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How — and Why — to Go on a REAL Vacation

Nearly 40 percent of US employees feel like they have too much work to take a vacation. But research suggests you’ll be happier, healthier, and more productive if you do.

Last year, I was invited by KJ Dell’Antonia of The New York Times to coach Julie, a partner at a law firm who was feeling overwhelmed and inefficient at work. Julie planned to leave for a family vacation right after we spoke, and she worried that she was going to forget everything she learned about finding more ease and efficiency at work by the time she got back from vacation.

But I saw an excellent opportunity: Julie could use her vacation as a way to increase her enjoyment and productivity after she returned to work.

How? For starters, we know that vacationing can increase happiness and lower depression and stress. Productivity increases at work both before and after a vacation. And vacationing can also increase creativity and improve health. (Did you know that men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack? And that women who rarely vacation are an astounding 50 percent more likely to have a heart attack; they are also much more likely to suffer from depression.)

Maybe you can’t afford not to take a vacation this year.

There are some caveats, however: Happiness only increases when a vacation is relaxing. So how can we actually relax on our vacations?

First, plan a true vacation — one where you do not do any work. None. Zip. Nada. No work.

This might be blazingly obvious, but not working is a critical aspect of actually taking time off. So don’t do what Julie was planning to do, which was to hide that she was out of the office from some of her clients. She could easily do this by checking and responding to email throughout the day from her vacation. While you might be able to work from your vacation, you won’t reap the many benefits of a vacation if you do so.

So see if you can find a vacation partner, someone who will cover for you at work should an urgent situation arise. (A reciprocal relationship is ideal: They handle your work while you are gone, then you do the same when they take their vacation.)

Then tell your team at work your plan: You are going on vacation. You will be totally unplugged from work. You will not be checking in, or checking email. But you’ve planned well: In case of emergency, they can contact your colleague, who will either handle the situation or, as a last resort, get in touch with you.

Don’t forget to do this for any unpaid jobs you might have as well. If the kids’ swim team counts on you to organize volunteers, make sure you’ve handed this duty off to someone while you’re gone. I’ve found that having someone handle things on my behalf while I’m gone enables me and the people I work with to relax a little more.

Second, remember that all vacations are not created equally. It is possible (as you probably know from experience, especially if you have kids) to return from vacation more exhausted than when you left. Research indicates that having pleasurable and relaxing experiences on your vacation, along with savoring those experiences, are important for remaining happier after a vacation for a longer period of time.

Again, this is totally obvious, but not all vacations are relaxing. The lure of adventure or philanthropic travel for novelty-seeking people like me is great. We pack our vacations with nonstop action when what we really need is time at the pool to nap. Here, from my desk, it seems so much more fun to travel to multiple areas in a new country rather than just see one beach. Our more more more culture leads us to believe that more will definitely be better–more activities, more destinations, more sights to be seen.

Plan a true vacation -- one where you do not do any work. None. Zip. Nada. No work. Click To Tweet

Before you pack your vacation with a lot of stuff that will actually leave you needing a vacation from your vacation, schedule yourself some downtime. Will you be able to get eight hours of sleep each night? (And if you accumulated a sleep debt before you left, will you have time to nap as well?)

Is there some aspect of the travel likely to cause you so much anxiety that you’ll be better off skipping it? Will you have time to truly savor the pleasurable aspects of your time away? Eliminate all preventable stress and time pressure from your schedule before you leave, and don’t let people tell you what you “should” do, or “have to” do while visiting a place that they love. Instead, ask yourself what you need most out of your vacation. Plan from there.

Finally, plan your re-entry. What do you need to do so that your first day back is joyful rather than hectic? Here are a few things that work for me:

  • I have a “no hellish travel” rule — no overnight or complicated flights home that will leave me sleep-deprived and wiped out.
  • I dedicate the first day I’m back at work to just playing catch up — I don’t actually try to accomplish anything other than get through my email, return phone calls, go grocery shopping, and get my laundry done and put away. If I’m traveling home from a different time zone, I come back a day early to allow myself to adjust. (It is tempting max-out vacation time by staying away as long as possible, so I often need to remind myself that my goal is to come back rested and rejuvenated.)
  • I think of the email that comes in while I’m on vacation similar to the snail mail that comes to my house — someone needs to pick it up and sort it while I’m gone. (When I didn’t have an assistant to help me with email, I paid a high school aged neighbor $10 a day to do this for me; she loved the job and it was easy to get her set up.) I create special folders before I leave, and I have someone sort new incoming email into them once a day, deleting promotions and sending personal “vacation responses” where necessary.

My first day back, my inbox is — get this — empty. The emails I need to respond to first are nicely prioritized into a folder. This system isn’t perfect, of course, but it is much better than returning to 1,000 unread messages.

Join the Discussion: This summer, will you be taking a vacation? Will any aspects of it be difficult? If so, which ones? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Do you need help prioritizing down time? The Sweet Spot, recently launched in paperback and includes loads of tips. As thanks for ordering the book now, I’d love to offer you FREE ENROLLMENT in my 21-Day Exercise Mini-Course! AND my 40+ page “Gain an Extra Day Each Week” eBook! AND the “Cracking the Habit Code” Workbook that will walk you, step-by-step, through the formation of any new habit you are looking to create. Please check out the gifts I’m offering here.

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  • Christine Carter

    How will you relax this summer?

  • Tamie-Ann Langevin

    As a parent with school aged kids, I really can’t see how to create a vacation that would meet your criteria, unless I went alone. I would love a suggestion for how to actually relax and have downtime on a family vacation.

    • Katie

      When I had young kids my husband and I would tag team. One would watch the kids for an hour or two while the other napped, exercised, etc. Then we’d switch.

      • Christine Carter

        This is a great idea.

    • Christine Carter

      As unexciting as it sounds, I’ve found all-inclusive resorts to be VERY relaxing (and cost-effective). It isn’t an adventure vacation, but even as a single mom with little kids I was able to really relax.

  • Teri Carlson

    Hi! I love this blog, and found most of the tips very helpful. However, the author gives tips re what works for her, without realizing that these tips do not work for a large portion of people. I have a 3 yo and 5 yo, and am a working physician mother. There is no way I can “nap at the pool” for safety reasons, one parent has to watch one child who are in different parts of the pool. I cannot imagine doing this until my kids are at least middle school age, or in other words nearing the end of childhood. We could get a babysitter, but the point of vacation is to spend time together; they spend plenty of time with a sitter when I am working. And the idea of coming back to work with only catch up to do, is not a reality for most people who do not work for themselves. I come back to a day filled back to back with patients AND all of the catch up work. I think the author needs to consider more the gestalt of who her audience is. I am sure she was in an employed position at some point and can empathize! Even for her just to acknowledge that these are tips from her life and may not apply to some (most) people would show this is not a journal entry for her but that there is thought given to the majority of people’s situations

    • Sonjie

      If the pool has a lifeguard surely you could catch a few minutes napping..?

      • Teri Carlson

        Oh, I wish!! My just-turned 3 year old needs to be in the 3 foot deep water…for whatever reason, even with floaties/rafts she doesn’t stay above water in deeper parts…and my 5 year old is a “pretty” proficient swimmer but occasionally needs help in the deeper parts she likes…she wants to practice front crawl, etc…and it only takes a minute for something terrible to happen. I do like Christine’s suggestion of the all-inclusive resort though!!!

    • Christine Carter

      I was a single mother for many years, so believe me, I understand how tiring a vacation with little kids can be. I have always been employed, mostly full time, and I’ve worked in many different types of organizations with varying degrees of flexibility (I have 4 children). While you are correct that these are tips that have worked in my life, they are also what has worked for loads of my clients. They may not work for you, but consider the choices you are making, because that will free you up a lot. You DO have choices. You could spend one vacation day “catching up,” so that the first day back isn’t so hectic; you might not want to do that, though. You may choose not to have a sitter for and hour while on vacation (so that you can take a much needed nap), but then you are choosing more family time and exhaustion over, say, 1 hour less family time, and feeling refreshed. Or, you could choose to trade time with another parent for a little time spent in self-care. Kids often love a little time alone with a different parent (though they don’t need to), and they love when their parents aren’t so stressed and tired.

      • Teri Carlson

        Hi, Christine! These are all very good suggestions and very valid…over the past year I have decided that I was trying to do too much, in general, to spend every minutes with my my kids, but that in the process we were always rushing around. Since then, I have been able to start to change my schedule to include more babysitter time, and more me time, but find I am less stressed with my kids because of it. I hope to incorporate your suggestions on our next family vacation, and to embrace that it is the quality of time and not the quantity of time that really matter. Thank you for taking the time to reply to this post!

  • Do you know of any tools to help plan for or perhaps automate portions of the re-entry process? I’ve been thinking about how I can use a virtual assistant to help fan the flames on my work while I am away on a vacation so that things progress in a limited fashion.

    • Christine Carter

      Are you using the new Google inbox? That helps with the email sorting…

      • Christine Carter

        If you are still looking for resources, have you seen my email webinar? It’s a way to have your assistant organize your email.

  • Sonjie

    I love your blog! It’s so refreshing to hear somebody saying that you don’t HAVE to see all the places that are wonderful and marvellous and incredible and you don’t HAVE to get the absolute maximum number of experiences out of every holiday and every everything. It seems to me there’s so much pressure on us these days to have the most and best holiday experiences and the most and best hobbies and the most and best everything. We need to rest too!

    • Christine Carter

      Cheers to that!

  • Christine Carter

    Post your comments here: This summer, will you be taking a vacation? What will be difficult for you? What tips, above, just wouldn’t work for you — but you still need a solution to a problem?