Note: This week's column is written by Stephanie Fairyington.
The fantasy of a vacation is almost always more carefree than the reality to me. What ends up happening is that I stay stuck in the limbo between disconnected and not. I half-work but do nothing of substance or satisfaction, partaking in an empty kind of busy that leaves the days feeling simultaneously wasted and draining.
Much of the past two years has been a sliding between work and our personal lives, with little physical division between one and the other. Now, with end-of-year holidays upon us, there’s a risk that this lack of separation makes it even harder to let go enough to get the benefit of time away from work. And the virus surge is now erasing some of the plans to spend time with friends and family that are effective at helping us detach.
It’s vital that we make an effort: Studies have found vacation time to have a protective effect against metabolic syndrome and death by coronary heart disease. That’s true for your mental health, too: Time off decreases stress, improves productivity, boosts mood, and enhances life satisfaction.
Of course, that means actual time off—days spent fully immersed in life away from work, without guilt or anxiety.
These last few days of this year, when things are quieter than usual for many workers, are as good a time as any to practice taking a truly regenerative break. Here’s how to make the most of your time off to return feeling truly restored:
Change your PTO perspective
Especially for people who struggle with fully separating from their jobs, framing your down time as a performance benefit may make it easier to embrace it. “Realize that when you stop working, you will be better at work,” says James Wallman, the author of Time and How to Spend It: The Seven Rules for Richer Happier Days.
To his point, research out of Germany and Austria found that people were more engaged with their work and better able to stave off burnout after a vacation. Being well-rested also increases your happiness quotient—and according to Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University and the host of “The Happiness Lab” podcast, a better mood means an increased ability to problem-solve. In other words, relaxation shouldn’t stymie your professional growth; it should improve it.
Set up your office for your absence
Wallman emphasizes that workers need to disentangle themselves from the twisted notion that a brief departure will render them obsolete—that time away is a chance for our employers to realize we’re not wholly necessary, a fear many of us harbor.
Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Bring Your Brain to Work, offers a counterargument: “If you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.” Markman advises workers not to surrender to the overblown fear of our replaceability. Instead, tee things up for a successful vacation by training a colleague on exactly how to do your job in your absence—a training process that also happens to highlight just how much you do—and request that you’re only contacted for a serious emergency.
“You want to put yourself in a position where you feel, ‘I’m comfortable going away because I know that anything that really matters will either get taken care of, or I’ll hear about it,” he says. Once you’ve thoroughly prepared your office for your departure, you can relax into the enjoyment of time off.
Seek meaningful connections with family and friends (and strangers)
One way to maximize that enjoyment is through rich social interactions, which have been shown to increase life satisfaction. Santos points out that we often resort to small talk to manage the many social demands of the holiday season, but we’re missing out when we do. “Engaging with people in a much deeper way can actually improve well-being,” she says, even ones you don’t know very well, or at all: “The simple act of talking to a stranger in a deeper way can improve your mood over time.” Research also shows that active listening—asking questions, repeating what a speaker has said to demonstrate that you hear them, talking less—helps build positive and fulfilling social exchanges.
Granted, this holiday season looks different from most, and many of us won’t be at family gatherings, parties, or other social scenarios. But seek out as much social engagement as you can: Dig into a meaty discussion with the people you live with, or call up a friend and get more intimate than a casual catch-up. Stretch your conversational muscles with neighbors and acquaintances, too. We tend to overestimate just how awkward it will be to move beyond small talk, but when we do, it’s worth the effort.
Markman says it’s also important to extricate ourselves from our “rectangular world” full of “screens” and “cubes,” to remind ourselves that we’re “not just brains in a box,” but beings who need nourishment from the physical environment: “To engage with nature is to do it in an embodied way,” he says. “It’s not just your brain that engages; it’s the whole body, as you go swimming or hiking or feel a breeze.”
Aside from the sensory pleasure that time in nature provides, some research also suggests it can improve cognitive functioning. “A global body of evidence suggests that spending time in parks, woodlands, and beaches can boost emotional, cognitive, physical, and social wellbeing,” says psychologist Mathew P. White. White’s own recent study found that 120 minutes a week in nature can have a significant effect on health and well-being.
“It didn’t seem to matter how you get the two hours a week,” White adds. If you’re not particularly outdoorsy, “one long walk on Sunday or a few lunch visits to the park” can do the trick.
Do something novel
“A vacation gives you a different perspective away from your normal context,” says Markman. “That changes the way you think about something.” International travel—admittedly not a reality for most of us amid this current virus surge—has been shown to enhance “cognitive flexibility” and innovation. But even novel experiences not far from home can similarly increase creativity and help you visit old problems anew.
Which, for the relaxation-skeptical of us, is hopefully an enticement to give it a try. Adopting even a few of these tips—alongside the standard advice about limiting screen time, exercising, and eating healthily—will help you enter the new year as ready to tackle its challenges as anyone can be.