Photograph by Reuben Schulz — Getty Images
By Laura Vanderkam
December 25, 2014

Every year, during the holidays, there is a round of articles scolding people for not unplugging. This won’t be one of them.

According to a recent survey by the U.S. Travel Association, Americans earning over $150,000 failed to use 6.5 vacation days, on average, in 2013. A TripAdvisor survey found that 77 percent of Americans reported working while on vacation last year.

Such articles are usually accompanied by clucking quotes on how foolish we are to think about work away from work; Roger Dow of the U.S. Travel Association said in a statement when his organization’s report came out that, “We need to change our thinking. All work and no play is not going to get you ahead — it’s only going to get you more stress.”

But I’m not so sure that’s true. There are good reasons to work over the holidays that have nothing to do with insecurity. To be sure, to avoid stress, you have to want to work, and not everyone does. The good news there, though, is that you can work without driving your family or co-workers who’d like to unplug nuts. You just have to be strategic about it.

The first problem with the don’t-work-over-the-holidays invective is that it assumes a certain world view: work is bad; other things are good.

But what if you really enjoy what you do for a living?

Work is often a source of joy and personal fulfillment, and in any case, it’s quite possible to enjoy mulling over work challenges as much as you’d enjoy watching a football game or holiday movie. Given that few people spend every waking hour of a typical work week working, balance doesn’t require spending every waking hour not working over the holidays. Taking some time away from the normal routines can also give you the space to think about important-but-not-urgent work matters that often get shortchanged. Such contemplation is technically work, but it can feel fun, too.

That said, if you’re going to work, there are a few ways to do it best.

1. Concentrate it. Aiming to do a solid block of 2-3 hours every other day or so is better than letting email and calls bleed all over the calendar in a way that will annoy your clan. The holidays often feature blocks of downtime that can be repurposed without missing much. Maybe your teenagers are using their days off to sleep in, and won’t even notice that you got up at your normal time. If your spouse has a get-together planned with friends, that’s a great time to do your own thing too. If your own thing happens to be work, rather than decorating a gingerbread house, that’s no one’s business but yours.

2. Aim to focus on the big picture stuff. Sure, it’s tempting to use the relative quiet of the holidays to hack through your email backlog. But don’t just do that. Think about who you’d like to reach out to, how to plan your staff’s career development, and what you’d like to say you’ve done by the end of 2015. Soon, you’ll be back in the daily rush, and carving out time to think about these things will be much harder.

3. Finally, don’t interrupt other people’s vacations. Just because you want to work over the holidays doesn’t mean the people who work for you want to. Once you send an email, it’s hard to control how others will react. You can put NOT URGENT in the subject line all you want, but if you’ve got competitive, driven employees, they won’t think you mean it. So save emails as drafts and hold onto anything else you want feedback on. You can send it all out once you’re back at the office. Your staff, having taken vacations the way they want to, will hopefully feel refreshed enough to tackle it.

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