How to Really Take a Break This Christmas (So Your Family Won’t Hate You)



Christmas has always felt like a mixed blessing for me as a leader. For years, it hasn’t felt like a break.

As a pastor, Christmas is our biggest outreach and largest services of the year.

Realizing that this is the time when most people who don’t go to church would come to church, we developed an outreach strategy that saw our Christmas Eve services grow into big outreach events (I outline the strategy here).

But year after year, after a bajillion services, I would come home Christmas Eve honestly exhausted.

The house was perfectly decorated, the food was out and friends and family came over. But I was often just trying to stay awake. You can only run on adrenaline for so long.

Sure, we’d always carve out meaningful time for the kids and gifts and meals, but too often my mind was elsewhere or I was just so exhausted that I couldn’t really engage.

For sure, some of that was unavoidable. Coming off our biggest season left me tired.

But some of it was avoidable. As a leader, I honestly have a hard time “being off”. I feel responsible for everything—too responsible.

What I’ve realized (especially after burning out years ago) is that an unending sense of responsibility to work eventually destroys your ability to work.

I’ve gotten better at taking meaningful breaks over the years, but it’s challenging.

By the way, taking a break at Christmas isn’t just an issue for church leaders. It’s an issue for almost any leader: entrepreneurs, owners, founders all struggle to truly disengage.

So how do you do it?

How do you take a break deep enough that you rest and your family doesn’t end up resenting you?

Here are 5 approaches that, when I follow them, help immensely.

1. Stop Saying You’re Trying To Take a Break. Just Do It.

My guess is you’ve probably already told someone you’re going to ‘try’ to take a few days/week off.

That’s what driven leaders say all the time:

I’m going to try to take two weeks off.

I’ll try to unplug.

I’m trying to relax.

A-types stink at vacation.

I know people who can take time off easily… they don’t worry, they’re never tempted to check email, they can easily shut down social media for a week, and they find a hammock to be relaxing.

That person is not me.

Here’s the first hack. Don’t try to take time off. Take it.

It’s amazing what happens when you stop trying and start doing. For starters, things actually change.

Eliminate try from your vocabulary. Don’t try to do it. Do it.

2. Mess With Your Mind: Change All the Settings On Your Phone

One of the biggest problems you have as a leader is in your pocket. It’s your phone…

The smartphone means work is with you in your pocket wherever you go, wherever you are.

Realizing that you probably need your phone to take pictures or access Google Maps over the holidays, one of the best ways you can avoid work is to change all the settings on your phone.

Here’s a quick bullet list of things you can do to eliminate or at least minimize the temptation to ‘check’ work (email, texts VM)

  • Turn off all notifications on all apps. (This will take you ten minutes but save you hours every week.)
  • Set your phone to Do Not Disturb.
  • Move your email app and another work apps off your home screen and onto a new page all by themselves, or bury them in a folder.
  • Delete the apps you’re most tempted to look at. You can reinstall them later.
  • Put a fun app in the place of a work app (like Netflix, Disney Plus or a game).

If you make these changes, not only will you never hear your phone (or feel it), but you’ve changed the Pavlovian behaviour most of us have to compulsively check apps that take us away from the people we’re in the room with.

When you go to open email instinctively but open up Mario Kart instead (because you swapped out Gmail for a game), your kids will thank you. So will you.

3. Ditch Your Devices

Sometimes limits aren’t enough and tricks won’t be enough.

It’s a good idea to set up technology-free moments, hours or zones in your home.

Just ditch your phone for the afternoon, or leave it behind when you go for that family walk. If you’re worried about missing photos, borrow someone else’s in the group and grab the pic later.

And remember, not everything you do has to be shared with the world or captured.

Sometimes moments are just meant to be enjoyed and not shared with anyone. Sometimes you enjoy the break more if you don’t feel the need to compulsively share it or see how many other people like what you’re doing.

My family is actually leaving on a 7-day trip. I plan on posting nothing personal to social during those 7 days and ditching my phone for large amounts of time.

In a world with a thousand distractions, presence is becoming a superpower.

4.  Focus On What Fuels You

Christmas break can be draining for anyone with all the gatherings, travel and people. Add the fact that you’re probably suffering from withdrawal from technology (see above) and you’ll want to replace the absence of work and technology with something positive.

It’s a good idea to pick new goals.

For our trip, I picked up some new books I really want to read. And we’re planning some adventures together as family.

Plus I’m going to work out and develop some new routines for fitness.

Most leaders are wired to accomplish goals. So when you’re off, just switch your goals. Goals that fuel you and make the time away meaningful and restorative.

Otherwise, if you don’t know what fuels you, even your vacation can drain you. You’ll be thinking about what you’re missing, not what you’re gaining.

5. Prepare for your vacation, don’t just take it

I used to run into my holidays full speed, and it would take me half my holidays to unwind.

Which is exactly why people say that it takes them three days to unwind, then they relax for two days, and then get nervous about going back.

Some vacation. 

While this might be a bit late this time, flag it for next time: prepare for your vacation, don’t just take it.

  • Use your evenings to rest up before you leave.
  • Slay your to-do list.
  • Craft a killer auto-responder that gives you peace of mind to abandon your inbox.
  • Pack a day or two early if you’re traveling so the last few hours before you leave aren’t crazy.

When I do these things well, I can start day one of my break fully rested and ready to enjoy.

Last year for the first time, I took a week off before our family left for a week together, just to unwind alone and be ready for them when they were free. It helped. I won’t do that every time, but even this week, I took my foot off the gas pedal days before my break and planned far ahead so when my first day off comes, I’m ready.

You might think this sounds excessive, but if you put the same kind of thought into your time off as you do in your leadership, you’ll have a much better family life and return far better rested to lead again.

If you’re curious about more things you can do to stay healthy and optimize your leadership, this post outlines 6 productivity experiments I engaged in this year, and one that failed.

Get The Tools You Need In 2021 (A Free Toolkit)

As hard as it might be, what if 2021 could be a year of real growth for you and your church?

You know that in 2020, some organizations grew while others struggled. I’d love to help your church thrive in 2021.

I know, that sounds crazy (especially after a post like this), but like most things, it’s crazy until it’s not.

I believe 2021 can be a great year for you and your team, and I’d love to help you make it happen.

That’s why I created the 2021 Church Leader Toolkit.

Inside, I cover:

  • How To Produce Content That Actually Gets Read & Watched
  • 5 Keys To Better Digital Preaching
  • How To Keep You And Your Team Out Of Burnout
  • 7 Strategies To Deepen Digital Engagement
  • 3 Key Pivots For Every Organization In 2021

I’ll be releasing 5 parts of the toolkit throughout December. And it’s free.

You can get access and share these skills with your team here!

What Helps You Take a Break? 

In the meantime, what have you learned about getting and staying healthy in leadership? And why do you think over-working traps so many leaders?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

How to Really Take a Break This Christmas (So Your Family Won’t Hate You)


  1. ornaments on August 20, 2021 at 1:16 am

    I’d highly recommend finding space in the midst of all the craziness to spend some time together with a simple outing like that. Informal as possible. We planned a simple outing for just us—eat some Subway, see some lights, go home, watch a Christmas movie—and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s nothing too busy, just me and my wife and my son, together with minimal phone time.

  2. Dr Wilberforce Oti on December 26, 2020 at 8:52 pm

    The Truth is that all these are strange to me as I don’t take vacations year in year out and that is quite troubling…
    Few occasions, I travel out to US, Canada or Europe for academic conference and afterwards I can spend few days to plan ahead of time what to do as a leader in my university and a leader in church…
    How I wish I can save this narrative!
    In Africa we are saddled with loads of responsibilities that often if you are not there nothing works at all. It is akin to a doctor who is permanently on a call.
    Hope to get there one day when I can sit down, plan a vacation without injuring other vital aspects of life and finally take it.
    Carey, Thanks so much for the revelational truth you shared.

  3. Diane on December 20, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    What’s a great auto responder for Holiday vacation?

  4. Greg Curtis on December 23, 2019 at 4:47 pm

    I have started implementing 2 things when I vacation with my wife and family that have maximized how refreshed I and we are when we return:

    1. In addition to having a day or 2 off before we leave, I plan a day off after we return. I have found for me that the last day of a vacation usually involves packing up, long long drives or airport runs, and the. Unpacking when we return. Going back to work the next morning after a day full of that is a bad move for me. Building a day onto the vacation for reacclimatizing allows me to return to work more refreshed.
    2. Plan only every other day if the vacation. Historically, I am an adventurer and a sightseer. My wife is a relaxer vacationer. This has sometimes created a tension that is less than rejuvenating for both of us. So as the vacation planner, beginning a few years back I started planning something to do only every other day which had an unexpected result: I started enjoying relaxing with no agenda and my wife started want to be spontaneous and do some really cool things on our days with no agenda. This has become the perfect way for us to vacation and travel that brings us together and refuels both us when we return.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 28, 2019 at 3:11 pm

      These are great. So glad you’ve learned to rest well.

  5. Noah Wiebe on December 23, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    Great post, super practical. I suck at resting. “If you take the same approach to your family life as you do to your leadership…” Helps a lot! When I think of it that way, I’m reminded that the time I get at home is just as important as my work, because I only lead my family well when I’m actually home! So thanks for that.

    Leading up to Christmas is crazy (as a Next Gen pastor, my craziness is usually focused on the Christmas concerts, parties, student ministry finales, etc. leading up to Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Eve itself which is slightly less busy), so I’m taking time to relax after all that and before Christmas Eve hits by hanging out with my family.

    We planned a simple outing for just us—eat some Subway, see some lights, go home, watch a Christmas movie—and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s nothing to busy, just me and my wife and my son, together with minimal phone time.

    I’d highly recommend finding space in the midst of all the craziness to spend some time together with a simple outing like that. Informal as possible.

    If that’s not possible, at least taking 30 minutes to chat and listen to worship (which we also did—it was awesome). We spent some time worshiping and thinking back to previous Christmas’s when we had experienced deep moments with God together. You might not have time for an outing, but I guarantee you have time to carve out 30 minutes for Jesus before bedtime. One way to remember the reason for the season and receive His life and refreshing in the midst of the soul-sucking business.

    Merry Christmas!

  6. Pat W on December 23, 2019 at 11:21 am

    One of the reasons I resigned my job to take a sabbatical was because staying connected on vacation had become the expectation, from both clients and management. Being completely offline for the days surrounding my daughter’s wedding was a huge deal.

    One more trick for taking a break is to leave the house clean and organized. I give myself enough time to do any laundry that will be needed when we get back, climate the bed with ckean bedsheets, finish up any dishes and run the dishwasher and straighten up as I go. To come back to order extends the break by a couple of more days for me, on the homefront at least.

  7. Frederik Norberg on December 23, 2019 at 9:54 am

    Christmas is a special time when we as Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the holiday aspect, as well as commercialization, have made it incredibly stressful. We need to remember the true meaning of Christmas throughout the holiday and remind ourselves that more than anything, unconditional love and peace is still what it is really all about. Abandon yourself to those God moments whenever you can, and Christmas will not only merry but bright.

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