How To

December 18, 2023

How to really take time off

Taking real time off work isn't easy in an ever-connected world. But there are things you can do to help you switch off

Dr Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, says there are seven essential components for optimum brain health and performance — one of which is downtime. The key thing about "downtime" is that it shouldn’t be goal-oriented or directed to a particular purpose; you should simply be chilling out and letting your thoughts wander. This is essential to fully recharge.

That’s easier said than done though — and work can often spill over into the evening and time you should be using to switch off totally. For Sifted's Startup Life newsletter, we spoke to Marta Michniewicz, a leadership development expert and therapist, about how to really take time off during the holiday period.

Reflect and ask yourself who you are without work

Many of us struggle to fully divorce ourselves from work during the holidays because we identify so much with our jobs. A study of 1,300 entrepreneurs by coaching platform Abroad showed that founders often struggle with their mental health behind the scenes because they identify as their company: it can be hard for them to switch off and relinquish control. As you head into the holidays, reflect on who you are when you’re not at work. What are the things you loved to do before you had this job? Whether it’s running through the woods, climbing, or painting, make time to do those things throughout your holiday.


Consciously slow down

Our brains are used to a very high pace of activity and thoughts during the work day, so it can be hard to go from being extremely busy to sitting on the sofa all day for a week. In the run-up to the holidays, things can naturally be hectic while you’re trying to wrap up everything for the year — but, if you can, it’s good to start implementing strategies during that period to pause, slow down and detach your brain from constant activity. That could be as simple as doing one action a day particularly slowly: whether it’s preparing and eating breakfast or taking a long walk on a lunch break.

Try not to stress more about the preparation for the holidays. Break down the things that you really need to do and what can wait until the New Year. Is cleaning out your inbox right now really that urgent, or could it wait until the post-Christmas lull?

Cut the ropes

If you want to genuinely relax during the holidays, you have to cut ties with all technological stress-makers: email, phone and other colleagues! The cold-turkey approach is the only one that works. Put on an out-of-office email and record an answerphone message on your mobile that you will be unreachable. Turn off all notifications. If you’re a person who will be tempted to glance at emails or Slack on your days off, delete the apps, or download an app that blocks them for a certain period.

If you’re an early-stage founder with a limited team, who really can’t take a full week off without picking up the phone, here’s how you can recharge as much as possible:

  • Decide what needs to be done before the holidays so you can take time off without a guilty conscience. Make a plan of which tasks to tackle first when you return from holiday.
  • Alternatively, hire a freelancer to push things forward while you are taking time off to things keep moving.

Make reflection and goal-setting less stressful

Some people love to reflect on the year just gone and use the upcoming year as a time to reprioritise and set new goals. For some people, this can be a stressful endeavour — but there are ways to do it without feeling overwhelmed. Since the majority of tech workers work with computers most of the time, try using another medium — like writing in a notebook or creating a physical vision board with pictures from magazines — to get you away from the association of being at work. You could also take some quiet time alone to sit, think and do breath work or meditation. Visualise what you would like your life to look like next year and the people and things in it that would bring you joy.

On the subject of... Taking time off

🌊 Treat your weekend like a holiday. Here’s how you can check out of the heavy day-to-day grind even on the weekend.

⌛ Tips for a successful digital detox, including identifying which apps you feel are a particular time drain, or make you feel unhappy or stressed while using them.

😌 Do "recharge breaks" actually work? In 2022, scheduling a company-wide week off was the latest hot benefit. While it drew criticism from some companies, others, like Austrian cryptobroker Bitpanda, say the approach really works for them.

Miriam Partington

Miriam Partington is a reporter at Sifted. She covers the DACH region and the future of work, and coauthors Startup Life , a weekly newsletter on what it takes to build a startup. Follow her on X and LinkedIn