Feeling rushed and stressed is no way to start a vacation. Similarly, feeling exhausted and full of dread is no way to return to work after a vacation.

In this two-part article, we will look at how to successfully take and return from a vacation.

3 reasons vacations are important

A successful vacation reduces stress, increases our creativity and improves our productivity. Yet, as Americans, we are notorious for wasting millions of vacation days — or worse, we take time off but never actually stop working.

The week before our vacation often entails lots of running around and working late trying to get everything done at the last minute. We make to-do lists for the downtime on the plane and schedule meetings on the last day before we leave to try and wrap things up.

The sad truth is, if our employees approached projects the way most of us approach vacations, we would likely fire them. Instead, we need to treat our time off like our work projects: with forethought, proper planning and prioritization.

Crisis response plans

Unfortunately, many of us have had emergencies interfere with work. They may be inconvenient and time-consuming, yet somehow we find a way to handle these last-minute issues.

We need to take that same approach with our vacations. Two weeks before we head out of the office, it is great to triage everything on our desks as if we had to leave unexpectedly within 48 hours.

Creating a short, high-priority list helps us to figure out what truly must get done before we go. With that information, we need to delegate and defer everything not on our short list and rearrange our calendar to ensure we can accomplish everything on it.

Next, as with any good preparedness plan, we need to make room for the unexpected. To do this, we need to add meetings to our calendar that afford us extra time in the day to tackle any time-sensitive issues that come up. And, just as if we were leaving to address an emergency, we need to guard this time to get things done as critical.

Get over yourself

How is it possible that multiple U.S. presidents can find time in the summer to vacation in Martha's Vineyard, but somehow we are too important to disconnect from the office?

Take a presidential approach, make a list of situations that warrant a vacation interruption and share it with our most trusted employee. Give that employee the number for the place at which we are staying, then either leave the cell at the office or disconnect from every work-related app especially email.

If this sounds particularly challenging, start weaning off of work by disconnecting a few days early. To have a successful vacation, we must let go and by setting (and testing, if necessary) a trusted system in place. We can leave knowing if something on that list of acceptable interruptions happens, we can and will be reached.

The bottom line: Recognize that vacations are important tools for productivity and success. Just like project management skills, every leader should master the skill of taking a vacation.

Check out the next article in this series to learn how to return from vacation refreshed and ready.