penna.

Penny de Valk, HR specialist, talent manager, Penna.

Penny de Valk

HR Specialist, Talent Manager

The absence through vacations of a chief executive or senior leaders should represent a positive – not a negative – for a company, according to Penny de Valk from global HR services group Penna.

“It’s a really important development opportunity,” she says.

De Valk says the employees remaining at head office when bosses take a break get a chance to support each other and say “we’re not only dealing with the dross but finishing up projects for them while they are away”.

Younger generations, in particular, are eager to demonstrate that they can get the job done while their superiors take a much-needed break. For their part, senior leaders appreciate that the business can function without them for a couple of weeks.

“The great news is you’ll be surprised how well people can perform, and you’ve got to manage your own anxiety around that. There’s no doubt that the more senior you are, the bigger the control freak. So get over yourself – it’s a delegation exercise.”

De Valk says evidence shows that people who design breaks into their working lives are more successful. For these people, taking annual leave is not an entitlement but a good investment in sustained energy levels, personal relationships and creativity.

“People just start thinking differently when they zone out,” she notes.

“There's no doubt that the more senior you are, the bigger the control freak. So get over yourself – it's a delegation exercise.” – Penny de Valk, Penna.
Careers today are marathons, not sprints, de Valk says, so regular breaks are vital for executives to stay vibrant and healthy. To those organisations which claim to be more productive when people do not take leave, de Valk points to the Netherlands, a country with the lowest working hours in Europe but the highest levels of productivity.

“So it’s very dangerous when we just equate hours of input to productivity.”

She also urges leaders to set the tone: by not taking leave, or sending work emails while on holiday, you are setting expectations for others in your organisation.

“So it’s really important that senior executives are conscious of not only what they’re doing for themselves – investing in their own resilience and ability to really put the intensity into their work that’s required – but the signals they send to people. Because burning out really talented people is not a good use of our human efforts.”

De Valk admits that it has become tricky for some people to disconnect from digital noise. They are distracted by always being “on”.

“Clearing emails often gives people a sense of busy-ness and usefulness, whereas just staring out the window and looking out over the ocean is somehow a waste of time.”

But a lot of neuroscience and mindfulness research is showing that it is important for people to do just that – to be in the moment, listen to music, read or do what they like – in order to stretch neural pathways.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all way to cut off from work and take a break, according to de Valk. For some people, downing digital tools completely for a week could cause them too much stress, so perhaps just checking emails twice a day may work best for them.

She advocates having a plan for taking breaks. Doing so establishes that holidays are important and it also determines ground rules for when someone is away.

“If an organisation works hard but expects people to rest as well, you get a return on that in discretionary energy, people’s commitment and retention.”

After all, being a “hard work hero” who never takes breaks is not a sustainable lifestyle choice, de Valk says.

“I have very little time for that because they are often the people that are going to end up falling over at the end of the year and blaming workload.”

Penny de Valk is managing director of the talent practice at Penna, an international human resources provider based in the United Kingdom. She is a former chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management in London and the Institute of Management in Auckland.

Key takeaways

  • Travel more; work less. Clear your head and gain new perspectives from travelling.
  • Allow people to grow. Bosses’ vacations give a team an opportunity to develop.
  • Hard-work heroes may fall over at the end of the year. It’s smarter to take breaks. 

This article is from the December 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK

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