How to switch off over Christmas

This year, with Christmas and Boxing Days falling midweek, some of our clients are taking the week off, taking a fortnight-long break. Yet two weeks disconnected, cut off from the office, is a luxury people find it difficult to cope with. They say it’s unavoidable that they’ll end up picking up emails and taking calls over their break.

When we’re stressed, we find it hard to self regulate – so we fail to switch off

Switching off from work – indeed from anything – that’s demanded so much of our energy and emotion is hard. We can’t disengage from what has been an all-encompassing, demanding work schedule and flip 100% into family life for an extended period.

Many of us suffer from overwork, which raises our stress levels and makes it harder for us to relax and to think straight. We get cognitive fatigue.

In an effort to relax, we might over-drink but this only adds to the stress on our bodies. The cortisol that has built up in our system from stress – over months and years – doesn’t suddenly dissipate with a few mulled wines. In fact, over-drinking can lead us to feel even more drained cognitively, emotionally and physically. We become fatigued until our mind feels scattered – we can’t make rational decisions. Consequently, we find it hard to self regulate, to have self discipline. We get an urge to scratch the email-itch and before we know it, we’ve opened our minds back up to work. 

Over-work can eventually lead to burnout

It’s not just Xmas when we find it hard to switch off – 3 in 10 of us Brits fail to take our 28-day holiday allowance (according to a YouGov survey commissioned by Wolters Kluwer in 2015). And when you consider that the average for Europe is 33 days’ holiday then you realise that we Brits seem to work the hardest and find it hard to switch off. Those of us that don’t take their full entitlement of annual leave end up paying for it through illness. 16% of survey respondents who failed to take their holiday allowance said that they missed work for 21 days or more in that year. It’s a slippery slope down to burnout. 

How can we switch off from work over Xmas?

The two most common ways in which we keep ourselves plugged in and chained to our work is email and our mobile phones. They have become our worst habits, keeping us at the beck and call of others. (For those of you who know Covey’s prioritisation matrix, we are making others’ urgent our urgent – and this is not how to manage our time effectively.)

So how so we break a bad habit? 

If you find yourself reaching for your phone or keyboard then you need to practice becoming more aware of what you’re doing. Many of the decisions we make are made on autopilot – what psychologists call System 1 thinking, which is fast, unconscious and prone to biases and errors. But if we’re to break a habit and take back control we must switch to conscious thinking and engage System 2 thinking, which is effortful and controlled. System 2 thinking is also, most importantly, slow. We need to slow down to give ourselves time to think rationally. You need to catch yourself thinking then stop yourself from acting.

Try this exercise next time you think of opening your work emails on holiday:

  • Take 5 deep breaths. 
  • Become conscious of the touch of your keypad or of phone in your hand(s).
  • Then ask yourself these two questions: 
  1. “What am I saying yes to by opening my emails over my holiday?” Examples might include: “I’m saying yes to encouraging my boss to intrude on my personal space.” Or “I’m saying yes to more stress and possible burnout.”
  2. “What am I saying no too?” Examples might include: “I’m saying no to quality time with my son.” “I’m saying no to giving my body time to recover and consequently to rational thinking.”

Simply questioning the consequences of our actions can be a simple way of interrupting the habit cycle. 


One of clients, BNP Paribas CIB, has implemented a company wide-policy that forbids its managers from phoning or emailing their team members during holidays. And unless there are specific urgent reasons why staff need to be contactable while on holiday, if you manage others then lead by example – don’t phone colleagues or use your emails over the festive period, and tell your people that you don’t want to see any emails flying around. 

For more on how to manage your time, take a look at our online time management course, How to Make Time for What Really Matters – Time management course  


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