When we picture our next break from work, we think we’ll spend our time unplugged and slowly refreshing from our day-to-day. But sometimes, the stress of missing work or planning the perfect itinerary can leave us more stressed than when we started. Sometimes we need a vacation from our vacation.
In fact, studies show that having a stressful trip is worse than not taking one at all. So the question is: What are we doing wrong? And how did we get to a point where vacation is so stressful, anyway?
The United States is the only advanced, developed country in the world that does not have legally mandated paid vacations— a stark contrast to its European peers where workers get 20 to 30 or more paid days off a year. Among U.S. workers who are offered paid leave, the average vacation taken is only about 9 days a year. That means that we’re spending less than 4 percent of our total annual working hours on vacation.
That puts a lot of pressure on those breaks to really deliver, which is probably why we tend to use vacations as both personal reward and recovery periods. For many of us, that means planning adventure-oriented vacations, where we travel great distances, create jam-packed itineraries, or occasionally engage in some sort of intense physical challenge. The result is often a vacation that is wildly fun, but not at all restful.
So how can we retool our approach to vacations to ensure we emerge refreshed, rather than just re-stressed? We combed through the research to source key tips on the most important factors.
That means that we’re spending less than 4 percent of our total annual working hours on vacation.
Take a vacation every 3-6 months.
According to a recent study from Radboud University in the Netherlands, the ideal amount of vacation time to achieve lasting results is 21 days, and you need a minimum of 8 full days off before you even begin to retain recovery effects. For most of us, a three-week vacation sounds great but is hardly realistic. And, in fact, taking one, long vacation a year isn’t healthy either. The study suggests that if you can’t take 3 or more weeks off every 6 to 8 months, it’s better to take multiple, shorter breaks throughout the year. Other studies have shown that the anticipation alone can help alleviate stress beforehand, so book in advance when you can.
Make a flexible itinerary a priority.
The same study from Radboud University found that effective vacations give you the choice and freedom to choose what you want to do. That means two things: Try to avoid structuring your vacation around an unbreakable schedule, and plan on going somewhere that has multiple options to pick from depending on the weather, your level of energy, or your budget.
Incorporate physical activity, but keep it easy.
Research has shown that the longest lasting recovery effects are achieved through activities that are not strenuous or stressful; activities like swimming, snorkeling, golf, or walking can yield positive payoffs for weeks afterwards.
As energy expert Tony Schwartz advises, “The most basic aim of a vacation ought to be restoration – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. For me, that usually means not trying to do much. For you, it may mean travel and adventure, some form of physical challenge, an opportunity to learn something new or some blend of all three. The key is to choose something you find truly renewing. At a minimum, that usually requires ‘changing channels’ – not doing whatever you have been doing.”
Try to avoid structuring your vacation around an unbreakable schedule.
Don’t ignore the impact of jet lag.
Wherever you choose to go, remember that the journey there can add stress, too. Researchers at Erasmus University in Rotterdam found that long-haul air travel can cause major stress hikes, especially in the form of jet lag, which eats into your recovery time for up to three days once you’ve landed.
A number of studies have identified the main causes of jet lag, as well as some tools you can use to fight it: Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol before or during the flight. If you’re switching time zones, eat at a normal meal time for the zone you’re flying into, even if you’re not hungry. When planning your journey, keep in mind that it’s easier to fly west than east, as it’s closer to your natural rhythms to go to bed later (when it’s still dark out) rather than earlier (when it’s light). If you’re only staying for three days or less though, stick to your schedule from back home.
Keep your work at a comfortable distance.
Leaving your work behind allows you to get into a different perspective and mindset that may make way for new ideas. And while most of us are booking the vacation to get away from work in the first place, for some people that can cause even more stress. In short, how much you should disconnect from email and other work communication is a matter of personal preference and comfort.
Scott Belsky, Head of Behance, found that cutting off work completely was ultimately unrealistic. “The truth is that the burdens of leadership don’t take vacation, and the best way to enjoy yourself is to surrender to the need to check in, with restraint,” he said.
On a recent vacation, he decided to dedicate forty-five minutes in the morning and in the evening. “With the forty-five minute check-ins, I was able to make sure I wasn’t a bottleneck for anyone on my team, and I was able to let myself rest knowing that everything was okay. Nothing distracts you more on vacation than not knowing that all is okay at home.”
Another tip is to make your “out of office” email reply say that you’re coming back one day later than you actually are. That way you have a day to cull, organize, and reply at your own leisure without feeling overwhelmed on your first day back.
Take it one step farther and break old habits.
For the overachievers, who want to return not only recovered but a step ahead in personal progress, vacations are a prime time to form new habits or break old ones. A new environment means a clean slate of all the cues that trigger ingrained habits, and that means room for you to form new ones. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, explained why in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross: “If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you’re on a vacation — because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren’t there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life.”