Work Life Balance, and Taking Vacations

It's important to take vacation; human psychology is setup to benefit across the board from detaching from work, and vacation is one of the biggest/easiest ways to do so.  

Some folks have trouble taking vacation, or aren't sure how to work it in.  Here are eight strategies that I've seen work, enable easier leaves, and hopefully get more benefit from the same days off.


Strategy 1: Ample Lead Time
I fit in longer vacations - 1-3 weeks - by planning well in advance.  I'll likely be OOO/Hawaii in March, and plan to book the trip by the end of January.    If my teams aren't able to lose me to vacation with that much advance planning?  Time to fix and/or escalate; we're supposed to be taking those vacation days.

Strategy 2: The Two Week Break
Past a certain point, the longer the leave... the less work you'll come back to.  If you're gone for a week, work piles up.  If you're gone for two weeks, people assume you died, and residual work decreases.  (Pro tip: you can also request to take more vacation than you have stored up; your manager can loan you vacation days.)

Strategy 3: Regular Scheduling
Once you have 5 weeks/year... it can feel harder to fit leave in.  One easy approach is to make leaves more regular events.
  • One coworker took every July off, and after two years, everyone on the team knew well ahead of time that they weren't coming in in July.
  • Another coworker realized every even-numbered month has a 3-day weekend.  They stretched those 3-day weekends into six weeks of leave per year, and everyone on the team knew without guessing which weeks that teammate would be OOO.
Strategy 4: Email Bankruptcy
Especially for longer leaves, please don't check mail while on vacation. 

It can help to have an autoresponder that explains you're on leave, declaring "email bankruptcy", and will not be checking mail received while you're on leave even once you're back.

The autoresponder should also give the typical points of contact if someone needs to escalate, and should include the date you intend to return (when bankruptcy expires, and you'll be reading incoming emails again.)

When you do this, set a filter to auto-archive everything; this helps remove the urge to cheat and read things anyways.

Strategy 5: Catchup Meetings
You schedule 2+ weeks of vacation.  Next, book a half-hour on your own calendar the day before you leave.  Use this time to book catch-up meetings on the day you come back, so you can just go ask people "what did I miss?" 

You can also email them ahead of time, and ask for an email summary or meeting (their choice) on the day you're back, to get you back into context faster.  This should be little work on their end, enormously useful on your end.... and also pairs very well with email bankruptcy, above.

Plan to spend the entire first day back from a long leave just catching up, and it strongly helps to disconnect while you're gone.

Strategy 6: Notifications are the Enemy
If you read work email on your phone?  Turn it off while on leave.  Turn off automatic syncs.  Turn off notifications.  These will suck you in, and you will lose.  Just don't do it.

Strategy 7: Regular Short Leaves
Another coworker took every second or third Friday as vacation; they loved long weekends.  To each their own; just don't work while on vacation!  (When on vacation, stay on vacation!)

Strategy 8: Experiences Over Stuff
Once a human being's basic needs are met (food, shelter, sleep)... we're wired to benefit from spending more resources on experiences and fewer resources on stuff.  

Vacations are one way to pursue new and memorable experiences, and while it's not relaxing to do crazy stuff on every vacation...  there's a lot of world out there, and vacations give us a chance to go see some it.


So, Saying It Again
1. Make sure to take your vacations (assuming you like 'em.)
2. If they seem hard to schedule, planning often helps.
3. I'm super curious to hear other work/life balance hacks, on any topic!

Game show data

That's been a very long break, so here goes.

 I'm curious how many reality and game shows have available data online. Was watching The Voice and trying to figure out if judges who turn their chairs late in the audition have a lower chance of winning contestants they're interested in; if Adam Levine turns around a minute in, and Blake Shelton turns around two minutes in, how much better are Adam's odds compared to Blake's?

That ignores artificial and hidden effects; if the producers have told the judges to do something, that's hidden to the audience. "Two of you must turn around for this contestant", or somesuch. But those might not happen, and aren't something you can control for based on external data.

 But the really neat thing about reality shows and/or game shows is that all of the primary data is just right there; you can watch the shows and just measure what you're interested in learning about. In this case, someone already did the analysis, so I don't have to; the second judge has about four seconds to turn around, and if they don't, they only have a 17% chance of winning. Ouch!

 Now, if someone has the data from the wheel spins on the Price Is Right, I'm super curious if the odds of getting $1 are neutral, or if the wheel's been weighted. :-)

Google's TGIF

At any large enough company, people on projects far from yours make decisions that occasionally look like idiocy.

Assuming they passed the same interview process that you did, there's a pretty good chance that the person who made that decision is reasonably smart.  But human nature being what it is, we forget that, and sometimes assume the worst.  Cries of "why would they do that?", "don't they realize that's dumb?", and "that's the worst idea ever!" abound.  But due to the nature it's a big place, the decisionmaker can't possibly answer the criticisms individually, morale sucks all around, and employees on other teams are more likely to leave than to transfer to the team they now think is spending their efforts Doing Something Dumb.

Google started an event called TGIF when it was a tiny company.  The idea was that late Friday afternoon, everyone got together and talked shop.  It it's current incarnation, someone picks a topic (Android, Chrome, Self Driving Cars, Benefits), and then the five or so most knowledgeable people on the topic have half an hour to explain what they've done since last time they took the stage.  They're joined by one or two of the founders.

And this is where it goes outside my experience in industry; the founders and experts spend another half hour taking live questions, from an engineer-voted list.  About one question in four comes unscripted from a live microphone.  No question - no matter how awkward - is taboo.  The rules are really simple; speak your mind, but don't be rude.  There's occasionally an answer that's not really satisfying... but that's the rare exception instead of a regular occurrence.  The audience is engineers-only, which lets them talk freely about topics that would be management-only at other organizations.  And employees who ask really hard public questions of managers (and the CEO!) aren't punished for it.


The effect is stellar; instead of having the issue of decisions on the far end of the company occasionally looking like idiocy... everyone has the chance to get the *context* for those decisions; odd choices start looking like works of genius once everyone knows why they did what they did.


Instead of the size of the company becoming something that divides people and slowly eats away at morale, engineers know what's going on, why it's going on, and a good bit of what's coming next.  It keeps folks happier, which makes for harder workers and helps keep attrition notably low.

It has some flaws, but overall?  Aces on this cultural landmark.